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Western Sahara: no territory for old conflicts

Javier Bardem at the press conference on Tuesday. Photo by Robert Griffin.

Tuesday afternoon was no ordinary afternoon at the United Nations. Just outside the UN headquarters in Manhattan a private helicopter plunged into the East River killing one of the passengers. Inside, Oscar winning actor Javier Bardem (best known for playing the psychopath in No Country for Old Men) was addressing the UN's decolonization committee. He was there to call for action to resolve the 36-year conflict in Western Sahara which he described as a ‘grave injustice, a violation of international law and our own basic sense of right and wrong.’

Bardem called for an to end human rights abuses in the former Spanish colony, which was annexed by Morocco in 1975, pointing out that the UN peace-keeping mission in Western Sahara is the only such mission since 1978 that does not monitor human rights. ‘This mandate has been repeatedly blocked by certain Security Council members,’ he said. ‘This is an astonishing and unacceptable omission.’

In the absence of human rights monitoring Bardem argued that the ‘people of the Western Sahara are suffering under repression inside the occupied territory; they are suffering in refugee camps in the Sahara Desert, where they have been forgotten for decades.’

Western Sahara is classified by the UN as a non-self-governing territory, a term used to describe a nation whose people are yet to attain a full level of self-government. Each year the UN’s Fourth Committee meets to discuss issues relating to the sixteen non-self-governing territories that still exist around the world and each year the meeting is dominated by the issue of Western Sahara.

Under international law the people of Western Sahara have an inalienable right to self determination as defined by the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara in 1975: namely the right of a people to exercise a free choice over their political and territorial destiny.

Bardem pointed out that two decades have passed since the UN sponsored ceasefire which brought an end to a 16-year war between Moroccan forces and the Polisario front. ‘The Saharawi’s were promised a referendum on the future of their country twenty years ago. Today they are still waiting for this chance to declare their views,’ he said.

He also highlighted the links between Western Sahara and the Arab Spring and was critical of the double standards of some nations that declare their support for human rights while ‘turning a blind eye’ to the situation in the territory.

Bardem, who traces his active involvement in the issue of to his visit to the Saharawi refugee camps in 2008, told journalists that Western Sahara was an issue that he was ‘personally very close to.’ Stressing that he was addressing the UN committee in a purely personal capacity, Bardem concluded that the ‘parties must be told enough is enough: no more delays, no more pointless negotiations, the time has come for a just solution.’

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