After a twenty year impasse, it could take a ‘Sahrawi Spring’ for the Western Sahara to finally gain self-determination.
Today, on 30 April, the mandate of MINURSO – the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara – is to be renewed yet again.
The UN body was initially set up in 1991 to facilitate the referendum for self-determination promised to the Sahrawi people living in disputed Western Sahara region occupied by Morocco. The planned referendum of 1992 failed to materialise, however, amidst disputes over which Moroccan settlers would be entitled to vote. Further plans – such as the 1997 Houston Accords, the 2001 Baker I Accords and 2003 Baker II Accords – similarly fell short.
These various plans broke down either due to the refusal of Polisario, the Sahrawi national secessionist group, to countenance any agreement which failed to include the option of Sahrawi independence (as in 2001) or due to the Moroccan leadership’s refusal to even discuss such an outcome (as in 2003).
20 years later therefore, MINURSO is still present in the Western Sahara, a referendum is yet to take place, and diplomatic forces remain locked in a stalemate.
It is worth stressing that Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara – the last colonised territory in Africa – is in violation of international law. As far back as 1963, the Western Sahara was included in a list of territories compiled by the UN which sought self-determination.
The notion of self-determination was already enshrined in the UN Charter and is supported by UN resolution 1514 which stipulates that “all people have the right to self-determination”. This was further supported by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a ruling on 16 October 1975 when it declared that the Western Sahara was not an unoccupied territory (terra nullius) at the time of its colonisation by Spain. The ICJ judgement – oddly requested by the then ruler of Morocco, King Hassan II – declared that Morocco (as well as Mauritania at that time) had no valid claim on the Sahara based on any historic title and that, even if it did, contemporary international law afforded priority to the Sahrawi right to self-determination.
Today, the Sahrawis have been recognised by no fewer than 80 states globally and are also full members of the African Union. Conversely, no country has formally recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
One of the reasons behind Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara is the immense natural wealth found in the region. Western Sahara has some of the world’s largest phosphate reserves, and control of these provides a tremendous income stream for Morocco, together with the revenue generated from the local fishing industry.
This revenue is crucial for Morocco, especially given the large sums the government has expended in tax incentives for Moroccan settlers to move into Western Sahara, as well as the ongoing cost of maintaining an army in the region (some 100,000 soldiers are stationed in Western Sahara, constituting a third of the total Moroccan population living there).
Morocco’s intransigence has only been possible thanks to the complicity of Western states, principally the US and France, and aided by Saudi Arabia’s large financial handouts. French and American involvement in the dispute has been marked from the outset by a distinctly pro-Moroccan stance. This can be explained by the fact that Morocco has long been considered a stable Western ally, one that maintains strong economic ties with the US and the European Union. Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Morocco has also assumed the role of an important stabilising and anti-al-Qaeda force in the Maghreb.
Morocco, together with its French and American allies, has sought to blame Algeria for the prolonged impasse over the Western Sahara conflict. Algiers has been accused of encouraging Western Saharan independence and of attempting to establish a satellite for itself along its border. However, Algeria has consistently insisted that should a fair and free referendum be held, it would support whatever choice the Sahrawis make. Moreover, as commentators have made clear, even if Algeria were to stop supporting Polisario, it is far from certain that the latter would give up its fight for independence. The same probably cannot be said of Morocco: if the US and France were to withdraw support for Morocco, the kingdom would have little option but to accept a referendum on self-determination.
Meanwhile, Spain – the former colonial overlord of Western Sahara – has maintained an ambiguous position with respect to the conflict. It continues to refuse to recognise the Sahrawi people while also contending that they have not yet had the option of expressing their rights freely. This ‘sitting on the fence’ is explained by the fact that Spain is trying to maintain amicable relations with both Morocco and Algeria in order to preserve its fishing interests and enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta with respect to Morocco, and gas supplies from Algeria.
The winds of change
Given Morocco’s stubbornness over the conflict and the absence of any resolution on the horizon, it is no wonder MINURSO’s mandate has to be renewed once again. In fact, any hope for a referendum may now rest on the political convulsions being experienced across North Africa, a region witnessing the emergence of a boisterous civil society demanding freedom and dignity.
The so-called ‘Internet and Facebook generation’ which has succeeded in ousting despotic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt may well begin to press for a solution on Western Sahara. Moroccans, who are constitutionally bound not to challenge the country’s position on Western Sahara, have also quietly begun questioning the legality and high financial cost of the continuing occupation. Voices such as these would surely proliferate under a more democratic Morocco.
Similarly, a growing number of Moroccan settlers in the occupied territory are beginning to consider the idea of independence. But they are all too aware that if Morocco were to ever cede on the idea of Western Sahara’s independence, the tax and other economic privileges that they currently enjoy would come to an abrupt end.
A few years before his death, King Hassan II questioned whether it was in the long-term interest of Morocco to continue to suppress the rights of Sahrawis and thus to perpetuate an eternal fight for independence. Hassan’s concerns could well become prophetic. Given the current political dynamics of the Middle East and North Africa region, Morocco’s current ruler, Mohamed VI, would do well to realise that even the harshest forms of repression can be overcome by a determined population.
The Sahrawi people are profoundly convinced in the justice of their cause and undoubtedly believe that in the end, their position will prevail. The wind of liberty blowing across a Maghreb as well as the protests against the Moroccan occupation in November 2010 in Al-Ayun and other cities in the Western Sahara underline this hope. As the Tunisian poet Abu Al-Qassam Al-Shabbi wrote nearly a century ago warning unfair rulers of their faith, “when people decide to live, it is for the destiny to respond, darkness has to dissipate, and chains to break”.
Abdelkader Abderrahmane is a Senior Researcher in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division (CPRA) at Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.