Last week’s newsreels of demonstrations in Madrid against the killing of at least 12 protesters in a Moroccan camp seem to have at last got people's attention. But it’s the tip of the iceberg in one of the longest-running and least-publicised conflicts in the Mediterranean.
Western Sahara is not Palestine. It’s not a complicated conflict, at least in terms of who is being reasonable and who isn’t in the eyes of the world. According to Wikipedia, Moroccan sovereignty over it is unrecognised by any individual state in the world, and its claim is based on proximity rather than ethnicity, i.e. what we used to call colonialism. The Sahrawis are asking for the right to self-determination, one of the basic freedoms enshrined by the UN. Their Moroccan governors refuse to give it to them. (In fact, they almost went for a halfway-house deal for regional autonomy in 2003, but then thought better of it.) Now the result is brutality, poor respect for human rights and now, much more worryingly, a partial news blackout which has led many to suspect genocide.
The EU’s brilliant External Affairs department even-handedly announced a week ago that this is something that should be left to sort out between the two parties: “Catherine Ashton deeply regrets the incidents that took place in the territory of Western Sahara and appeals to all parties to remain calm and restrain from any further violence." Well that’ll show them, then. (I’m sorry, I know Cath is one of ours, and perhaps her hands are tied, but this is not anyone’s finest hour.)
There are myriad reasons why the EU does not want to make a firm statement: firstly because the French government is Morocco’s chief ally and has no intention of allowing it; then because the Spanish government would like to, ideologically, but lacks the nerve to follow through when the Moroccans threaten porous borders and trouble in the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla (beautifully summed up on Z-Word here); then because it doesn’t want to upset the US, which is scared an independent Western Sahara might end being a failed state which harbours terrorists (something which becomes more likely with each passing day that this goes unresolved); then because the West is currently terrified of intervening in any largely Moslem state as, after all, these are the reasonable Moslems, not the crazy ones, and we don’t want to upset the applecart, do we; and finally because, frankly, they can’t really do anything unless all 27 countries agree, which they’re sure as hell never going to.
Meanwhile, back in Madrid, Judge Balthasar Garzón took a break a couple of years ago from pursuing corrupt Spanish politicians, to take advantage of a wonderful loophole in his national law and investigate the Sahrawi’s genocide claim. Spain allows its judges to try people for crimes against humanity, whether or not the supposed offence was committed in Spain. That’s right – effectively, a Spanish judge can go to any country in the world and, with sufficient evidence, request that the authorities hand someone over. This can’t possibly work in practice, you say – oh, but it can. The proof is there from the same Garzón’s most famous case: that of one General Augusto Pinochet, who he had successfully arrested in London in 1998 and then began the first of a host of trials which were only to cease at his death eight years later. Sadly, in a hugely controversial decision, Garzón was suspended by the Spanish legal establishment earlier this year, who didn’t like him poking into Franco-era injustices.
So, an odd loophole and a crusading judge has been, strangely, doing what the EU should be doing – bringing pressure to bear on the Moroccan government to end their intransigence, sit down at the negotiating table again and hopefully prevent thousands more deaths, to add to those already committed and being committed.
Now, we Brits were rightly proud of our action in Kosovo, and we now regret our tardiness in Bosnia. I should also add, to be fair, that Western Sahara is not Rwanda in terms of number of people involved or the general brutality of the regime. But murder is murder. You have to ask the question: if EU External Affairs can’t say anything useful in the event of a supposed genocide on its very doorstep – what the hell is it for anyway?
So, please: empower it, or get rid of it. But at the moment, as this case perfectly illustrates, the EU’s foreign policy is meaningless.