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The Occupation We Choose to Ignore’

Do you know who I am? I am a Sahrawi. The land to which I refer is what is known today as the non-self-governing territory ofWestern Sahara. My country was colonized by the Spanish and the French between 1884 and 1975, divided in two and occupied by Moroccan and Mauritanian forces thereafter, and has been ruled exclusively by the Kingdom of Morocco from 1979 until the present.

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North African Dispatches Africa’s Forgotten Colony

Oblivion it seems is the current reality for the arid North African territory of Western Sahara; often referred to as Africa’s ‘Last Colony’. In my opinion, it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘Africa’s Forgotten Colony’.

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About Western Sahara

This Article was written by STEPHEN ZUNES : with the title 
Western Sahara's struggle for freedom

STEPHEN ZUNESStephen Zunes is the Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org). He serves as an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco and is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism.

Most people have never heard of the country of Western Sahara, but its struggle for self-determination is as significant as that of Palestine and East Timor.
It is a sparsely populated territory about the size of Colorado, located on the Atlantic coast in northwestern Africa just south of Morocco. Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Arab tribes, collectively known as Sahrawis and famous for their long history of resistance to outside domination, the territory of Western Sahara was occupied by Spain from the late 1800s through the mid-1970s. The nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed independence struggle against Spain in 1973, and Madrid eventually promised the people of what was then still known as the Spanish Sahara a referendum on the fate of the territory by the end of 1975.
Irredentist claims by Morocco and Mauritania were brought before the International Court of Justice, which ruled in favor of the Sahrawis' right to self-determination. A special Visiting Mission from the United Nations investigated the situation in the territory that same year and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania.
Under pressure from the United States, which did not want to see the leftist Polisario come to power, Spain reneged on its promise for a referendum and instead agreed to partition the territory between the pro-Western countries of Morocco and Mauritania.
As Moroccan forces moved into Western Sahara, most of the population fled into refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Morocco and Mauritania rejected a series of unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and recognition of the Sahrawis' right of self-determination. The United States and France, despite voting in favor of these resolutions, blocked the United Nations from enforcing them. Meanwhile, the Polisario--which had been driven from the more heavily populated northern and western parts of the country--declared independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Thanks in part to the Algerians' providing significant amounts of military equipment and economic support, Polisario guerrillas fought well against both occupying armies. Mauritania was defeated by 1979 and agreed to turn its third of Western Sahara over to the Polisario. However, the Moroccans then annexed that remaining southern part of the country as well.
The Polisario then focused their armed struggle against Morocco and, by 1982, had liberated nearly 85 percent of their country. Over the next four years, however, the tide of the war was reversed in Morocco's favor, thanks to the United States and France dramatically increasing their support for the Moroccan war effort, with U.S. forces providing important training for the Moroccan army in counterinsurgency tactics and helping with the construction of a wall that kept the Polisario out of most of their country.
Meanwhile, the Moroccan government, through generous housing subsidies and other benefits, successfully encouraged thousands of Moroccan settlers to immigrate to Western Sahara. By the early 1990s, these Moroccan settlers outnumbered the remaining Sahrawis indigenous to the territory by a ratio of more than 2:1.
A cease-fire came into effect in 1991 as part of an agreement that would have allowed for the return of Sahrawi refugees to Western Sahara followed by a U.N.-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Neither the repatriation nor the referendum took place, however, because of Morocco's insistence on stacking the voter rolls with Moroccan settlers and other Moroccan citizens who it claimed had tribal links to the Western Sahara.
To break the stalemate, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution two years ago that would allow Moroccan settlers to vote in the referendum following five years of autonomy. Morocco, however, rejected this proposal as well, with the apparent reassurance that the French and Americans would again threaten to veto any resolution imposing sanctions or other pressures on them to compromise.
Since rejecting the latest peace proposal, the United States has rewarded Morocco by establishing a free trade agreement and granting the kingdom the coveted status of a major non-NATO ally. U.S. aid to Morocco has gone up five-fold since the Bush administration came to office.
Despite U.S. support, Morocco is still isolated in the international community. Over the past three decades, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has been recognized as an independent country by more than 80 governments, with Kenya and South Africa becoming the latest to extend full diplomatic relations. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has been a full member state of the African Union (formerly known as the Organization for African Unity) since 1984 and most of the international community recognizes Western Sahara as Africa's last colony.
The Sahrawis have fought for their national rights primarily through legal and diplomatic means, not through violence. Unlike the Palestinians and a number of other peoples engaged in national liberation struggles, the Sahrawis have never committed acts of terrorism, even during their armed struggle against the occupation.

The Polisario-run refugee camps in neighboring Algeria practice democratic self-governance and women maintain prominent leadership positions in the government-in-exile. Yet despite the Bush administration's claims of promoting such models in the Arab and Islamic world, it has supported the occupation of this potential Arab democracy by an autocratic monarchy.
While there has been some political liberalization within Morocco in recent years, gross and systematic human rights violations in the occupied Western Sahara continue unabated, with public expressions of nationalist aspirations and organized protests against the occupation and human rights abuses routinely met with severe repression.
To many observers, Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara is yet another case of the victory of power politics over international law. The same was once said about Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, but human rights activists refused to let the issue die, and this tiny Roman Catholic nation is now free. With military and diplomatic efforts exhausted, grass-roots activism within the United States and other countries that back the Moroccan occupation may be the Sahrawis' only hope. And though the Sahrawis are Muslims rather than Catholics, support for their quest for freedom is no less a moral imperative.

Self Determination Struggle in the Western Sahara Continues to Challengethe UN

Disturbing Principles

In the run up to the vote, France alleged a novel and disturbing principle: the Security Council cannot impose its decisions on parties if they disagree. They claimed there was a tradition of using consensus on Western Sahara, which was a bit like the apocryphal prisoner who had killed his parents and then asked for the court’s sympathy because he was an orphan. Any such “tradition” developed in response to constant French and American attempts to railroad a pro-Moroccan position past the other Security Council members in defiance of all previous decisions.

French foreign minister Dominique De Villepin may have made an eloquent case against the legality of the Iraq war, but there is nothing Cartesian about Paris’s uncritical support for the King of Morocco. Late last year, France had joined with the United States and Great Britain in attempting to disregard all previous decisions and force through Baker’s first draft, which would in effect have legalized the Moroccan occupation against the wishes of the Sahrawi people. As a sort of Solomonic approach, Baker also suggested partition, which the Algerians toyed with, but which all sides eventually rejected–for the time being.

As an Irish diplomat on the Council at the time said,”The original draft was utterly one-sided in its approach: it was in violation of international legal principles, and had already been rejected by one party to the dispute. It was also clear that the movers could not muster more than six or seven votes in the Council, so they could not get a majority for it.” He added, “We don’t mind if the Western Sahara becomes part of Morocco–as long as that’s what the Sahrawis want.” In the end, the doubters withstood American, French, and British pressure and stopped adoption of the plan.

This July, Baker returned with a revised version, which was on the face of it, very similar, but he added some crucial safeguards that won Polisario and Algerian support. The degree of autonomy for the five-year interim stage was much stronger, with better international guarantees against Moroccan interference. Only Sahrawis would vote for the interim authority, even if all residents would vote in the final referendum.

The Moroccans did not like these restrictions, and were apparently not even sure that they could count on the settlers to vote with them. So, for the last weeks of July, French diplomats worked hard to avert the revised peace plan, and the King himself called everyone from Tony Blair to George W Bush. Jaccques Chirac himself hit the telephones on behalf of his client. However, it did not help much. The King was upset at the reference to self-determination as a ballot option, which was of course absurd. The whole ten-year peace process has been predicated on a vote for or against independence.

Having briefly enlisted Bulgaria, the isolated French delegation eventually compromised and accepted some minor concessions from the Americans in resolution1495 which “supported strongly” the peace plan put forward by James Baker rather than “endorsed” it as the original wording had it. In fairly typical fashion, Morocco reacted peremptorily to the resolution by saying “We rejected the Baker plan, and are still rejecting it.”

It is easy to wonder what the fuss is all about with the endless acres of sand and sparse population of Western Sahara. However, like East Timor, a problem that also first hit the UN agenda three decades ago, it involves major issues of international law, self-determination, and respect for UN decisions. It has also cost the UN over half a billion dollars to maintain a force whose job is to supervise a referendum on self determination that Morocco has delayed for more than a dozen years.


In the fall of 1975, in the face of a landmark ruling by the International Court of Justice rejecting Moroccan claims to Western Sahara and categorically ruling that the Sahrawis were entitled toself-determination, Morocco invaded the territory on the verge of its scheduled independence from Spain. Most of the Sahrawi population was forced into refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. While not formally recognizing Morocco’s annexation, the United Statees had actively encouraged the Spaniards and Moroccans to deny independence to the Sahrawis, who strongly supported the left-leaning independence movement known as the Polisario Front.

In response to the Moroccan invasion, the UN Security Council passed resolutions 379 and 380, which explicitly and unconditionally called on Morocco to withdraw from Western Sahara. However, the French and Americans blocked the Security Council from enforcing these resolutions. According to then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

By 1982, after seven years of war, the Algerian-backed Polisario was on the verge of liberating their country from Moroccan occupation. Howeover, large-scale U.S. and French military aid, including counterinsurgency equipment and training, reversed the tide of the war. Morocco’s allies also helped its occupation forces construct a wall, which eventually separated most of the territory from the exiled Sahrawi population.

With the war at a stalemate, the Moroccans and the Polisario agreed to a cease-fire in 1990, followed by a UN-supervised referendum. The UN set up a peacekeeping operation known as MINURSO to oversee the plebiscite, where eligible voters among the refugees and the minority of Sahrawis that had stayed in the territory would be determined based on a 1974 Spanish census. However, the Moroccans insisted that anyone who could trace their ancestry to tribal groups with links to the territory should be added to the voter rolls, with the result that twice as many Moroccans as Sahrawis would be allowed to vote. The Polisario understandably rejected such Moroccan demands and the United States and France blocked the Security Council from forcing Morocco to go along with the original plan. As a result, the referendum was never held.

Now, faced with the prospect of being forced to accept a referendum where Moroccan settlers–who now outnumber the indigenous Sahrawis–would be allowed to vote, the Polisario have stolen a march on Morocco by aligning themselves with the United States on the latest resolution. Polisario’s UN representative Ahmed Boukhari candidly admitted that the new offer “was not paradise: it’s a very risky proposal for us,” but it was a pragmatic recognition that the cards were stacked. “We are in the weakest position, so of course, they always want us to compromise, regardless of the law.”

The issue resurfaces again in October, by which time Baker will have done more work, the various parties will do more maneuvering, and more Sahrawis will be born and die in the bleak wastes around their headquarters in the deserts of western Algeria wondering if they will even be given the right of self-determination promised for so long by the international community.

proposed Solutions and Evaluation of Prospects

Despite initial demands by the UN Security Council in 1975 for Morocco to withdraw its occupation forces unconditionally and respect the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination, the UN agreed in 1991 to organize and oversee a referendum whereby voters in the territory could choose between independence or incorporation into Morocco. The UN established a special force, known as MINURSO, to supervise the cease-fire, help with the repatriation of refugees, and make preparations for the plebiscite. Both parties agreed to base the voter rolls on residents tabulated in a 1974 Spanish census and their descendants. However, Morocco has insisted on also including large numbers of Moroccans who could trace their ancestry to Sahrawi tribes, effectively stacking the electorate in favor of incorporation. Meanwhile, Moroccan troops remain in Western Sahara, and any pro-independence political activity is severely repressed. The refugees remain in their Polisario-managed camps in Algeria.

Both France and the United States have blocked the UN from imposing sanctions or putting pressure on the Moroccans to compromise. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, through his special envoy, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, has been engaged in seeking a resolution. Despite Polisario threats to return to war, Algeria–which has undergone serious internal conflict over the past decade–is unlikely to provide military assistance necessary to challenge Moroccan control.
Role of U.S.

The United States, along with France, has been the principal military backer of Morocco in its 25-year occupation of Western Sahara. U.S. counterinsurgency advisers and equipment played a key role in reversing the war in Morocco’s favor in the 1980s. Morocco has long been considered a strategic ally of the West, initially during the cold war as an anticommunist force and more recently as an asset against Islamic militancy. So far, the U.S. has rejected the increasingly moderate and pro-Western tone of the Polisario, though a coalition of liberal and conservative members of Congress has begun to pressure the administration to support Sahrawi self-determination. Successive U.S. administrations have feared that should Morocco lose a fair referendum–a likely scenario–it could mean the downfall of Morocco’s pro-Western monarchy, which has staked its political future on incorporating what it refers to as “the southern provinces.” As a result, although Washington gives lip service to Baker’s mission and related UN efforts and provides a few dozen military and civilian personnel to MINURSO, the U.S. is unlikely to encourage a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Africa’s longest-running and final anticolonial struggle.

Why the U.S. and France Support the Moroccan Takeover

There are some striking similarities between Morocco’s takeover of Western Sahara and Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor that same year, giving some hope that–as with East Timor–international law and basic principles of justice might win out over realpolitik. Indeed, the Polisario has had far more diplomatic support than the Fretilin ever did, with their Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic being formally recognized by 75 countries and the SADR sitting as a full member state in the Organization of African Unity.

However, there are two factors working against Sahrawi independence. One is that despite their impressive efforts at building well-functioning democratic institutions in the self-governed refugee camps where the majority of their people live, the Sahrawis have never had the degree of international grassroots solidarity that the East Timorese were able to develop, which eventually eroded support of the Indonesian occupation by Western powers. Secondly, the Moroccan monarchy from the beginning has used its conquest of what it calls “the Sahara provinces” as a means of maintaining its nationalist credentials and popular support despite its autocratic and corrupt rule and the nation’s struggling economy.

The United States has long seen the Moroccan monarchy as a linchpin in advancing Western interests in the region, first as a bulwark against Communist influence and more recently against radical Islam. If Morocco lost the referendum for Western Sahara after pouring in such a tremendous amount of financial resources and lives for the sake of controling the territory, it could lead to enormous instability and perhaps even the monarchy’s overthrow.

In addition, there is the economic interest in the mineral-rich territory: The Moroccans have just given an exploration contract in the territory to an American oil company, Kerr McGee, which has strong links to Vice President Dick Cheney and the Texas oil gang in the administration, which includes Baker. Of course, one would, in the best spirit of Casablanca, be shocked, shocked, to think that this had anything to do with his or the administration’s public espousal of the Moroccan position. The granting of a concession to TotalFinaElf naturally helped make France’s already strong support even more fervent.

However, Morocco’s case was hindered rather than helped by the contracts. In response, the Security Council asked for a legal opinion from UN Under Secretary General for Legal Affairs, Hans Corell. His low-key report was nevertheless devastating for the Moroccan legal position, reminding council members that Morocco’s occupation was in defiance of rulings by both the International Court of Justice and the Security Council itself, since no valid act of self-determination has yet to take place.

In Kerr McGee’s favor, Corell did determine that exploration contracts were legal–but that exploitation contracts would not be without the support of the people of Western Sahara. There have been successful moves to disinvest from the companies involved. This raises interesting questions for the United States, which is indeed eager for alternative sources of oil outside the Middle East.

After alienating much of the international community for undermining the United Nations’ authority and running roughshod over international legal principles in regard to Israel/Palestine and Iraq, the Bush administration may be reluctant to push its luck too far in making it possible for its Moroccan ally to get away with such an illegitimate territorial aggrandizement. Such moderation in U.S. foreign policy, however, may be possible only if the international community and the American public make it politically difficult for the Bush administration to do otherwise.

allAfrica.com: Western Sahara: 35 Years of Colonisation and Exile is Enough (Page 1 of 2)

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