Saharawis: Now we go to war!

After 36 years in exile in a desert in South Western Algeria the Saharawis have had enough. The UN-led negotiations have not brought a viable solution to the problem of the 165.000 refugees from occupied Western Sahara that fled the advancing Moroccan troops in 1975.

“We have tried to get our land back with peaceful means for over twenty years now,” says twenty-one-year-old Mohammed who lives in the Smara refugee camp. “Twenty years of forlorn negotiations and Moroccan obstruction and delaying tactics. Now we wish to go to war to reclaim our land.”

By Morten Nielsen and Peter Kenworthy, Africa Contact – Denmark

The past couple of months have finally seen a wave of interest and sympathy wash over the democratic movements in North Africa. The populations of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, who have fought for the right to elect their own leaders for decades, have finally been heard by us in the West.

And now that we are finally awakening to the fact that the picture of North Africa and the Middle East that we have been served by our governments and media – a region full of Al Qaida supporters and Muslim fanatics and fundamentalists – has been proved wrong, it is time to look critically at the EU’s and the USA’s closest ally in the region, Morocco.

Although Morocco has illegally occupied Western Sahara for 36 years now, the EU and the USA have not wavered in their support for Morocco. A steady stream of reports might have shown that the occupation of Western Sahara is illegal and that Morocco is responsible for grave human rights violations in the occupied territories of Western Sahara. But this has not stopped the EU and the USA from negotiating and renegotiating trade agreements with Morocco that violate international law.

Negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Saharawi liberation front, which are overseen by the UN and mandated by the UN Security Council, have been ongoing for over twenty years now, since the ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Morocco, but these negotiations have not produced any results that are palatable for the Saharawis.

All neutral observers who follow the negotiations agree that Morocco is the stumbling block, blocking for a solution to the negotiations. The Moroccan monarchy and elite are simply making too much money from its occupation of Western Sahara to allow Western Saharan independence. And the Moroccan king needs a scapegoat to ensure that the Moroccan population directs their anger at their deteriorating situation in Morocco at the “terrorist” Saharawis and not his own corrupt and brutal misrule. The result of the unsuccessful negotiations is that 165.000 people are still living near Tindouf, in the Algerian desert, unable to return home.

We visited the refugee camps in February and May of this year, respectively, and the message that was conveyed to us by the camp residents was very clear: “We don’t want to spend one more day in this desert. We want to return to our homeland, and we will go to war against the Moroccan occupying forces to do so if necessary. We do not want to live in a Moroccan absolute monarchy, and we will fight for the democracy and self-determination that Morocco will not give us.”

A forsaken people

The Saharawis – especially the younger generation – feel abandoned and forsaken by the EU and the USA in particular, and the fact that they are essentially recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara by agreeing to new trade agreements with, and propping up, Morocco. This disillusion with the lack of international intervention is one of the main reasons for them planning to go to war against the Moroccan occupiers.

But Morocco is also a strategic partner of the EU and the USA. The USA sees Morocco as an important ally and partner in the so-called “war against terror” and the EU “needs” Morocco to stop the flow of refugees from North Africa to Europe. So realpolitik ends up undermining all the intentions of democracy and human rights.

The UN has tried to negotiate an agreement between Morocco and the Saharawis for over twenty years now. The problem is that Morocco will not accept the only viable solution according to international law; a referendum on the status of Western Sahara that will probably lead to independence. The demands for a referendum have been reiterated by hundreds of UN resolutions. In contrast, it took only a couple of UN resolutions to make Great Britain and the USA go to war in Iraq.

But a referendum is unlikely to take place while the powerful nations of the world, such as the USA and the EU, are more focused on their own economic growth and security situation than on a couple of hundred thousand Bedouins in the Sahara dessert.

When, for instance, the EU negotiates and renegotiates a fisheries agreement with Morocco that includes, or at least does not specifically exclude, Western Sahara, it is both violating international law and acting against the recommendations of the EU’s own legal experts. For the Saharawis that we spoke to in the refugee camps near Tindouf this is a clear manifestation of the EU’s lack of interest in supporting the Saharawi cause for democracy and human rights. “We don’t count as much as an ample supply of cheap fish in European shops,” as one of the refugees told us.

The exile, the lack of clarification, the plunder of their resources, and the indifference from the world has aggravated the Saharawis for 36 years now.  Most of us would be bound to reconsider continuing down the road of peaceful but fruitless negotiations if we were in their shoes. And many of the younger generation of Saharawis in particular, young people who were born in the camps and have never seen their homeland, wish to break the truce with Morocco and restart a war that nominally ended in 1991. And this is so, even though they know they will have to face the over 100.000 soldiers that man the2700 km long “Berm”, or wall, that Morocco built to keep the Saharawis out of “their” three quarters of Western Sahara, and even though Morocco is supported militarily, financially and strategically by the USA and the EU.

The Saharawis in the occupied territories of Western Sahara have already started a peaceful uprising against the Moroccan occupiers, although they have been met with only violence and torture. In October of last year, the peaceful protest camp of Gdeim Izik that had been built by between 10.000 and 20.000 Saharawis living in the occupied territories to protest against Moroccan occupation, human rights violations and discrimination, was brutally dismantled by the Moroccan army.

And even though the Gdeim Izik “incident” was well reported in the international media, thus giving the Saharawis an unfamiliar exposure to their predicament and cause, it hasn’t meant that the countries that matter have changed their “business as usual” attitude to Western Sahara.

France’s shameful role

Even though many Western countries thus have much to be ashamed about in regard to the protracted nature of the Western Sahara conflict, one nation is particularly culpable: France. The French have more or less taken on the role of protector of the Moroccan King Mohammed VI.

France is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and uses this to veto all and any proposed resolutions that attempt to solve the Western Sahara conflict. One recent example is France vetoing the attempt to enable the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, Minurso, to monitor the human rights situation in occupied Western Sahara – a situation that both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch call “repressive”.

France also supports the trade and fisheries agreements between the EU and Morocco, invests heavily in businesses in Morocco and Western Sahara and sells tons of weapons to Morocco that are used to keep Western Sahara occupied and clamp down on the peaceful protests of the Saharawis.

War is imminent!

So while an army of Moroccan-financed lawyers are lobbying against independence for Western Sahara in the USA and the EU, and countless government-paid propagandists write pro-Moroccan articles in newspapers and on websites, the Saharawis are trying to alert the international community to their situation as best they can – with little resources and few powerful friends.

And as became clear when we spoke to people in the refugee camps, the patience of the Saharawis is wearing thin. So if the USA and the EU, in particular, do not start demanding what is both morally and lawfully right of Morocco – itself a corrupt and suppressive dictatorship – then we might have another war on our hands in Northern Africa that could destabilize the entire region.

Morten Nielsen and Peter Kenworthy are active in the Danish NGO, Africa Contact – an organization that campaigns for a viable solution to the Western Saharan conflict, and supports the democratic forces in the occupied territories and the refugee camps near Tindouf. They visited the camps in May and February 2011, respectively.

Read more:

The case for Western Saharan independence

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