The brutally harsh Hamada desert, justifiably termed the most inhospitable place on Earth, has become the home away from home for more than 160,000 Saharawi refugees since Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara in 1975.
Three Australian trade unionists (two from the Australian Workers Union --AWU -- and one from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance -- MEAA) travelled thousands of kilometres to attend the congress and participate in the 4th International Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers, which was convened as part of the 6th UGTSARIO congress. All three were also members of the Australian Western Sahara Association.
The UGTSARIO congress was attended by 380 delegates representing different sectors of Saharawi workers, from refugee camps as well as from Mauritania, Algeria, Spain and France. Currently there are four unions affiliated to the UGTSARIO, and the rest of its membership is made up of individual workers. There is a push to develop more unions, specific to particular sectors. Most notable was the high number of women delegates at the congress, which indicates a high level of women’s participation in public life and work.
The congress officially opened with the singing of the national anthem and a speech by Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of the Democratic Republic of Western Sahara (SADR), honouring the contributions and sacrifices made by Saharawi workers. Outgoing secretary general of the UGTSARIO, Mohamed Cheikh Mohamed Lehbib, then presented the UGTSARIO bureau’s financial and activities reports, before inviting international delegations representing 16 trade unions to give greetings.
Around 70 international guests attended the congress, representing trade unions and organisations from the African Union, Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa, Spain, Italy, Australia, Portugal, Norway, Greece, Mexico and Sweden.
The congress also heard from former phosphate workers from the Western Saharan territories occupied by Morrocco. Due to the fierce repression against Saharawis in the occupied zone and a heavily mined 2500-kilometre long wall separating it from the liberated areas and the refugee camps, the participation of these workers could only occur via phone link up.
Over the three days the congress debated the adoption of its new national program and elected a new leadership until its next congress in four years. In a rare opportunity the Australian delegations became ``international observers’’ – able to witness the UGTSARIO election process, which was fascinating and very democratic. Mohamed Cheikh Mohamed Lehbib was re-elected general secretary with a high margin and a new executive bureau was also elected.
International Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers
This conference (targeted at the international guests) was held on October 20, and was part of the 6th UGTSARIO congress. It focused on discussing three main issues:
1) the plundering of Western Sahara’s natural resources by Morocco and other countries/companies and how to develop a solidarity campaign,
2) abuse of Saharawis’ human rights and workers’ rights abuses by the Moroccan regime, in Morocco proper and occupied Western Sahara
3) supporting UGTSARIO’s membership of international trade union federations.
The conference was attended by representatives of 23 trade unions and organisations from 11 countries, representing more than 200 million trade unionists. Iberian peninsular trade unionists were the most represented with three Spanish confederations (the UGT – linked to the current Spanish government, USO and CC.OO), one Basque (ELA), one Galician (CIG) and one Portuguese (CGTP). Italian unionists were represented via the CGIL (the General Confederation of Italian Workers); the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) sent a sizable delegation, as did the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), which participated for the first time. The Algerian federation UGTA sent its general secretary and OUSA – a pan-African federation – and the World Federation of Trade Unions also participated.
Ron Guy, representing the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), spoke for our delegation on the conference panel. The Australian delegation also represented the AWU and the Socialist Alliance.
In his conference contribution Ron Guy raised the issue of natural resource theft as being critical to any solidarity campaign that tries to achieve more than just deliver emergency aid to the refugee camps, and instead sharply refocus on the illegal occupation of Western Sahara and the Saharawi people’s claim of sovereignty over their territory. Our delegation argued that Morocco’s illegal trade deals with foreign countries and companies help finance the occupation, and provide legitimacy and support for its continuation. Highlighting this natural resources issue, we argued, automatically brings in the question of sovereignty, which can be avoided by only focusing on human rights abuses.
Australian and Norwegian activists, represented by three young Western Sahara Resource Watch members who are teaching English in the camps, are helping to lead this specific campaign. Our reports about work done in this area were enthusiastically received as were our proposals for action. No other country represented at the conference had done any concrete work/actions on this issue to date, even though their own countries are profiting from trade deals with Morocco relating to the theft of the Saharawis’ resources. The East Timor struggle for independence was raised many times during the conference, as it is very pertinent to the Western Sahara situation.
Our delegation put forward a proposal for other union federations present to join our protests against Australian company Wesfarmer’s illegal imports of Western Saharan phosphate (Wesfarmer’s fertiliser subsidiary, CSBP is the second-biggest Australian importer of phosphate from Western Sahara).
We also moved for an international day of action against the theft of Saharawi resources to take place; targeting companies and/or our respective governments.
After discussion, a subcommittee of six people, including a member of the Australian delegation, was nominated to develop a declaration, reflecting the decisions and mood of the conference floor. The final declaration (see below) included the proposal of an international day of action in 2009 against natural resource theft, sending delegations to the occupied territories as ``witnesses to the occupation’’ and to advocate for UGTSARIO’s inclusion in international trade union bodies. There was some initial resistance by the Spanish UGT representative to the inclusion of support for an international day of action on resource theft in the declaration, which was eventually resolved.
The declaration was unanimously endorsed by both the international conference and the UGTSARIO congress.
The Australian delegation won respect from the international guests and Saharawi trade unionists alike for our work and political interventions we brought to the conference. The Saharawis know that more political solidarity is crucial in order to move closer to finding a just solution to their desperate situation. And this can only be done through pressure being put on complicit governments (such as Spain, France and Australia) by the international solidarity and workers’ movement.
The UGTSARIO general secretary came to visit us after the congress to thank us for our participation. Our delegation was also interviewed for the Algerian media and a Saharawi radio show.
The conference also presented us with the opportunity to meet other trade unionists and strengthen important networks. Interestingly, many of the international unionists present at the congress had heard about Australia’s horrendous WorkChoices laws and the undemocratic, Gestapo-like Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC)!
After spending four days at El Aaiun camp the Australian delegation moved to the ``27 February camp’’ to continue its solidarity work. UPES, the Saharawi Writers and Journalists Union, general secretary Malainin Lakhal, who had visited Australia in 2007, helped us organise important meetings with members of the community, SADR government officials and other international solidarity organisations.
Delegation member Margarita Windisch (MEAA member, Socialist Alliance and Democratic Socialist Perspective activist, and Green Left Weekly journalist) held a media workshop for members of a youth group from the camp. The workshop was designed to give basic skills on how to write for a Western newspaper and help promote the Saharawi cause internationally. The workshop was very interactive and finished with each participant writing a news article of 300 words. Hopefully we will see articles coming form Western Saharan writers more regularly.
Delegation member Garry Holliday gave an Aussie Rules football workshop (believe it or not!) to about 100 schoolkids. Most of the Saharawi youth are very skilled in soccer, so picking up the basics of Aussie Rules was a relatively easy task for these natural talents. While we didn’t have enough time to cohere a Saharawi team together to challenge our very own footy greats at the next grand final, we certainly left a good impression and showed that solidarity can come in many ways. Bringing back footage of the workshop will hopefully help raise the plight of the Saharawi people in Australia.
We are aiming to get another mention on a football website that already advertised the workshop in October and are working to get a spot on Australian TV’s sports shows. (See http://www.worldfootynews.com/article.php/20081013231446908)
Even though the Saharawi struggle seems obscure in Australia, it has very close similarities with the East Timorese and the Palestinian peoples’ struggles for national self-determination. Furthermore, Australian companies (Incitec Pivot-- see http://news.theage.com.au/business/shareholders-approve-incitec-201-split-20080905-4aig.html -- and Wesfarmers -- see http://www.wsrw.org/index.php?parse_news=single&cat=105&art=936) are benefiting from the occupation of Western Sahara and the repression of its people by the Moroccan regime.
The visit to the camps was a unique and very humbling experience. It certainly showed what humanity is capable of -- from the most brutal aggression by an elite few (the Moroccan government and its allies) for economic gain, to the heroic resistance of a small nation in the most adverse circumstances.
The Saharawi people show in practice that collectivity, organisation and respect can make the critical difference between the survival of a unique people and culture or its disappearance. Thirty-three years of occupation, repression and life as refugees has neither dinted their integrity nor dashed their hopes for justice.
At the same time the Saharawi people also pleaded with us to continue and strengthen our solidarity work because they are painfully aware that without international solidarity and pressure their struggle may be lost.
1) That Australian trade unions endorse the declaration of the 4th International Trade Union Solidarity Conference with Saharawi Workers and actively pursue the key points and participate in proposed actions.
2) Send further trade union delegations to Western Sahara (to the occupied zones and the refugee camps) and strengthen their relationship with UGTSARIO.
3) Promote the Western Saharan struggle among its members and in its publications.
4) Join and/or affiliate to the Australian Western Sahara Association (AWSA: www.awsa.org )
Photos of the trip are available at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=67307&l=7aacc&id=675522663
Declaration of the 4th International Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers, October 20, 2008, El Aaiun refugee camp
The trade unions that participated in the 4th International Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers on October 20, 2008, in El Aaiun (which was part of the 6th congress of UGTSARIO) declare their concerns again about the situation of Western Sahara:
The lack of results from the direct negotiations between Morocco and the Frente Polisario under the auspices of the UN; after four meetings the Moroccan government’s refusal to find a solution in accordance with UN resolutions has been re-confirmed.
In this regard, we reiterate our support for the UN resolutions that demand the withdrawal of Morocco from Western Sahara, the ability to exercise the right to self-determination and the holding of a referendum in which the Saharawi people can determine their future.
In this year that celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Moroccan government continues to violate the basic human rights of Saharawis in the occupied territories with impunity. The arrests, tortures, trials and arbitrary detentions, the disappearances, the intimidations are normal practices that the Saharawi population has to endure. In order to hide its repressive actions and deny international condemnation thereof, the Moroccan government denies international observers the right to enter Western Sahara.
The deterioration of basic living standards, working conditions, education, sanitation and right to work is constant. To be Saharawi becomes an obstacle to access employment, which converts itself into discriminatory practice in contravention of the International Labour Organisation and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We reaffirm our position, which is outlined in previous trade union conferences, and demand from countries, the European and African Unions not to engage in agreements that affect the sovereignty of Western Sahara and the exploitation of its natural resources.
We reject the recent preferential trading status between Morocco and the EU. We also reject the exploitation of Saharawi natural resources, in accordance with the international law enshrined in the UN resolution 1514. This resolution prohibits occupying or colonial powers to engage in commercial activities in occupied territories during the process of decolonisation.
The UN resolution 1514 is violated by the presence of Australian, Norwegian, South African and Spanish multinational companies, amongst others, in the occupied territories, who have signed agreements with, and have been given concessions by, the Moroccan government and companies to exploit the natural resources.
The trade unions present at the conference affirm that within the current international trade union movement they have to contribute to the presence of the UGTSARIO within international trade unions confederations.
The observer status of the UGTSARIO, at the founding congress of the International Trade Union Confederation and in the EU-African trade union summit that took place in Lisbon, helped bring UGTSARIO further into the international trade union movement. We consider that the participation of the UGTSARIO in future trade union meetings is necessary for its future affiliation to international trade union bodies.
It is also necessary to include the UGTSARIO in the trade unions’ policies of cooperation as a partner and develop projects that include trade union and professional training in important sectors such as health, education, construction and industries related to the environment, in the refugee camps and liberated territories.
At the same time we call on the international trade unions to continue to provide food aid to the Saharawi refugees.
With regards to human, labour and trade union rights we demand of the Moroccan government to comply with ILO conventions and end its discriminatory policies towards the Saharawi people in the occupied territories. We also demand the freeing of political prisoners and that Morocco takes responsibility for the Saharawi “disappeared”.
We agree to inform the ILO about Morocco’s violation of Saharawi labour and trade union rights.
We agree to pressure our respective governments, the EU and the African Union, as well as multinational companies and other institutions to denounce :
a) the human rights violations of Saharawis by Morocco
b) the illegality of the agreements between Morocco, government administrations and any companies that allow the exploitation of Saharawi natural resources.
We demand from the EU to be [consistent] in the defence of human rights and democracy in its commercial agreements with countries outside the EU.
To reinforce actions of solidarity and protest, we agree to work towards an International Day of Action in 2009 that focuses on the grave situation of the Saharawi people and the exploitation of their natural resources.
We oppose Morocco’s denial of access to the occupied territories by international observers to witness the reality on the ground.
We believe that not solving the Western Saharan conflict puts the development of a Euro-Mediterranean dialogue -- in which important countries are either actively or passively involved -- at risk. It is impossible to construct peace, stability and development in the Mediterranean region without taking into account the rights of the Saharawi people, the occupation of its territories and the violation of human rights, which are fundamental to any democratic society.
Finally, we congratulate the members and delegates of the UGTSARIO, for the outcomes of their 6th congress.
This declaration was signed by representatives or members of the following unions and organisations:
OUSA – African Union; UGTA – Algeria; UGT, CC.OO, USO – Spain; CIG – Galicia; ELÄ – the Basque country; CGTP – Portugal ; COSATU – South Africa ; NLC – Nigeria; Confederación Obreros de Campesinos – Mexico; ACTU – Australia; AWU, Victorian Branch – Australia; AWSA – Australia; MEAA – Australia ; Socialist Alliance – Australia; FSM – Greece; CGIL – Italy; Western Sahara Resource Watch International – Norway.