Martin warns on ignoring Western Sahara conflict


THERE IS a humanitarian, economic, political and security price-tag attached to the decades-long dispute over Western Sahara which the international community cannot afford to ignore, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin told a conference in Cork yesterday.

Mr Martin was invited by Ethical Development Action to address a conference the group had organised to focus on the long-running conflict. A mainly desert territory in northwest Africa, Western Sahara is the subject of a bitter territorial dispute between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front. Mr Martin said it was regrettable the situation was considered a “frozen” conflict.

“Like all conflicts, this one casts its long shadow, not only over the lands of Western Sahara, Morocco and Algeria but over the region as a whole, draining financial resources which could be far more usefully deployed in serving its citizens; holding back investment and economic development; and preventing valuable regional security co-operation,” he said.

“There are those who might argue that, because there has been a ceasefire in place since 1991; because we are not seeing reports from the Western Sahara every night on our television screens; because we are not directly touched by this conflict; it is acceptable to allow the status quo to continue.”

Mr Martin said there were serious concerns over the plight of the Saharawi people in the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria. There were also concerns about the fate of combatants on both sides.

“Together with our partners in the EU, we have long held that each of the parties to this conflict . . . should undertake immediate concrete measures, with the aim of resolving these contentious humanitarian issues,” he said, adding that Ireland had provided humanitarian assistance for Saharawi refugees in Algeria.

He reiterated the Government’s position of supporting the right to self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara. “Ireland has not taken a position on the future of the territory, be it full independence, autonomy, integration under Moroccan sovereignty, or some other formula, so long as it is decided in a genuine exercise of self-determination,” he said.

That support, Mr Martin argued, should not be interpreted as an anti-Morocco position. Ireland has encouraged Polisario to engage politically with Morocco, and release Moroccan prisoners of war, he added.

The Minister said he was encouraged by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s recent appointment of Christopher Ross as his personal envoy to the region.