Michael Foster and Tess Espey (at left) join fellow students Mali Galaaen Røsseth (Norway)

Michael Foster and Tess Espey (at left) join fellow students Mali Galaaen Røsseth (Norway)

Sahara activists described as ‘innocent’ pawns

Earl Marriott grad Tess Espey defends group's actions aimed at bring attention to alleged human rights abuses south of Morocco

Former Earl Marriott Secondary student Tess Espey – back in Norway after participating in a student protest in Western Sahara – says she does not regret her part earlier this month in helping focus international attention on the disputed West African region.

And she told the Peace Arch News she believes Canadians should be more aware of this country’s business ties to Morocco – which controls Western Sahara and has long claimed it as its own territory.

But, Hamid Touisse, spokesperson for the group Moroccan Community in Vancouver, suggests that protesters like Espey, and her travelling partner and classmate Michael Foster, are dupes of organizations seeking to radicalize young westerners in a region that Time Magazine has called a potential “terrorist hotbed”.

“We feel sorry for these two innocent people,” Touisse told Peace Arch News in an email on Jan. 26. “I hope their parents put some sense into them before (it’s) too late.”

Espey and Foster, a U.S. citizen, were among five separate sets of travellers who had tried to enter Western Sahara and had been detained, interrogated and deported back to Morocco by taxi by authorities on Jan. 17.

Ostensibly travelling as tourists, they have since admitted they were part of a 68-person Norway-based delegation seeking to discuss human rights issues with Saharawi residents and supporting a referendum on Saharawi independence first called for by the United Nations in 1991.

Espey, 25, a graduate student at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) asserts a profitable Canadian connection – including a multi-million dollar trade in phosphates (an essential ingredient for synthetic fertilisers, and a finite resource globally) – contributes to ongoing civil rights abuses in the region and continued exploitation of natural resources with no benefit to the native population.

She said she had learned that Canada is the world’s largest importer of West Saharan phosphate overall.

“I… became very embarrassed that my country was supporting the occupying Moroccans by purchasing resources from a place where human rights are simply ignored,” Espey told PAN by email last week.

“Saharawis cannot vote, they have no freedom of speech or press, and their peaceful protests have been brutally suppressed by Moroccan police,” she said. “Coming from a country where rights are protected and cherished, I view this situation, which has continued for over 40 years, as being unacceptable.”

Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Amy Mills told PAN the Government of Canada does not recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

However, according to international law, she said, “Morocco has an obligation as a governing power to ensure that activities in this territory are conducted in the interests and benefits of the people of Western Sahara… these activities include the exploitation of natural resources.”

While not offering any specific comment on Espey’s activism, she said “Canadian companies and citizens are subject to the laws and regulations of Morocco, which unilaterally administers the territory.”

Mills noted, however, that Canada has “consistently supported UN resolutions on Western Sahara, with a view to permitting the people of Western Sahara to determine their political future.

“We encourage all parties to cooperate with the Special Envoy to the UN Secretary General, Christopher Ross, in order to reach a peaceful, negotiated solution, consistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations,” she said.

Touisse said that the fact that Espey and Foster had reached Western Sahara with “no questions asked” indicates that “Morocco is a democratic and stable, fair country… even when they were stopped in a region where their lives might be at risk the Moroccan authorities provide(d) them with taxi to go back where it is more safe.”

Touisse added that the pair was heading to “a region of Tindouf where Al-Qaida (in the Islamic) Mahgreb (AQIM), Polisario (an outlawed Western Sahara liberation group) and other terrorist groups and drug smugglers rule.

“The new tactic for these terrorist organizations is to recruit new young western people to cause more harm in the name of human rights, as happened now in Paris or a few years ago in Algeria, where a gas plant was blown up by a young Canadian who had been recruited in the name of human rights and was turned to terrorism.”

Touisse said “Morocco is one country from the north to Mauritania – it has been that and will be always. None can dispute that. Moroccans in the Lower Mainland are a most peaceful and respectable community…I will be happy to meet their family to apologize of any mistreatment of these two innocent naif (naive) young people.”

Conservative South Surrey-White Rock MP Dianne Watts deferred comment to Tony Clement, foreign affairs critic for the Opposition, who said that Canada and Morroco have “excellent bilateral, social and cultural relations.”

Clement told PAN in an email – via Watts’ office – that an estimated 100,000 Canadians are of Moroccan origin – making it the largest North African community in Canada.

But he noted that Canada also supports the vision of the multilateral African Union – whose 53 member states include Western Sahara, but not Morocco – for “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa.”

Espey, who was born in White Rock, graduated from Marriott in 2008 (her parents have since relocated to California).

Now studying at NMBU, a public university offering degrees in environmental, biological an development studies, she says she became of the aware of Western Sahara issues – and Canada’s role in the phosphates trade – through a presentation sponsored by the Students and Academics International Assistance Fund (SAIH) – which she describes as a “major Norwegian student activist group.”