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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 42, October 8, 2011

Western Sahara: No Arab Spring?

Saturday 8 October 2011, by Apratim Mukarji

The justly-celebrated democracy movements sweeping across North Africa and the Arab peninsula somehow appear to have bypassed the territory of Western Sahara, where one of the oldest independence movements in the region, the fight for freeing Western Sahara from Morocco’s domination, is being waged by the Saharawis since 1976.

The territory of Western Sahara has been occupied partly by Morocco and Mauritania since 1975, with the Moroccan control becoming all-pervasive since 1979. The annexation of the territory by Morocco is viewed under inter-national law to have been “not only a violation of the right to self-determination of the Saharawi people but is in our days still a source for massive human rights violations and the cause of the 165,000 Saharawis living in refugee camps in Algeria”, as a recent report on the situation comments.

Yet, the painful truth is that Morocco has for over thirtysix years successfully withstood all attempts by the international community to wrest the territory from its patently illegal occupation. Even in the summer of 2011 international gatherings are being held in various capitals, with the latest organized in London, where world leaders are routinely sympathizing with the Saharawis’ continuing deprivation of liberty in their own country under foreign occupation but to no avail.

To appreciate this glaring anomaly provided by the situation in the territory in the backdrop of the Arab spring, it would be necessary to take note of recent history. Spain, which was the colonial master of the territory, was urged by the United Nations in 1966 to organise a referendum regarding the self-determination and the question of independence for the population there. However, Spain, which clearly had no intention to abide by the UN mandate, manoeuvred to postpone the referendum several times. Meanwhile, Morocco became the latest player to benefit from the unsettled issue coming up with territorial claims on Western Sahara, and—ironically enough— basing its claims on the legacy of the Spanish colony.

The UN thereafter asked the International Court of Justice for an advisoly opinion whether there might be such legal ties affecting the policy to be followed in the decolonisation of Western Sahara.

The ICJ stated that the material presented to it showed the existence of some “legal ties of allegiance between the Sultan of Morocco and some of the tribes living in the territory of Western Sahara”. However, “the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco (or the Mauritanian entity).”

The relative lack of clarity in the ICJ ruling was immediately exploited to their advantage by Morocco and Mauritania, which promptly annexed the territory. In 1975 Morocco annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara through a strategic mass demonstration labelled as the “Green March” under the pretext of reuniting the territory with the mother state. Massive Moroccan propaganda was organized, and a 350,000-strong march by Moroccans crossed over the border into Western Sahara.

As the Saharawis discovered to their dismay, all this orchestrated demonstration of nationalism was in reality a cover for a parallel military occupation of their land. To their further unhappi-ness they also realised that the nationalistic demonstration was a camouflage for negotiations that were taking place in Madrid at the time over the fate of Western Sahara, the participants being Spain, Morocco and Mauritania.

At the core of this charade lay the fact that the indigenous people of Western Sahara were by design kept out of the negotiations even though they would be the most affected people, and that the UN and the international community remained non-actors in the exercise despite the fact that the latter were officially seized of the question of the Saharawis’ independence.

The agreement reached in Madrid empowered Morocco to annex the northern parts and Mauritania the southern parts, with Spain withdrawing as the colonial power but retaining 35 per cent of its shares in the Fosbucraa Company regarding the deposits in the phosphate mine Bu Craa of (which constituted the core of the regional powers’ interests in the territory). Spain also reportedly retained fishing rights in the territorial waters of Western Sahara, which had originally attracted it to the territory in the 15th century.

Even more ironically, the Madrid agreement was rejected by the international community. Its legality has since been challenged in numerous fora in the international community and also by the United Nations. The latter held in 2002 that “the Madrid Agreement did not transfer sovereignty over the territory nor did it confer upon any of the signatories the status of an administering Power—a status which Spain alone could not have unilaterally transferred. The transfer of administrative authority over the territory to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975 did not affect the international status of Western Sahara as (a) Non-Self-Governing Territory.”

It was in the wake of this fait accompli that a tragedy of a very major magnitude struck the Saharawis. The virtual invasion of their country by Morocco and Mauritania forced the completely defenceless and consequently panicked people to flee, leaving their livestock and properties behind. Thus, while the invaders encountered absolutely no resistance, the Saharawis were turned into refugees in their own country and afterwards in Algeria where their status continues to be the same three-and-a-half decades after.

FOLLOWING Spain’s final departure from its former colony (declared a Spanish province in 1934) after handing it over to the two regional players, began the Saharawis’ freedom movement with the establishment of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) at Bir Lahlou, by the Provisional Saharawi National Council. Madagascar and Burundi were among the first states to recognise the SADR. The SADR’s position was considerably strengthened when Algeria extended its recognition to it. This led to Morocco severing diplomatic relations with Algeria, and a continuing enmity over Western Sahara.

The “Green March”, which had led to the settlement of thousands of Moroccans in Western Sahara, also turned out to be the chief reason for the eventual failure of the United Nations’ prolonged efforts to hold a referendum to decide the future of the territory. Morocco, which initially favoured the plan, has since consistently opposed a referendum under the so-called Baker Formula (authored by US diplomat James Baker) as it fears the outcome would go against its interests. Interestingly, at the initial stages it was the SADR which opposed a referendum as it did not want the settlers to participate in it.

Sporadic attempts have since been made to revive a peace plan aimed at permanently solving the issue. The UN, which had once appeared to have washed its hands of the problem, resumed negotiations in 2008. The US also returned to start a new effort but soon downgraded its interests in favour of the overarching target of combating the Al-Qaeda in Morocco and Algeria.

Typically of the star-crossed fortunes of the Western Sahara problem, Moroccan troops fired at and killed a number of Saharawi protesters near the capital city of Laayoune in November 2010, right on the eve of a resumption of peace talks under the aegis of the UN in New York. That is where the matter rests at present, barring one or two sporadic attempts to reinvent the interests of world leaders in the issue.

Nearly forty years after the issue first raised its head, while the political question of self-determination remains at its core, the prolon-gation of the human rights abuses situation renders the default by the world community to right the wrong an even more indefensible and irresponsible act.

The detachment of the international community from the day-to-day realities of an entire population living for decades under external occupation is well-reflected in the reports of the UN Secretary-General submitted regularly to the Security Council which highlight the pitifully small mercies extracted from Morocco by international pressure and the compulsions of international obligations, while ignoring in effect the human rights situation.

The Western Sahara problem has turned out to be a classic case of international insomnia. The very fact that the series of injustices perpe-trated on the impoverished Saharawis virtually remain unattended to over nearly four decades does not speak well of the conduct of the international community. Voices of dedicated human rights organisations, founded solidly on international law and not on emotions and publicity-mongering, are being raised constantly to explore ways and means of bringing succor to the suffering Saharawis. Till today, however, the calculated apathy of the world community has proved to be largely immune to the necessity of dispensation of justice, for justice has already been delayed by nearly forty years.

Apratim Mukherjee reported on the Polisaric Front movement in Western Sahara for an Indian newspaper in the 1990s. He is an analyst of South and Central Asian Affairs.

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