UN chief’s remarks provoke mass protests in Morocco
Rabat - More than 3 million Moroccans filled the streets of the capital, Rabat, to protest against UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon, who recently criticised the kingdom for not making progress to resolve the status of the Western Sahara region.
Holding banners, the demonstrators chanted “Sahara is ours”, and “Ban Ki-moon stay home, the Sahara is not yours”, in a show of strength backed by the government. Substantial logistical resources were made available to the organisers to create the country’s biggest demonstration ever.
The government and protesters were angered by a recent statement by Ban, who used the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s presence in the disputed territory after a visit this month to Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria. He criticised Morocco and the Polisario Front for failing to make “real progress” towards an “acceptable” solution to end the 40-year conflict.
Morocco annexed most of Western Sahara, a former Spanish territory, in 1975.
Soon afterwards, the Polisario Front took up arms for an independent state, until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991.
The North African kingdom has proposed wide autonomy for Western Sahara. But the Polisario Front insists on the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination.
Many Sahrawis who travelled to the protest voiced support for Morocco’s autonomy plan, reiterated their allegiance to the Moroccan monarch and condemned Ban’s stance on the Western Sahara issue.
Reacting to the demonstration, the UN secretary-general “conveyed his astonishment at the recent statement of the government of Morocco and expressed his deep disappointment and anger regarding the demonstration that was mobilised on Sunday, which targeted him in person,” Ban’s press office said in a statement.
“He stressed that such attacks are disrespectful to him and to the United Nations,” said the statement, which was issued after he met Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar.
The march came a day after the Moroccan parliament held an extraordinary session during which Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane said Ban had “violated the commitments” given to King Mohammed VI about the norms that should lead to the process of negotiations to resolve the Western Sahara conflict.
Hamdi Ould Rachid, the mayor of Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara, said during the session that “there is a minority that is opposed to the current situation, but the Sahrawis come back and want to return to the country and democracy. A minority does not impose its will on the majority.”
Ould Rachid called on Moroccans to take up arms to defend Morocco’s rights.
In a statement issued following the extraordinary session, members of the two houses of parliament stressed that Ban’s comments “ignore the noble objectives” of the United Nations and are a “flagrant breach” of the principle of impartiality that the UN secretary-general must observe.
“This deliberate breach by the Secretary General aims to hide his failure, during two terms as the head of this international organisation, to make tangible progress in the settlement of the issue,” the statement said.
The United Nations acknowledged Ban used the term “occupation”, but said there was a misunderstanding over his use of that word, adding it was Ban’s “personal reaction to the deplorable humanitarian conditions in which the Sahrawi refugees have lived in for far too long.”
Ban said during his visit to Algiers that the UN mission to the region was “prepared to hold a referendum if there is agreement between the parties”.
King Mohammed VI vowed that revenues from the Western Sahara will continue to be invested locally.
“Those who are waiting for any other concession on Morocco’s part are deceiving themselves. Indeed, Morocco has given all there was to give,” the king said during a visit to Laayoune.