Western Sahara: The Last Colony – The Moroccan Occupation of Western Sahara

By Malainin Lakahal
The UN has adopted around hundred resolutions reaffirming the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. Yet Sahrawis are still denied the legitimate and fundamental right to vote on the fate of their homeland.
The West often portrays itself as the champion of democracy, rule of law and human rights. Yet, when we look at Western Sahara, the hypocrisy and dishonesty in such portrayals are laid bare. The story of Western Sahara – the plight of its people and their struggle for freedom – is willingly and deliberately ignored by Western powers and mainstream international media despite the fact that it is the last colony standing in the African continent.
Western Sahara – bordered by Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Atlantic Ocean – first fell under Spanish rule in 1884, becoming a Spanish province in 1934. In 1975, the colonial master signed an illegal pact – known as the Madrid Agreement – with Morocco and Mauritania abandoning the North African territory to invasions. Following the pact, Morocco and Mauritania moved to annex the territory while Spain ensured its interests in the exploitation of natural resources in the region.
From 1975 to early 1980s, Moroccan air force rained Napalm and White Phosphorus on the Sahrawi people, killing thousand of men, women and children only because they rejected the illegal occupation of their land and tried to flee the zone to organise resistance. Following the massive killings, the Sahrawi liberation movement, Polisario, decided to seek refuge for the thousands of Sahrawi refugees in the only neighbouring country that did not attack Western Sahara: Algeria.
In 1976, the refugees in Algeria formed the Sahrawi state in exile: the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, SADR. At present, SADR is a full member of the African Union and is officially recognised by more than fifty countries worldwide.
In 1979, when Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara, Morocco took control of the whole territory. Today, seemingly forgotten by the international community, Western Sahara remains a Moroccan colony with its people divided between refugee camps in the Algerian desert and under occupation in their own land.
In 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that Western Sahara is a non-self-governing territory, therefore, it was to be decolonised through a process of self-determination conforming to the United Nations charter. The UN does not recognise Moroccan territorial claims over Western Sahara. The Security Council and the General Assembly have, to date, adopted around hundred resolutions reaffirming the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. Yet, thirty-four years on, Sahrawis are still denied the legitimate and fundamental right to vote on the fate of their homeland. Meanwhile, international human rights organisations and bodies including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Front Line, Freedom House and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights routinely report that Morocco is responsible for systematic human rights violations in Western Sahara.
Throughout the years of occupation, Morocco has systematically plundered Sahrawi natural resources worth billions of dollars, while the Sahrawi people languished in refugee camps – unable or too afraid to return home. Western Sahara is not a barren desert, as it may sound. It is rich with a reserve of high-quality phosphate, fishing resources, possible reserves of oil, gas and other minerals. Given its breathtaking natural beauty and its tolerant, hospitable and generous Muslim African population, Western Sahara could have been one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world.
Today, Morocco controls two-thirds of this beautiful land by building a military wall, Berm, that runs more than 2400 km dividing Western Sahara and its people from north to south. More than 120,000 Moroccan troops are stationed along this wall of shame, 24/7. Beyond the wall, Morocco maintains live minefields and barbedwire fences making it impossible for men and animal to move around in the once free desert.
In the occupied zones of Western Sahara, Morocco confines thousands of Sahrawi people in an open prison where they can just helplessly watch their country being plundered. Peaceful demonstrations against the occupation are ruthlessly suppressed with arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment, torture and indefinite imprisonment without any trial. On top of that, Sahrawi human rights monitors have documented 526 cases of enforced disappearance since the beginning of the occupation. Yet, the UN mission on the ground, MINURSO, is unable to address the human rights situation in the occupied territories. Because, France – one of the key international actors in the conflict – opposes any attempt to include human rights monitoring and protection in the MINURSO mandate.
France – the cradle of democracy, freedom and liberty – blindly supports the colonial thesis of the Moroccan regime, an authoritarian monarchy still governed by a doctrine that dates back to the sixteenth century. Back in 1976, Paris was so eager to aid Morocco that it deployed its air force based in Senegal to attack Sahrawi freedom fighters in Western Sahara.
Successive French governments have brazenly supported the Moroccan colonial misadventure politically, diplomatically and financially. In April 2009, when the latest UN Security Council resolution on Western Sahara was adopted, France firmly opposed any condemnation of Moroccan violations, in a typical show of support for Morocco.
On the other hand, Spain claims to maintain a neutral position on the Western Sahara question. From a legal point of view, one might not be wrong to suggest that Spain is just evading its responsibility, since it was the tripartite Madrid agreement that gave birth to the Western Sahara crisis. We must also note that Western Sahara is still under de jure Spanish administration.
As for the European Union, instead of denouncing the atrocities committed in Western Sahara, in 2008, the EU awarded Morocco with a special partnership status as an economic partner. This rosy relation is, of course, bolstered by Morocco’s ties with France and Spain.
The US position on Western Sahara has been rather ambiguous, right from the beginning. The White House has always publicly supported UN efforts in decolonising Western Sahara while Morocco was aided with weapons and military training, as a non-Nato ally.
Nonetheless, recent media reports show a positive change in the Obama administration’s approach. In June 2009, President Obama sent a letter to Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco, stating his government’s support to the UN efforts in reaching a mutually acceptable and fair solution. In the letter, he also expressed hope that Morocco would cooperate with Christopher Ross, the UN secretary general’s envoy to Western Sahara.
While Western Sahara suffers under the Moroccan military siege, the international media remains completely oblivious of the atrocities committed against the Sahrawi people. Even tough its plight is very real and apparent, the world has chosen to turn a deaf ear to Western Sahara.
Eigteen years ago, the Polisario gave up weapons ending a sixteen-year war with the unlawful occupier: Morocco. As part of the UN-brokered ceasefire, a referendum on Sahrawi self-determination was promised. While that promise still remains unfulfilled, 165,000 Sahrawi refugees continue to live in refugee camps in Algeria and the rest of the population suffer under the ruthless colonial occupation.
The Sahrawi people have heard a lots of false promises and excuses for the last forty years. They have always, patiently and willingly, compromised for the sake of peace. Yet, over and over, they have been deceived by the international community.
Now, as the world turns its back on Western Sahara, the Sahrawi people have two choices: continue the struggle for freedom and justice, no matter how much sacrifice it takes, or, submit to be a weak prey in a world governed by the law of the jungle.
Isn’t this an easy choice to make?
Malainin Lakhal is a Sahrawi journalist in exile in Algeria. He is the Secretary General of UPES: Sahrawi Journalists and Writer