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Morocco puts referendum at risk

Playtime - peace negotiations for Western Sahara go around in circles.

The fate of Western Sahara is still uncertain as Morocco continues to obstruct a free and fair referendum to determine the future of its Saharawi inhabitants. The Saharawis, most of whom live in refugee camps in a bleak corner of the Algerian desert, have been fighting for a referendum ever since Morocco invaded the former Spanish Sahara 23 years ago (see Desert Dawn, NI 297).

In 1991 a UN peace plan brought about a ceasefire in the 16-year war between Morocco and the Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front. The ceasefire has held but a referendum initially scheduled for 1992 has never taken place. Morocco has attempted over the years to stack the voter list with people whom it claims are of Saharawi origin but who would vote for integration rather than independence; Polisario wishes the electoral roll to be as close as possible to the last census, conducted by the Spanish in 1974. The UN operation, MINURSO, has proved utterly unable to assert its authority.

In 1997 the new UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan persuaded the US to support another initiative and former US Secretary of State James Baker forced Morocco into direct talks with Polisario for the first time. The result was a signed agreement in Houston which set the terms of voter identification, prisoner release and return of refugees. The referendum date was set for 7 December 1998.

[image, unknown]

By mid-June, 127,472 individuals had been identified by the UN as legitimate voters. But the UN Secretary-General reported to the Security Council that the process was being seriously hampered by Morocco’s insistence that an extra 12,000 individuals be accepted as voters without their being presented to the UN Identification Commission in the normal way. Kofi Annan continued: ‘I must express concern about the continuing propaganda against MINURSO in the Moroccan press, which is clearly unjustifiable and should be halted.’

In addition an incriminating letter from Moroccan Interior Minister Driss Basri, written on 22 January 1998, has now been made public. It advised Moroccan local-government officials on how to coach individuals to persuade the UN Identification Commission that they are Saharawi. The letter stated that the results of identification have ‘so far fallen far short of the necessary level’ partly due ‘to the manifestly insufficient preparation of our applicants’.

Basri says: ‘there is a need to inculcate the applicant with a psychological stance’ enabling them to persuade the identification operation and the MINURSO commission that they are really Saharawi. He adds that applicants should ‘learn in advance, from applicants already identified as belonging to the same sub-fraction [a particular part of a Saharawi tribe, with its own customs], what questions the Identification Commission is asking’.

‘Full mastery of these elements,’ continues Basri, ‘implies preliminary training of the applicant in his prefecture or province of origin and two or three days of fine tuning with the Moroccan Chioukh before the identification session.’

Under the Houston Agreements any sponsoring of Saharawi individuals by either side is forbidden, as is the prior meeting of individual applicants with the chioukhs (tribal elders) who help the UN Identification Commission assess applicants’ knowledge of Saharawi tradition and cultural heritage.

[image, unknown]

Harassment of Saharawis by the Moroccan authorities in Western Sahara continues. In January, a Saharawi Chioukh, Sid Amed Mustafa Aaraua, was taken to the Moroccan capital Rabat by the authorities and died in unexplained circumstances while in custody. He had been refusing to accede to demands that he identify individuals as Saharawi who had no sound basis to their claims.

The continuing problems have led to speculation that another meeting overseen by James Baker will be required, possibly in September. Baker has handed over day-to-day involvement to a new Special Representative, Charles Dunbar, but retains an interest and his extra authority may still be needed.

The referendum will certainly not now take place before the end of 1998 but international pressure is vital over the weeks and months to come if a return to war is to be avoided. Please urge your country’s foreign–affairs ministry to do all it can to ensure a free and fair referendum in Western Sahara. The Saharawis have already waited far too long.

Chris Brazier


Just eat it
Free speech swallowed by companies

In the driver's seat - corporations create their own laws.

Agribusiness is pressing for new US laws to deter activists and journalists from criticizing corporate practice. ‘Food Disparagement’ laws are currently being made in 13 states with pressure mounting for similar laws in 20 more.

The Animal Industry Foundation, whose funding is from the industry, distributes its ‘model food disparagement statute’ to legislators across the US. In a country which hails itself as home to free expression, the laws allow the food industry to collect damages arising out of critical reports on the safety of food products.

Food disparagement laws are unusual for the US as they shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant. But many believe corporations do not want to file numerous lawsuits. They are wary of providing publicity to food activists such as that given to the so-called ‘McLibel activists’ who were sued in Britain for criticizing the fast-food chain McDonalds. Food companies seem to want to use the threat of lawsuits and their costs to tame journalists and activists. But companies understand that if a case ever goes to trial and makes it to the Appeal Courts in the US, it is likely to be declared unconstitutional.

The food-safety organization, Food and Water, started a campaign to stop the construction of an irradiation plant in Hawaii.

A letter was sent from the industry’s United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association (UFFVA) warning Food and Water to ‘cease and desist’ from criticizing irradiation.

US companies have managed to prevent mandatory labelling of genetically engineered food and now may prevent criticism of their products. Executive Director of Food and Water, Michael Colby, says: ‘The food industry has effectively bought these disparagement laws from politicians so that citizens concerned with issues such as irradiation, toxic pesticides, or food biotechnology will think twice before speaking out about the devastating impact such technologies have on the planet and its inhabitants.’

Ben Lilliston and Ronnie Cummins/Third World Network Features

Jailed - Mexican women get longer sentences.

Double jeopardy
Violence against women is increasing the numbers of women in prison in Mexico. About 500 of the 4,000 women in Mexican prisons are charged with homicide. About a quarter of these are locked up for killing husbands, lovers and male assailants who beat and raped them or their children.

Psychologist Elena Azola interviewed 50 women sentenced for murder at Tepepan Women’s Reformatory in southern Mexico City. She found 70 per cent of these women had been abused by their partners or fathers. Once arrested, 60 per cent of them were beaten and abused by police. Poor police work means that only 387 arrests were made following nearly 5,000 reported rapes in Mexico City last year. And judges in Mexico give women an average of a third longer sentences than their male counterparts.

John Ross/Gemini News Service

Big Bad World Cartoon by POLYP


Nuptial nightmare
Tension mounts over anti-divorce laws

After 13 years in political exile, Danisa Chelen returned to Chile for a new start. But the country’s ban on divorce thwarted her plans. Chelen planned to start a company with her sister but the authorities required her husband’s signature. She went to open a bank account – clerks demanded her spouse’s approval. ‘We’d been separated for ten years and he was living in Nicaragua. The paperwork was an absolute nightmare. For everything I wanted to do as an independent woman, I needed his authorization. I felt like I was mentally incompetent,’ recalls Chelen.

Chelen rounded up four friends and a lawyer who were willing to testify in court that, at the time of her marriage, Chelen was not living at the address listed on her marriage certificate. The marriage was then declared illegal. ‘It was really very unpleasant. Normally, I’m not a liar, but it was the only way to get my life back,’ says Chelen.

Stand off - divorcees are denied rights.

Seventy per cent of the population say they support the right to divorce, but the Catholic Church resists reform. ‘They speak against divorce in the schools, on television and from the pulpit,’ says social worker Ximena Garcia. She works in Recoleta, a district of Santiago, where families with five or six children live in small shacks. Annulment does not exist there. The lawyer’s fees – $1,000 or more – are out of reach of the poor. ‘The young people here don’t worry about it too much. Couples move in together, break up, then go on to another relationship. It’s later on they have problems, because the whole social system is premised on the idea of matrimony,’ says Garcia.

Health-insurance companies refuse to cover common-law spouses or illegitimate children. Inheritance laws also require that Chileans leave the majority of their estate to their legal spouse and children.

‘There are a lot of schools who won’t accept children without seeing the certificates of both a civil and church marriage and the signatures of both parents,’ says Garcia.

Last December the Lower House debated and approved the idea of developing a divorce law. The next hurdle – Senate approval – is much more daunting. Nine non-elected Senate positions have been appointed by the military, tipping the balance of power in favour of the right wing and a conservative stance on divorce.

‘The real irony is that many parliamentarians themselves are married for the second time,’ says Chelen. ‘It’s all right for them to get out of their marriages, but the general population can’t possibly be given permission.’

Rhoda Metcalfe/Gemini News.

Slow progress - the British finally ban landmines.

Timely ban
Just before the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, the British Government has suddenly ratified the international treaty banning landmines that was signed by 132 countries in Ottawa last December.

The British Government had been dragging their heels due to Ministry of Defence pressure to delay the removal of JD233 bombs, which release anti-personnel mines on impact.

Britain has pledged to destroy its stock of one million anti-personnel mines before the year 2000.

Dan Palmer/Gemini News Service

NASA may replace the chemicals with hair.

Slick hair
As he watched on television the rescue of an otter soaked in oil from the Exxon Valdez, American hairdresser Philip McCrory had an idea. If animal fur soaks up oil, could human hair clean up oil spills? He tested it with motor oil and the hair clippings from the floor of his salon. It worked, so McCrory presented the idea to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA estimates that McCrory’s technique costs 50 cents for each litre of spilt oil it cleans up, compared with about $2.50 a litre for conventional techniques such as detergents. And it also gets rid of unwanted hair.

New Scientist No 2133

Cut gas, not grass
Gases released when grass is cut or trampled can add significantly to urban air pollution, according to an Australian study. In the city of Melbourne in summer, mowing the grass accounts for up to ten per cent of the hydrocarbons entering the atmosphere which react with other gases to form smog. As much as 50 kilograms of volatile organic compounds, including hydrocarbons, are given off per hectare per year from lawns and pastures. Researcher Ian Galbally says: ‘Not cutting grass on smog–alert days won’t solve the problem, but when combined with other actions – such as car pooling or riding a bike to work – it will make a difference.’

New Scientist No 2133

Groovy birds
The Lambada, a Brazilian dance tune, has become popular with Vietnamese bird poachers. They have found that the Lambada music puts birds into a trance. Hunters who head for bird sanctuaries carrying cassette–tape players loaded with Lambada tapes can scoop up to 50 birds in one night.

World Press Review Vol 45 No 4


‘Satire died the day they gave Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.
There were no jokes left after that.’

Tom Lehrer, songwriter, on the former US Secretary of State.

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New Internationalist issue 305 magazine cover This article is from the September 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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