afrol News, 16 June - In the last of a series of interviews, afrol News confronts Polisario top diplomat Emhamed Khadad with the complex question of the Moroccan prisoners of war, which might be the one factor hindering Sahrawi President Abdelaziz from obtaining the Nobel Peace Prize he has been nominated to. And how can we be sure that the Sahrawi Republic will become a democratic state?
Visiting Oslo, Polisario's Coordinator to the UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso), Emhamed Khadad, was confronted with the human suffering of the Moroccan prisoners of war on several occasions. Norwegian pro-Sahrawi MPs - who this year have nominated Mohamed Abdelaziz, President of the Sahrawi Republic, for the Nobel Peace Price - expressed their concern that the Oslo Nobel Committee would reject Abdelaziz due to the existence of the Moroccan prisoners of war.
Khadad, who knew about the nomination before coming to Oslo, told the MPs about the prolonged suffering of the Sahrawi prisoners of war in Moroccan jails, who are not accounted for, who nobody knows where are or if they are still alive and who are not looked after by the International Red Cross/Crescent - all in contrary to the Moroccan prisoners of war, living peacefully in Sahrawi refugee camps. The Moroccans "are treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions," although the Polisario had not signed these.
The latter puzzled us. "Why has the Polisario not signed the Geneva Conventions," which provides prisoners of war with basic rights?
Although the matter of the Moroccan prisoners of war visibly bothers Khadad, at this point he immediately puts up a big smile. "Because the International Committee of the Red Cross didn't want. We have asked for it for 15 years, we've tried to sign it, but we're anyhow complying with it," he answers. Khadad seems to be content to have a water-proof argument to one aspect of this complex matter.
However, the Moroccan prisoners of war are a matter that "is costing the Polisario very much negative publicity," afrol News editors argue, referring to the continuous press reports about the matter and the repeated calls by the Red Cross, the UN Security Council and others to liberate them. "Is this not a very high price to pay?" we ask Khadad.
Khadad gives the impression of being tired of these types of questions and judging by his answer, he seems to be turning on the auto-pilot. "We are complying with our duties within the framework of international law," he says. "There exists a peace plan signed by the two parties and it is foreseen that the matters of prisoners of war and political prisoners will be treated in the transitional period, which is to say, after the completion of the identification [of the voters to the Sahrawi independence referendum]." This was however obstructed by Morocco, "making it a Moroccan responsibility."
- Secondly, Khadad argues, "from the first day, we have assumed our responsibilities, legally cooperating with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which several times a year is visiting Polisario's Moroccan prisoners of war. They are facilitating the exchange of letters between them and their families, giving them medicines and health services and can testify that they are not abused and that they live like the Arabs [Sahrawi refugees] in the camps. We are also living outside our homes," he adds, now showing some emotions.
The frustration behind his diplomatic appearance slowly becomes more visible. "I see it like this: Why does one not speak about the Sahrawi prisoners?" The afrol editors reply that one indeed does speak about this, but he disagrees before the argument is finished.
- No, one doesn't speak about them, he establishes. "It is because Morocco says there are no prisoners and because there is not enough pressure against Morocco to clarify the case of the Sahrawi prisoners of war. The Red Cross has a list of over 150 Sahrawi prisoners of war, about whom Morocco has not given even minimum information." Further, there was the case of the "disappeared" Sahrawis and the families split due to the Moroccan wall between the occupied and the liberated areas. The suffering was on both sides, but only the Moroccans are mentioned, his long argumentation goes.
The arguments are known, but are forceful. We insist on another answer: "We were however asking about the image problem the matter of the Moroccan prisoners of war is costing Polisario and Western Sahara, as it is constantly in the media."
- I did not want to give you a crude answer, Khadad defends himself.
- But you must recognise that it is a serious public relations problem?
He still hesitates. "Well, possibly - or yes, of course ..." he answers in a low voice not characteristic to him. "But I do really not know what to say," he hesitates. "Morocco has, for example, during years refused to receive its own soldiers that have been set free by Polisario..."
- What? This claim is unknown to the afrol News editors.
- Polisario has, until know, set free some 1,015 Moroccan soldiers and over the last ten years, Morocco has refused to receive them, Khadad elaborates. "And there is no UN resolution, no condemning words against Morocco because it does not want to receive its sons liberated by Polisario." Khadad found a good answer.
There remains the question of a possible Peace Price for President Abdelaziz, endangered by the Moroccan prisoners of war. East Timor's independence gained momentum after Timorese Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta received the 1996 Peace Prize. "Could the same not happen in Western Sahara?"
Khadad does not want to exaggerate the importance of the Peace Price for Timor's independence. "Our friends and brothers of East Timor have fought and suffered much ... but one also has to remember that there were other elements contributing to the international setting. The Cold War made it necessary to strengthen a [Western] ally in the Far East, that is to say Indonesia," he explains. "After the cold war, Indonesia did not have the importance it used to have." It didn't all start with the Peace Price.
Khadad sees more parallels between East Timor and Western Sahara. "Australia was the first country to recognise [Indonesia's 1975] occupation of East Timor, sign agreements over the oil and gas resources of [occupied] East Timor and know, they are the ones officially demanding that the UN resolutions about Eat Timor are respected. This is the reality of politics; there are no morals. There are interests that may change, like the sands of the Sahara between day and night."
There is, however, also another humanitarian aspect affecting Moroccans, much less discussed. Tens of thousands of Moroccan civilians have settled in Western Sahara over the last two decades - many are born there - following substantial Moroccan government subsidies. These will not be able to vote in the foreseen referendum, but they still have made Sahara their home. "What will happen to these if the territory becomes independent?" we ask Khadad.
- We'll know to respect Moroccan interests in the territory, he answers the hypothetical question. "We do not deny the fact that Morocco has interests in the territory, including the massive presence of Moroccan settlers, the massive military presence, possible investments and security reasons. Polisario will, when Sahrawi independence is achieved or even at this stage, be open to negotiate these concerns."
- If we win the referendum, this really would impose more responsibilities upon us, he continues, referring to "the security and stability of the region, and it would oblige us to have Moroccan concerns in mind, including the massive presence of settlers in the territory."
- Because, if you should win, one could observe a situation of having a Moroccan population majority, even when counting the returning refugees?
- Well, Khadad says, while searching the right words. "I'm not convinced that this Moroccan population that today is in the territory would stay because one has to remember that they don't have their roots there. They don't have farms, agriculture, businesses or some kind of tradition. They are here because there is a military presence. ... They are salesmen of vegetables, clothes and shoes and these people are here because of the massive presence of military troops." He thinks most will go with the troops, "but I can guarantee you that we will not force them to leave the territory."
- Does this mean that one recognises their right to stay?
Khadad wants to limit the previous answer. "I cannot speak of a right, but I can speak of my personal predisposition to accept their presence, that is to say, to discuss their presence."
Changing the subject, the question of democratic institutions in the Sahrawi Republic has not been much debated. Still, one of Polisario's principal pro-independence arguments is that it would mean the establishment of a democracy in this strategic part of the world. We ask: "How can we know that the Sahrawi Republic will indeed be democratic?"
Khadad finds this topic more relaxing. "Well, firstly because it is a decision by the Sahrawi people through our Constitution," he informs. Also Polisario congresses "openly are in favour of democracy. Most important, we are learning from the errors of others; the errors of other liberation movement that have paid a very high price."
Khadad gives proof of his routines; he has already disarmed the editors' next question of the negative historic experiences of liberation movements forming governments, forcefully demonstrated these days in Eritrea and Zimbabwe. "This could also happen in Western Sahara?"
- No, our decision is that on the day on which the Sahrawi population may opt for its independence, we have to organise pluralistic elections and Polisario then might be one of several parties or it might even disappear, he answers. "This is to say that the 'historic legitimacy' used by many liberation movements will not be used by the Polisario, because for us, the nationalist movement, liberation has been a historic aim, achieved by the Sahrawi population and this does not give us any historic, everlasting, immortal and definite right."
He goes on, on his homage to democracy, this time however with the auto-pilot turned off. "Every generation has to assume its responsibilities and the fact that I have fought for Polisario is no reason for me having to be presented in Polisario's institutions for the rest of my life. It's a disgrace and an error that we don't want to repeat. We are ready to abandon powers the day the UN organises the referendum."
But democracy is not built in one day. Therefore, we wanted to know to which degree the democratic institutions necessary already exist in the exiled Sahrawi Republic, run from refugee camps in western Algeria.
- All the institutions already exist, including the Parliament, which is democratically elected, and the government, which has to answer to the Parliament, Khadad informs. He adds, with a certain pride, how difficult it is to implement democratic institutions being based in refugee camps, demonstrating "the Sahrawis' dedication to democracy, the freedom of opinion and to a pluralist system."
- But does there exist an opposition within the current framework?
- Well, when it comes to the final goal; independence, there is no opposition, Khadad admits. "But when it comes to how to administrate or improve performance and governance, there surely is an opposition in Parliament and outside Parliament. Of course there are people in opposition, and they have their possibility to express it in the Parliament, in congresses, in meetings, etc."
- The government and Polisario are however one and the same thing?
Khadad confirms that Polisario forms the government. "However, Polisario is not a political party, it is a liberation movement that embraces many tendencies and points of view, but the common platform of all is liberating Western Sahara. ... Apart from that, everybody has his/hers political ideas and ways of being." He pauses. "Well; it's not clearly expressed, though, that one person is communist, another is liberal and yet another social democrat. I think all have their ideas but at the moment, we are all favouring independence."
- But why are there no political parties?
Khadad looks surprised. "Within the framework of a liberation movement?" he asks. "That's impossible! How could one do that? It's a front and, as during the World War, when there is a danger, the national front always is ample," he explains. Indeed, views opposing this broad platform have so far not been heard from the Sahrawi refugee camps.
- The aim is that the Sahrawi people reaches self-determination, he repeats his explanation, "that the Sahrawi people has the possibility of freely expressing its will, without any pressure." That was the entire mandate given the Polisario Front by the Sahrawis.
The interview comes to an end. The Sahrawi diplomat has accomplished yet another marathon-like diplomatic mission for his nation; repeating arguments for the 100th time in some matters and giving room for personal feelings and interpretations on other matters. We thank Emhamed Khadad for having dedicated some of his precious time to our interview, and see him running off to his next meeting - potential donors, so the winning smile will have to stay on his lips.
By afrol editors Rainer Chr. Hennig and Pablo Gracia