sexta-feira, 10 de abril de 2009

Irish civil society engages with Western Sahara

Conference focuses on resources, human rights and the environment in the Western Sahara conflict

In July 2008, two academics from University College Cork set out for the camps, near Tindouf, undeterred by the overwhelming summer heat. They had never visited the camps before, but their student, Mirjam Hirzel, was undertaking a six month placement with the National Union of Saharawi Women in the camps as part of her undergraduage studies. From this small beginning, one thing led to another, and on April 3rd 2009, dozens of people gathered at one of the major hotels in Cork to attend a one day conference focusing on resources, human rights and the environment in the Western Sahara conflict. It was organized by Ethical Development Action, a Cork-based NGO to which Mirjam, her lecturers and a host of researchers and activists in the area belong.

Irish civil society was well-represented among the speakers, which included the representative of Frontline Defenders, Jim Loughran, environmental consultant Dr Tara Shine, and film-maker Mark McLoughlin. The two main political parties were also represented, Fianna Fáil by Micheál Martin, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Ireland, and Fine Gael by Simon Coveney, member of Parliament. In his opening address, the Minister drew attention to Ireland’s international efforts to assist societies affected by conflict and/or emerging from conflict, as is the case, he noted, for Ireland itself. Of particular interest was his description of Irish initiatives to encourage state-building and social development in East Timor. Perhaps there were more than a few in the audience who wondered if such projects might be undertaken for a post-conflict Western Sahara. Coveney spoke of how he had followed the Western Sahara issue from his time as a Member of the European Parliament, when he had been responsible for a report on human rights in the Middle East region, and had also taken an interest in the need to protect the natural resources of Western Sahara for the people of that territory. He continues to work for the improvement of both the protection of human rights and natural resources in the territory.

The Foreign Minister apologised personally for the travel difficulties that had been encountered by the conference panelist Ms Hayetna Deidi from the camps, who had at first been refused entry to Ireland, despite holding a visa, it was reported. Less fortunate was the situation of the panelist who had been invited from the area of Western Sahara that is currently under Moroccan administration, Ms Idagja Lachgare. It was also reported that she held a visa, but she was prevented from leaving on her flight out of Morocco. This became the subject of somewhat heated questions and responses between a member of the Moroccan press who was attending the conference, and the representative of the Polisario Front, Mr Lamine. For a brief moment, the conflict became palpable to the participants gathered in the conference room. Nevertheless, both the Moroccan journalist and the Polisario representative expressed their mutual respect for each other, and the day’s proceedings resulted in an extended forum for the exchange of ideas and views.

The conference both introduced the conflict and its stakes to some members of the audience who were unfamiliar with it, and sparked debate among those with experience of this conflict, or others, about the protection of human rights and activists, the rights to the exploitation of resouces, the role of, and changes to, the environment in conflict, social change and responses to conflict, aid to victims of conflict and post-conflict initiatives for re-building a peaceful social environment.

The audience were able to learn about social change and activism in the camps. It should be recalled that some of the refugees have been in exile from their home territory and way of life since 1975. In that time, new social forms have emerged, and family ties have been frozen by spatial separation between those in exile and those who remained behind. The panelists described and analysed these social changes: camp political structures, from open discussion meetings to the Parliament and recent Parliamentary reforms, indicate an ongoing process of deepening democratization in the camps; family reunions, which re-unite, for a few days only, family members who have not seen each other for decades from each side of the conflict, bring pain and joy; daily life continues in re-configured forms; hope is regenerated by activists from the camps and from the diaspora, as was witnessed at the conference thanks to an internet video link-up with the activist Senia Bashir Abderahman, speaking from the USA.

The abuse of the human rights of Saharawi in the areas of Western Sahara under Moroccan administration was also a prominent theme, since two of the panelists had visited those areas and heard testimonies from people there. The Moroccan journalist encouraged those interested in the issue to balance their investigations by considering the situation in the camps as well. Whilst the conference proceedings did not mention their mission specifically, an example of a recent investigation which considered both sites, the Moroccan-administered areas of Western Sahara and the camps, does exist: the Human Rights Watch Report (published in December 2008, available from It is perhaps a regrettable consequence of discussion turning tense that important evidence can be forgotten in the heat of the moment: more might be learned and exchanged if such tension, albeit understandable, could be avoided.

The conference left participants with much food for thought – almost literally, in that they responded with great interest to the appeal to help sustainable food production in the camps through the use of seeds with a special soil enhancer (see Just as the speaker from the Mines Advisory Group described the difficult and painful work of de-mining a territory after conflict - a process that is ongoing in Western Sahara, one of the most intensely mined territories in the world – so the conference underlined the painstaking and daunting nature of trying to find an equitable resolution for this conflict, in line with respect for human rights. Yet, there can be no chance of life as it should be without that process. We cannot afford to desist from trying.

1 comentário:

Young Activist disse...

I'm interested in learning more about Western Sahara, its people, and the conflict. I've been reading over your blog, but I'd really like to interview you either in the comments section of your blog or by e-mail and publish the questions and responses on my blog for my readers to view. If you're interested please stop by and leave a comment.