Rallying cry

Published : Jan 14, 2011 00:00 IST

With the 50th anniversary celebrations of U.N. Resolution 1514, Algeria announces its re-emergence on the world stage.

in Algiers

FOR the veterans of the liberation struggle and for those still involved in the decolonisation process, it was like old times again. In the third week of December, they all got together in Algiers to celebrate the 50th anniversary of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514, passed on December 14, 1960. Among those present was Ahmed Ben Bella, the first President of independent Algeria, who is still active at the age of 92. Also present were former Presidents Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria. The children of Patrice Lumumba and Khwame Nkrumah, the doyens of the liberation movement in the African continent, were also in Algiers. Another notable presence was that of the Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu from Guatemala.

A two-day conference that followed ended with the issuing of the Algiers Declaration, which emphasised the continuing validity of Resolution 1514 and underlined the fact that many peoples, including those in Palestine and Western Sahara, continued to be under the yoke of colonialism. The participants stressed that the Palestinians and the Sahrawis should get stronger support and that there should be more decisive action from the international community in favour of their right to self-determination. They also expressed their solidarity with the populations of other non-autonomous territories who desired freedom within the framework of U.N. Resolution 1514. The Algiers Declaration reiterated that colonialism in any form was contrary to the principles of the U.N. Charter and the norms of international law. The participants were unanimous that the completion of the decolonisation process was inevitable.

The event, in a way, signalled the re-emergence of Algeria on the international stage. The revolutionary fighter and thinker Amilcar Cabral had famously said: Muslims go to Mecca, the revolutionaries go to Algeria. Until the mid-1980s, Algeria was diplomatically very active, championing causes dear to the people of the developing world. It provided tremendous diplomatic and material help to the liberation movements in southern Africa and for the Palestinian cause.

David Ottoway, a former correspondent of The New York Times who has covered the region widely, spoke on behalf of the media at the conference. He said that during the 1960s and 1970s, Algeria hosted the offices of around 20 liberation movements. General Humberto Delgado, who was leading the movement to oust the brutal Salazar regime in Portugal, had an office in Algiers. But the political crisis that erupted in the country in the early 1990s following the elections of 1992 made its leadership more preoccupied with domestic issues. Now with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the helm, Algeria seems once again keen to regain centre stage. Algeria, after all, is one of the leading economic and political powers in the African continent. In the next five years, it hopes to be one of the economic powerhouses of the region, fuelled by its vast hydrocarbon resources.

It is now universally acknowledged that The Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples passed by the General Assembly 50 years ago set in motion the decolonisation process that swept Asia, Africa and Latin America. Resolution 1514 recognised the right of people under colonialism to be free and is now an inherent part of international law. The struggle of the Algerian people against the brutal French colonisers, which started in 1954, galvanised world public opinion and influenced the drafting of the Resolution. When Algeria finally achieved independence in 1962, one million people, out of a population of nine million, had lost their lives in the bloody struggle. Very few nations have had to pay such a high price to gain independence.

After Algerian independence, the government led by the National Liberation Front (FLN) was among the most fervent supporters of liberation movements worldwide. Political leaders and guerilla fighters found sanctuary and got training in the country. The tactics adopted by the FLN against the powerful French colonial apparatus were emulated in other parts of Africa. After the adoption of Resolution 1514 by the U.N., more than a hundred countries under colonialism got their independence.

Speaker after speaker at the conference highlighted the fact that the decolonisation process was far from over. The Palestinian issue has been given global priority in international forums, but in Algiers, the ongoing struggle of the people of Western Sahara was the main focus. The Sahrawis, led by the Polisario Front, had first fought for freedom from their Spanish colonisers. The populated and productive parts of Western Sahara are today under Moroccan occupation. Morocco sent an occupation force to the territory in 1975 on the heels of the Spanish withdrawal. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), representing the Sahrawi people, is now recognised by 82 countries and is a full-fledged member of the African Union (A.U.). The international community has been promising the Sahrawis a referendum, but the Moroccans have prevented it with help from countries such as France and its allies in the U.N. Security Council.

The U.N. has reaffirmed on several occasions that the Western Sahara issue is a question of decolonisation included in the scope of Resolution 1514 and therefore under the direct supervision of the U.N. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), in separate rulings in 1975 and 2004, said that a referendum should be held in the territory. The U.N. called for a referendum in 1991, but the vote never took place. In 2007, the Polisario Front agreed to the holding of a referendum offering a choice between independence, self-governance and integration with Morocco. Despite the Sahrawis conceding to the Moroccan-generated idea of self-governance to be included as a choice, the government in Rabat again reneged on its commitment. The latest round of indirect talks was held in February in New York without any agreement being reached. Both sides have said that they will keep on talking, but there are signs that the patience of the Sahrawis is fraying.

In a letter addressed to the Security Council in November, the Polisario Front's representative in the U.N. said that the group would have to reconsider its decision to engage in indirect talks with Morocco in a short period owing to the lack of any positive development. Meanwhile, many peoples, some with dubious claims to statehood, have become free in the last decade with the blessings of the West. They include tiny countries such as Montenegro and Kosovo. Many Sahrawis have been leading miserable lives as refugees in camps along the border with Morocco. Others live in and around the city of El Ayoun, which Sahrawis regard as their capital. In November, the Moroccan security forces used extreme force against Sahrawis demanding better living conditions in a camp outside El Ayoun. The protest is described as the biggest staged by them inside the Moroccan-occupied territories. Sahrawi officials say that scores of people were killed and many went missing after the attack on the camp. Moroccan authorities have said that around a dozen of their security personnel were killed in the incident.

Many of the participants in the conference were of the view that the U.N. should play a more active role to achieve the goals encapsulated in Resolution 1514. Amr Mousa, the Arab League chief, said that the General Assembly should be given more powers and developing countries a greater say in the Security Council. He also called on other countries to emulate the example of Brazil and Argentina and recognise the state of Palestine. Jean Ping, the A.U. Chairman, pointed out that Western Sahara was one among the 16 autonomous territories in the world that were yet to get freedom. Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, former Vice-President of Vietnam, who assumed cult stature for her role as a guerilla against the French and the Americans in Vietnam, said that the U.N. has to assume a greater responsibility in ensuring that the Palestinians and the Sahrawis were given justice.

Lumumba's speech

Thabo Mbeki, in an incisive speech, said that international laws were made by the colonial powers. He reminded those present that Resolution 1514 was passed soon after the assassination of the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. He quoted from Lumumba's landmark speech in June 1960 as Belgian Congo gained independence. Lumumba had in the presence of the Belgian King and other colonial dignitaries talked about the atrocities that colonialism had inflicted on his people. We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery that was imposed on us by force, he said. His speech was widely criticised in the West and his days were numbered.

Obasanjo said that the historic Resolution 1514 could not have been passed without the pivotal roles played by Algeria and the Soviet Union. The U.N. Security Council could not have passed it at the time as the colonisers would have used their veto power, said Obasanjo. Delegates from Latin American and Asian countries, while supporting the just cause of the Palestinian and Sahrawi people, pointed out that there were some urgent pending decolonisation issues on their continents. In this context they mentioned the Malvinas (Falklands), part of Argentina, which is still with the British, and and the U.S. annexation of Puerto Rico in the 19th century. A consensus resolution on Puerto Rico within the framework of the U.N. Committee on Decolonisation has been adopted for the 11th year running. The resolution recognises the inalienable right of Puerto Ricans to self-determination and independence under Resolution 1514.

Arvin Boolell, the Foreign Minister of Mauritius, drew the attention of the participants to the continuing illegal occupation of the Chagos island chain in the Indian Ocean and the use of the Diego Garcia military base located there for waging war and for nuclear activities. The colonial power, Great Britain, had leased the Diego Garcia base to the United States without the consent of Mauritius. The military base is crucial to the ongoing U.S. military campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there is a military attack on Iran, Diego Garcia with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean will be an important forward base for the U.S. Boolell said that the latest WikiLeaks data revealed that one of the islands in the Chagos chain was earmarked for nuclear experiments by the U.S. He also pointed out that the islands were also used for rendition activities by the Bush administration. Boolell called for a diplomatic war and a common front against the imperial powers that still held sway over large chunks of the developing world.

An interesting intervention was made by the noted French lawyer, Jacques Verges. Verges, who has carved out a niche for himself through his consistent struggle against colonialism and imperialism since the 1950s, said that international law had been emasculated by judges appointed by the West. Verges, whose last high-profile client was Ramirez Sanchez, known internationally as Carlos the Jackal, gave the instance of the case against Slobodan Milosevic. He said that the rules governing the case were changed 42 times. Those who provide the money decide the judges, said Verges.

He was extremely critical of the various international tribunals set up by the U.N. He said that the tribunal set up to inquire into the Rafik Hariri murder in Lebanon had first implicated Syria. Four senior Syrian army officers were arrested and had to spend four years behind bars. Now the U.N. says that the finger is pointed at Hizbollah. On the other hand, he said, the U.N. was silent when the entire population of the Chagos islands were deported. Is that not a violation of international law? Verges asked.

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