UN chief’s remarks provoke mass protests in Morocco

Friday 18/03/2016
Moroccan protesters in the capital Rabat, on March 13th, demonstrate against statements made by the United Nations chief regarding the Western Sahara.

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.