Renewed push for peace as Western Sahara talks open in Geneva

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita arrives for the first UN-backed discussions on the disputed Western Sahara region since 2012 on Dec. 5, 2018, in Geneva, Switzerland. (AFP)
Updated 05 December 2018

Renewed push for peace as Western Sahara talks open in Geneva

  • UN envoy Horst Koehler, is hosting the talks, which kicked off at the UN headquarters in Geneva
  • The last direct talks were launched by the UN in 2007 but collapsed five years later over the territory's status and the proposed referendum

GENEVA: The first UN-backed discussions on the disputed Western Sahara region since 2012 opened in Geneva on Wednesday, but expectations remained low, with the meeting seen as just a first step towards resuming dialogue.
Six years after direct talks broke down, Morocco and the Polisario Front, which fought a war over the region until a 1991 ceasefire, are taking part in two days of roundtable discussions along with Algeria and Mauritania.
UN envoy Horst Koehler, a former German president, is hosting the talks, which kicked off at the UN headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday afternoon.
In his October invitation letter to the talks, Koehler insisted it was "time to open a new chapter in the political process".
The UN meanwhile has described the talks as "a first step towards a renewed negotiations process with the aim of reaching a just, lasting and mutually acceptable solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara."
A former Spanish colony, phosphate-rich Western Sahara sits on the western edge of the vast eponymous desert, stretching around 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) along the Atlantic coastline, a prime fishing region.
When Spain withdrew from the North African territory in 1975, Rabat sent thousands of people across the border and claimed it was an integral part of Morocco.
The following year the Polisario Front declared Western Sahara the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with support from Algeria and Libya, and demanded a referendum on self-determination.
Since then 84 UN member states have recognised the SADR.
But a stalemate ensued, and Morocco built razor-wire-topped concentric sand walls in the desert that still ring 80 percent of the territory it controls.
Under a 1991 ceasefire, the United Nations deployed a peacekeeping mission which has perpetuated the line of control, but the international community has long intended for a referendum to be held to decide the territory's status.
Rabat currently rejects any vote in which independence is an option, arguing that only granting autonomy is on the table and that this is necessary for regional security.
Awaiting a settlement, between 100,000 and 200,000 refugees live precariously in camps near the town of Tindouf in western Algeria, not far from the Moroccan and Western Sahara borders.
The last direct talks were launched by the UN in 2007 but collapsed five years later over the territory's status and the proposed referendum.
Koehler, who has led the diplomatic efforts since 2017, is hosting the foreign ministers of Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania on Wednesday, as well as a Polisario delegation headed by Khatri Addouh, the speaker of the Sahrawi parliament.
But the agenda for the meetings remains vague and the format has not been unanimously agreed.
Algeria wants to participate only as an "observer country", but Rabat considers it a "stakeholder" in the discussions, since Algiers is the Polisario's main backer.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Algiers said Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel has met with Koehler and reiterated his country's support for the process "in its capacity as a neighbouring country".
And while all sides signalled goodwill ahead of Wednesday's meeting, they did not budge from their positions.
King Mohammed VI has said he supports a "durable" political solution marked by a "spirit of compromise", but in a recent speech he insisted that Morocco would not yield on its "territorial integrity", including control over Western Sahara.
And key Polisario official Mhamed Khadad told AFP ahead of the talks that "everything can be negotiated except the inalienable and imprescriptible right of our people to self-determination."
Diplomats and others with insight into the process have meanwhile played down the prospect of any real breakthrough.
One diplomat stressed that the roundtable was "not a negotiation" but rather a meeting "that will make it possible to test the real will of the parties, and to determine if they should move forward" or not.
Observers meanwhile point to increased pressure on the sides to find a solution, after the UN Security Council recently adopted a US-drafted resolution to renew a small peacekeeping mission at the ceasefire line, but cut its mandate from 12 to six months.
Nour Bakr, with the non-profit Independent Diplomat which advises the Polisario Front, meanwhile called for more EU support for the process, lamenting that the bloc is negotiating major trade deals with Morocco that involve Western Sahara.
The Europeans "try to make a separation between having these trade deals and claiming to support the political process," he told AFP.
But "they are de facto recognising Morocco's sovereignty."


‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Updated 07 August 2020

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.
“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Shockwaves
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.