Africa

Sahrawis’ struggle

Print edition : March 31, 2017

A Sahrawi woman near an outlook post of Moroccan soldiers at the wall separating Morocco from Western Sahara, controlled by the Polisario Front. Photo: AFP/Ryad Kramdi

Brahim Ghali, President of the SADR. Photo: AFP/Ryad Kramdi

Morocco's King Mohammed VI (left) with Ban Ki-moon, the then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the U.N. Climate Conference in Marrakech, Morocco, on November 15, 2016. Photo: AP/Mosa'ab Elshamy

Morocco violates the 26-year-old ceasefire agreement with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, fuelling tension in Western Sahara.

The war between the Polisario Front, which represents the government of Western Sahara, and Morocco, which ended in 1991, is threatening to erupt again. The Moroccan government occupied a major chunk of territory in Western Sahara after the hasty withdrawal of the Spanish colonial power in 1974. Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara was rejected by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1975.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), representing the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara, declared independence in 1976, and after 15 years of war, the Moroccan government and the SADR signed a ceasefire agreement in 1991 on the condition that a referendum on independence would be held in Western Sahara the following year. But Morocco refused to honour its commitment to the international community to hold a United Nations-supervised referendum. An uneasy peace existed along the informal border, which is more than 2,500 kilometres long. Morocco built a wall to fence off the territory it had seized from the Sahrawis. Two-thirds of Western Sahara is now under Moroccan occupation. It is also the most productive part as it contains huge phosphate and other mineral deposits. Much of the fish exported by Morocco is harvested along Western Sahara’s Atlantic coastline. A significant percentage of the Sahrawi people have been driven out of their homes because of the war and have been living as refugees. As many as 165,000 Sahrawis live in crowded refugee camps in miserable conditions. Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last year that Morocco was guilty of illegal “occupation” of the territory. Most Africans feel that the decolonisation process in their continent will be complete only after Western Sahara gets complete independence. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki has said that the matter is “of great shame and regret for the continent”.

The SADR has been a full-fledged member of the African Union (A.U.) since 1983. South Africa and Nigeria are among the leading African regional powers that recognise the SADR. The A.U. sent a high-profile delegation to Tindouf, an Algerian border town where the majority of the Sahrawi refugees reside, in 2016 to mark the 40th anniversary of the SADR’s declaration of independence.

For more than two and a half decades, the U.N.-supervised ceasefire was generally observed by both the sides. But in August last year, the Moroccan army violated it by entering an area known as Guerguerat, situated 5 km from the Atlantic Ocean. It is a buffer zone close to Nouadibhou, a thriving Mauritanian port town and a hub for smuggled merchandise. Mauritania had given up its claim on Western Sahara and recognised the government of Western Sahara. In response to the open breach of the ceasefire agreement, the Polisario Front sent in its troops to the area. The Polisario Front accused Morocco of breaking the ceasefire agreement by trying to build a road in the buffer zone that divides the two sides.

The forces of the two countries were involved in a tense stand-off for months. U.N. peacekeepers had to be stationed between them to prevent a confrontation. In the last week of February, Morocco announced that it was withdrawing its troops from Guerguerat. The move came after a phone call between the new U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Gutteres, and King Mohammed of Morrocco. The Moroccan Foreign Ministry said that the King had ordered “a unilateral withdrawal from the zone” at the request of the U.N. Secretary-General. The U.N. was of the view that Morocco had violated the 1991 ceasfire agreement by sending armed personnel into the buffer zone without alerting the peacekeepers stationed there.

Before the incursion, the Moroccan government had expelled more than 70 members of the U.N.’s observers mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO. It was angry with the observations that the then U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, had made last year about the prevailing situation in Western Sahara and the stonewalling tactics of the occupying power on the referendum issue. Ban Ki-moon had gone to the extent of describing the plight of the Sahrawis “as one of the forgotten humanitarian tragedies of our times”. In retaliation, the Moroccan government said that it would withhold its $3 million contribution to the MINURSO operations. According to reports, Morocco had tried to block Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Western Sahara in January 2016 by denying landing permission to the plane that he was flying in. The Moroccan King refused to give him an appointment, but that did not stop Ban Ki-moon from meeting with the leadership of the Polisario Front and visiting its capital in exile, Bir Lahlou.

Most of the 70 U.N. observers were admitted back into the region after the U.N. said that Ban Ki-moon’s statement was a “personal” viewpoint and that the U.N. remained impartial on the Western Sahara issue. “His use of the word was not planned, nor was it deliberate. It was a spontaneous, personal reaction. We regret the misunderstandings and consequences that this personal expression of solicitude provoked,” the U.N. spokesperson said. France, a veto-wielding U.N. member, and the United States have been strong and consistent backers of Morocco, their regional ally. These two countries have helped Morocco sidestep the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)-mandated “Peace Plan for the Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara”. James Baker, a former U.S. Secretary of State, was the man responsible for drafting the plan. He was the personal envoy of the U.N. Secretary-General of the time, Kofi Annan, to Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004. Baker quit in frustration as he did not get any backing even from the U.S. State Department.

France and the U.S. are now openly supporting Morocco’s proposal to give the Sahrawis “autonomy” and not independence. Interestingly, both these countries have also not recognised Morocco’s claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara. Only a few countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, and members of the Arab League have fully backed Morocco’s position on the issue. The Baker Plan was the last serious effort made by the U.N. to resolve the conflict. The Sahrawis, unfortunately, do not have a strong backer in the UNSC. The craven apology that the U.N. had to issue for the matter-of-fact statement issued by Ban Ki-moon is a reflection of this reality.

The Sahrawi cause, however, got a boost when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in December 2016 that a trade pact the European Union had signed with Morocco would not be binding for products imported from occupied Western Sahara, dealing a serious blow to Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara. In its judgment, the court, for the first time, recognised “the distinct and separate status guaranteed to the territory of Western Sahara under the Charter of the United Nations”. In retaliation, Morocco announced that it was suspending contacts with E.U. institutions. Morocco had also banned IKEA, the large Swedish multinational, after the Swedish parliament voted in 2011 in favour of recognising the SADR. Stephen Zunes, a professor at San Francisco University and the author of a book on the Western Sahara issue, said that the ECJ’s ruling confirmed the long-standing international consensus on Western Sahara’s legal status. “As with the E.U.’s decision in 2015 that products from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank could no longer be labelled as Made in Israel, products from the occupied Western Sahara can no longer be labelled as Made in Morocco,” he said.

Morocco’s obduracy, coupled with its military muscle-flexing, is making the Polisario Front reconsider its options. The new President of the SADR, Brahim Ghali, while stressing the need for a peaceful settlement, said that the Sahrawis were also willing to fight for their freedom. Ghali took over the presidency after the death of Mohamed Abdelaziz, who had led the Polisario since its formation, in May last year. Ghali is also a founder-member of the Polisario Front. At his swearing-in ceremony, attended by many African leaders, he said that the door to a peaceful, negotiated settlement was open but warned that the “Moroccan kingdom will bear all consequences when closing it, because the Sahrawi people will relentlessly cling to defending their rights by all means”. He also emphasised that MINURSO should not be deployed just to maintain peace. “MINURSO, as a symbol of the world’s commitment to the decolonisation of Western Sahara, should conduct its full mandate, namely, to organise a referendum for the Sahrawi people to decide their fate,” he said.

Closer to war

In October 2016, the Polisario Front accused France of blocking UNSC action on Western Sahara and requested the other permanent members to play a more proactive role in resolving the conflict. The Polisario Front’s Foreign Minister, Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, has warned that the movement was now closer to war than to peace. He said that the holding of a referendum was the only way to complete the decolonisation process. Meanwhile, Morocco, in a diplomatic manoeuvre, successfully sought readmission to the A.U. in January this year. The kingdom had walked out in a huff after the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the A.U.’s predecessor, admitted the SADR as a full member 33 years ago. Morocco was admitted back into the pan-African organisation despite opposition from regional heavyweights such as South Africa and Nigeria. Egypt and Senegal were the main backers of Morocco.

The Moroccan King had extensively toured the continent to garner support for his country’s re-entry into the A.U. The SADR’s Foreign Minister said that with both Western Sahara and Morocco now under the same roof, it would be easier to pressure the kingdom to fulfil its obligation to hold a referendum. He said that other African leaders would now start questioning Morocco’s reluctance to hold a referendum. Morocco will also have to adhere to the A.U.’s charter, which states that the borders of member states are “inviolable”. The A.U. had appointed former President of Mozambique Joachim Chissano as special envoy for Western Sahara. Chissano requested the UNSC to set a date for the holding of the referendum in Western Sahara and include a mandate to protect human rights for its peacekeeping mission. Chissano also asked the UNSC to denounce the illegal exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources by the occupying power, Morocco.

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