Human rights in the Sahel region
Delivered in Plenary - 21 October 2013
The preparation of my Sahel report has not been easy, and I would like now to set the record straight on how this report came to exist in its current form. For a start, my position on the Western Sahara has been consistent over a number of years in terms of the right of the Saharawi people to determine their own future in a free and fair manner acceptable to both sides.
I take no views on what the final status of that territory should be, but when I first accepted the report, I understood that it was only to address the Sahel. Only subsequently did I learn that Western Sahara was always intended to form a part of the report and, indeed, was initially the sole subject of the report. After much wrangling and title changes, it was decided eventually that the title should only include the Sahel, but that the Western Sahara would formally be included in the report’s remit. This decision was ratified by the enlarged bureaux of both the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Subcommittee on Human Rights and in the Conference of Committee Chairs and the Conference of Presidents.
I suggest that, in the long run, this will prove to be no bad thing. Western Sahara is rarely appended to discussions on the Sahel, but in geopolitical security and indeed human rights terms, this may well prove to have been an error. As the UN Secretary-General said in April, the conflict must be addressed as part of a broader strategy for the Sahel. Instability in Western Sahara is bad for the Sahel and vice versa. As we often say in this Parliament, human rights and security are both symbiotic and inextricable. Reports have indicated to me that unrest in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf camps is growing. A return to violence in any form would be catastrophic.
Leaving Western Sahara aside for a moment, the most pressing part of the report deals – naturally – with the grave disaster witnessed over the past two years in Mali, which had previously seen relative peace and stability for a number of years. Although we can be cautiously optimistic now that the worst of the crisis is over, it is not yet finished, with several hundreds of thousands of refugees and IDPs still waiting to return home and the fragile peace being jeopardised by sporadic skirmishes and suicide bombings. The long process of reconciliation must also begin with Mali’s different communities. Certainly, Tuareg resentment over many decades must be addressed – not simply in Mali itself, but across the whole Sahel region.
The reconciliation will not work without justice where it is due. Mali must be seen as a prototype for the success of judicial institution-building and the rule of law. Too often in the Sahel region, war crimes and crimes against humanity have been met with institutional impunity. For this reason, the recent Senegalese indictment of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, and of course the ICC’s investigation into Malian war crimes, are to be greatly welcomed in this House.
Besides the immediate concerns in Mali and the need to combat impunity, I have tried in the report to emphasise the need for a coherent strategy across the whole Sahel region which combines an awareness of human rights with the imperative of boosting security, tackling Jihadi radicalisation, clamping down on the trafficking of people, arms and drugs – particularly with regard to the ‘trafficking superhighway’ which bisects the Sahel east-west and south-north – and, above all, improving the governance, accountability and legitimacy of state and regional institutions. This report makes a particular point of advocating the decentralisation of power and boosting the role of civil society.
Lastly, I have addressed the situation of women, children and minorities, including child labour, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and – especially in Mauritania – the controversial issue of slavery, although this is of course extremely contentious and vigorously disputed by the Mauritanian authorities.
In short, the overriding theme of the report must be for the EU to work with local actors to focus on security, stability and human rights in synthesis. The EU already has a trading mission in Mali from the CSDP and a capability-building mission in Niger, but human rights are markedly absent from the EU overall Sahel strategy. This is an area where we can do more to help, and I hope that this report makes some contributions in so doing. If, similarly, we can bring voices together on Western Sahara and possibly influence the situation there in some small way, I hope that the report can be considered a success.