18/12/2017 09:25 GMT | Updated 18/12/2017 09:25 GMT

Dear Deputy President: SA Cannot Condone Morocco's Behaviour

"I beseech that you ensure we resist all pressure to grant diplomatic status to Morocco."

Catherine Constantinides

Dear Deputy President Ramaphosa,

Saharawi refugees who fled when the conflict started in 1975 have been living refugee camps in Saharan Algeria, waiting in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable for a referendum to be held. They have foresworn armed struggle and placed their trust in the United Nations (U.N.) system and international law to resolve the issue.

In response, Morocco has repeatedly aggravated the situation and prevented the referendum from being held. The kingdom has also flooded Western Sahara with Moroccan settlers and engaged in widely documented human rights abuses –– including torture, imprisonment and harassment of Saharawis in the occupied territory.

As you move towards the elective conference and a new leadership of the ANC emerges, I implore you to ensure that South Africa does not reestablish diplomatic ties with Morocco. Morocco must accede to the legitimate demands and inalienable right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. The kingdom has no valid claim to the territory of Western Sahara, which it has illegally occupied for 42 years.

It is troubling that South Africa, as one of the longest standing allies of Western Sahara, also known as SADR (Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic), would now choose to exchange ambassadors with a country that has repeatedly demonstrated its profound contempt for international law and the U.N., and remains a brutal occupying power.

The history of the Western Saharan occupation is complex. Morocco invaded in 1975 after Spain, the prior colonial power, withdrew. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, known by the French acronym "Minurso", is the referendum in question.

It was promised to the Saharawi people in 1991. This was part of a U.N.-brokered ceasefire that ended the war they had been fighting against Morocco since the invasion of 1975.

In line with clear international norms for postcolonial transitions, the referendum would give the Saharawi the option to become an independent nation. They remain the only former colony in Africa that has not been granted this fundamental right, which had been recognised by the U.N. as a right to which the Saharawi people are entitled since the 1960s.

Catherine Constantinides

The Saharawi Republic is a full member of the African Union (A.U.) –– but earlier this year, the A.U. welcomed back Morocco, despite the fact that Morocco left the then-Organisation of African Unity in 1984, after the continental bloc refused to support the kingdom's occupation of Western Sahara.

The disputed territory is rich in phosphate and natural resources, and also believed to hold offshore oil deposits and a very rich fishing coastline.

The occupied territory has been under Moroccan control since 1975. Morocco was readmitted to the A.U. without any preconditions or terms; a grave mistake on the part of the A.U.

Now this continental body must take responsibility for putting pressure on Morocco as a member state. As a newly admitted member, the kingdom should now be obliged to respect the constitutive act of the A.U. –– i.e. internationally recognised borders –– thus recognising Western Sahara.

Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa. While the Saharawi people's right to self-determination is recognised by the A.U., the U.N., and in 1975 by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), there is no country that recognises Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Despite this, despite reports of the exploitative plundering of natural resources and the infliction of grave human rights abuses, and despite the urgency of renewed efforts to overcome the current impasse having been expressed repeatedly, still no sign of resolution or end to this painful struggle is in sight.

Analysts have said that perhaps the kingdom's decision to rejoin the A.U. was driven by a desire to weaken the Frente Polisario and to exclude SADR from the organisation, but it is also a strong reflection of Morocco's determination to reestablish unconditional diplomatic ties, in the interests of driving their economy.

The AU has been a significant arena for the Polisario to promote its diplomatic credentials, backed by heavyweight allies, thus South African cannot falter and shift on policy when it comes to our positioning on Western Sahara.

Morocco has also previously pressured its allies to expel Western Sahara from the A.U. Against the backdrop of these diplomatic manoeuvres, one can expect Morocco to use diplomatic relations and trade deals it has signed with various African countries as leverage to influence the position of the A.U. in this dispute. As matter of fact, Morocco has become more arrogant since its admission to the A.U., instead of seizing the opportunity to constructively interact with the continental organisation.

Some of Morocco's renewable energy development is taking place in Western Sahara. Energy generated in Western Sahara -- without the consent of its people -- is exported back to Morocco. The royal palace regulates Morocco's energy market and receives significant energy contracts in the occupied territory.

We (South Africans) cannot align ourselves with a state that continues to illegally occupy and colonise a fellow African nation.

This contravenes the U.N.'s legal opinion of 2002, which asserted that exploration and exploitation activities of the natural resources of Western Sahara could only be carried out in accordance with the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara. Morocco has not consulted the Saharawi on its green energy projects in their territory, nor will the people of Western Sahara be the ones profiting from them. Morocco's actions violate international law.

South Africa cannot condone Morocco's behaviour. Only in the face of strong regional and international pressure will Morocco begin acting as a responsible member of the A.U. and international partner of the U.N. Deputy President Ramaphosa, I beseech that you ensure we resist all pressure to grant diplomatic status to Morocco.

South Africa must remain resolute in its policy and resolutions for self-determination of the Saharawi people. Instead of reestablishing diplomatic ties, let our action call for a return to direct negotiations with the Frente Polisario, the internationally recognised representative of the Saharawi people, towards holding a referendum as soon as possible.

Let us continue to be one of the strongest allies to Western Sahara as they continue to fight the oppression, illegal occupation, colonisation and heinous crimes against humanity that they suffer on a daily basis in the occupied territory.

1. We call on Morocco to accept without reservation a schedule proposed by the Secretary-General, with the aid of Minurso, in order to enable, within a reasonable timeframe, the organisation of a referendum allowing the Saharawi people to exercise their legitimate right to self-determination unambiguously and in a democratic manner. We must stand firm in our stance for self-determination and call for urgency in this matter.

2. We stand against the human rights abuses, harassment and unlawful imprisonment and torture taking place against the Saharawi people and condemn this form of violence and inhumane behaviour. While this is being organised, we call for the broadening of Minurso's mandate that would enable impartial monitoring of the human rights situation in Western Sahara.

3. Economically, we must support economic cooperation, not occupation. South Africa must stand behind ending the illegal exploitation of the natural resources such as phosphate deposits, fisheries and arable land by Morocco and its trade partners in economic deals that have not included or engaged with the people of Western Sahara.

Catherine Constantinides

In this regard, we must not forget the European Union Court of Justice verdict of December 2016, which concluded that agreements between the E.U. and Morocco do not apply to Western Sahara and its resources, as the latter is a distinct country not part of the Kingdom of Morocco.

Based on our own struggle and fight for freedom, and our own history and legacy that captured the admiration of the world, South Africa must continue to stand in support of the Saharawi cause. South African must continue to be the advocates of change for the continent.

We cannot align ourselves with a state that continues to illegally occupy and colonise a fellow African nation. We must stand strong on our longstanding historical position and policy, and fight for self-determination and sovereignty for the last colony in Africa. The Saharawi people are the forgotten people of our continent, and will become a scar on the conscience of Africa.

Sahara Libre.

Your urgent attention and consideration on this matter is greatly appreciated. In solidarity with the people of Western Sahara

** Catherine Constantinides is an international human rights and climate activist