The "Arab Spring" sends us a very clear message: the people must speak! Across North Africa and the Middle East, people are crying out for a free choice over their future.
But there is one place where this desperate cry is being silenced. The territory of Western Sahara, the last colony in Africa, has been under Moroccan occupation since 1975. Today, the Saharawi people face repression, violence and imprisonment if they dare to demand their rights. This includes their fundamental right to decide the future of their country. This right has been endorsed repeatedly by the UN Security Council, and therefore by extension the United States.
There have been demonstrations and protests in the territory since last November, but they go virtually unreported because the Moroccan government prevents all foreign media from visiting Western Sahara. The UN peacekeeping mission there is also unable to act. Due to France's support for Morocco in the UN Security Council, this mission has no mandate to monitor the human rights situation.
No country in the world recognizes Morocco's occupation of the Western Sahara, and yet it is allowed to continue. I am visiting the United Nations today to ask that it:
1. Finally allow the people of the Western Sahara to vote freely on their future, as legally guaranteed by the UN-backed Settlement Plan.
2. Mandate its peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara to monitor and protect the basic human rights of the Saharawi people. It is extraordinary that this is the only UN peacekeeping mission established since 1978 which is not mandated to monitor human rights.
The UN has promised self-determination to the people of Western Sahara since 1991, when the Settlement Plan between Morocco and the POLISARIO Front, which represents the Saharawi people, was endorsed by the UN Security Council. The plan called for a referendum to be held within 6 months to decide whether Western Sahara should be independent or part of Morocco.
That referendum never happened. Despite agreeing to it, Morocco today refuses even to contemplate a referendum with independence as an option. There have been decades of UN negotiations and a mountain of resolutions, but the sad reality is that the world has done nothing to implement what everyone signed up to -- a free and fair vote of the people.
Instead of trying to use its privileged partnership with Morocco to influence progress on Western Sahara, the European Union chooses to ignore the dispute and focus on commercial opportunities. For example, the EU pays Morocco to allow its fishing vessels to exploit Western Sahara's rich waters, contravening accepted international law. My own country has some soul-searching to do: as the former colonial power in Western Sahara, Spain should be leading the charge within the EU to seek a resolution. Instead, Spain chooses to protect its fishing fleet's access to Western Sahara's waters.
As Morocco seeks to delay UN-sponsored talks and change the facts on the ground by settling the territory, 150,000 Saharawi refugees languish in refugee camps in the Sahara desert, where they fled following the 1975 invasion. I have visited those camps. The dignity and courage of the refugees cannot conceal the desperate suffering they endure, and the hopelessness of a people whose liberation has been promised by the international community but never delivered.
This situation is appalling. But there is an opportunity to change it. A thoughtful and skilled former US diplomat, Christopher Ross, has been working to forge an agreement between Morocco and the POLISARIO Front. The US and the United Nations need to tell Morocco that now is the time to allow the people of the Western Sahara to decide their future. Morocco cannot endlessly delay this process, or offer a fig-leaf "autonomy" to the territory that falls far short of the legal requirement for a vote on independence.
In his visionary May 19th speech about the future of the Middle East, President Obama mentioned self-determination many times: people must be allowed to decide their own future. This is all that the people of the Western Sahara ask for. It has been promised to them but continually denied. After 36 years, the UN Security Council has the power to change this terrible injustice. Let the people speak.