By Tyler Sheets
After the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations’ second crowning achievement was Resolution 1514, or the Declaration of the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. Before Resolution 1514 there were only 82 nations in the United Nations. Since the resolution went into effect 111 nations have gotten their independence and 193 members now have a voice in the United Nations. On tours of the U.N. Headquarters, the tour guide presents two maps revealing this contrast proudly, but then with an embarrassed expression notes that one prominent part of Africa was left out of the sovereignty boom. The people of the Western Sahara have fought for their independence since at least 1884. Spaniards were the first colonists; but with a green light from the United States, Morocco invaded as Spain left and has colonized the Western Sahara ever since. This arrangement leaves the Western Sahara the last of the United Nations’ “Non-self-governing territory” on the continent, a euphemism meaning it’s Africa’s last colony.
Western Sahara’s self-determination can be found at the bottom of most international to-do lists. However, the nation poses a number of problems to the area and beyond that warrant attention. Aside from its colonization and the brutality of its occupier—which challenges the very legitimacy of the United Nations—the Western Sahara is fertile ground for terror recruitment. The United States is a likely target given that Morocco, the occupier, relies heavily on U.S. support. In addition to security concerns, the human rights violations in the Western Sahara rival the worst in North Africa for decades, yet have received significantly less attention. Those violations have created one of the most persistent refugee crises worldwide. The type of colonization imposed upon the Saharawi has no place in the modern world and is undeniably illegal.
Colony to Colony
The modern resistance movements of the Saharawi people began before the Moroccan invasion and subsequent occupation. In fact, the Saharawi had been fighting for their independence with the same intensity before the Moroccans even gained independence in 1956. The first modern political organization of the Saharawi resisted Spanish occupation in 1967. The first public activity of this organization was originally known as the Zemla Intifiada, until Spain’s heavy-handed response changed the tone of the peaceful protest so that it is called the Zemla Massacre in most Arab history books. The leader of the event, Sidi-Brahim Basri, was never again seen and likely died in Spanish custody .
In response to the massacre, the Saharawi resistance adopted a more aggressive approach. A new organization was formed of mostly young students in May 1973. Ten days after organizing, the young and poorly armed students won their first battle at a small Spanish military outpost . That organization, Frente Polisario, is currently the most prominent political movement of the Saharawi and the party most would prefer to the current Moroccan administration.
In 1975 Morocco invaded the Western Sahara with a pat on the back from Henry Kissinger. The Saharawi were evicted from their homes, arrested for displays of patriotism and were sprayed with chemicals for not worshipping the king. Large areas were covered in napalm and the panic led many to flee with nothing but their lives . A U.N. investigation of the occupation determined that Frente Polisario was the primary political organization representing the Saharawi people. In response to this decision, the government of Morocco presented its case to the International Court of Justice. Without even hearing the case of the Polisario or any other Saharawi, the court decided that Morocco’s case did not justify its occupation and agreed with the U.N. findings .
The next year Frente Polisario proclaimed an independent Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. Today, some 80 countries and the African Union recognize the republic. However, Frente Polisario only has effective control over about a quarter of the territory it claims . The major cities and most of the economically valuable territories are under Moroccan control. In typical colonial manner, the resources are shipped out of country. Making matters worse, the workers at these ventures are typically Moroccans brought in from the North, leaving the Saharawi without resources or jobs. For example, the Western Sahara Resource Watch noted that in 2010, 95% of the agriculture production was exported, using precious desert water resources and leaving food prices high by leaving such little supply.
The only legal resolution to the conflict would be a provision for the popular referendum on Saharawi independence. The United Nations was able to push a resistant Moroccan government into accepting terms that would lead to such an opportunity in the 1991 Settlement Plan. The plan included a cease-fire between Polisario and the Moroccan government and led to preparations for an eventual vote on Saharawi self-determination. However, when push came to shove in 1997 the United Nations presented census results establishing who would be eligible to participate in the referendum vote and the Moroccan government rejected the census without a reasonable complaint and the entire plan was suspended. James Baker wrote multiple new plans during his term as the United Nation’s Special Envoy to the region, but both plans were rejected by either Morocco or Polisario.
Saharawi independence efforts have been thwarted for three primary reasons, many of which overlap. First, the international community has strung together a series of effective excuses for Morocco’s occupation of the territory. It has been perceived as less offensive that an African country colonizes another African country than if a Western power colonized the same territory. Though this was never publicly used to justify Moroccan behavior towards its neighbor, the repeated use of the term “historical sovereignty” to justify Moroccan occupation despite rejection of this claim in international court implies that it is acceptable for countries with pre-colonial historical and cultural ties to occupy one another.
Furthermore, as European powers left North Africa, much territory that Moroccans perceived as their own was left to Algeria as a result of French border drawings. As a consolation France has repeatedly given tacit approval of the Moroccan invasion of the Western Sahara and has repeatedly resisted Saharawi efforts in international bodies.
The Cold War pushed the Moroccan government into an even deeper relationship with the West. With the exception of the Carter administration’s disapproval of Morocco’s human rights abuses, the United States has been a major supporter of Morocco’s colonial claims and a significant obstacle to Saharawi independence. As noted earlier, documents released in 2006 revealed that King Hassan II of Morocco felt the need to wait for support from Henry Kissinger before invading the Western Sahara.
Arab support has been complicated for many reasons as well, and it too tends to fall on the Moroccan side. Because the refugee camps have been historically established to protect the Saharawi from near genocide from napalm and phosphorous bombs used by the Moroccan military, children and the elderly are the primary occupants; women have historically run the camps while capable men were off fighting. Refugee camps are the center of Saharawi political life and this has placed women in positions that in most of the Arab world were reserved for men. Other aspects of the refugee camps have molded a Saharawi society that doesn’t relate as closely with other Arab republics the way Moroccan society does. The Polisario rather effectively eliminated tribal divisions within the camps by establishing a norm of not mentioning one’s father in conversation. These diversions from historical gender and roles reflect the Marxist undertones of the Polisario that have distanced it from the autocratic states in the Arab League.
The second reason the Saharawi remain under Moroccan rule is the persistent and effective legal campaign by Morocco that blurred typically definitive legal boundaries to justify its claims of sovereignty. Without international support, these legal efforts would almost certainly fail, but legal experts working for the Moroccan government certainly deserve credit (or blame, depending on one’s view) for the occupation. Morocco’s invasion of Western Sahara and persistent presence there fits rather nicely under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. Under this law, diplomatic pressure would have been placed on Morocco to withdraw from Western Sahara, and if that pressure failed U.N. members would be called upon to organized forces to impose restraint on them.
However, clever legal work convinced the United Nations to treat the invasion under Chapter VI titled “Pacific Settlement of Disputes” , which obligates the United Nations merely to encourage negotiation and judicial settlement. In response the Saharawi took the judicial settlement portion seriously and succeeded in pushing more than a hundred resolutions through the United Nations. Moroccan officials, who certainly understand the limitations of the United Natons in implementing anything under Chapter VI, have not complied with a single one. Furthermore, Morocco maintains that sovereignty as classically defined is the authority to exert power over its territory. This clever manipulation could lead to the perception that any interference in Western Sahara is a violation of sovereignty rather than a defense of it. Polisario has countered that sovereignty is only meaningful when it is exerted by the will of the inhabitants of the sovereign territory. The latter definition has gained popularity since the Cold War, but mostly outside of the major international power brokers .
The final obstacle to Saharawi independence is the Polisario’s perceived ineffectiveness, which has been growing and will continue to grow as the conflict drags on without resolution. Similar to the controversies within the Palestinian Liberation Organization that led to the rise of Hamas, Polisario, itself frustrated with the lack of progress and gradually losing all faith in international institutions, has slowly become too bureaucratic and inefficient. Positions within the party are regularly handed out to family members rather than true activists with creative solutions. Many Saharawi have grown ambivalent and even angry toward Polisario, and some have even defected from the organization to find more lucrative work with the Moroccan government, implying that some no longer see a difference between the two.
The lack of effective political organization left the Saharawi to miss the sweeping liberation from dictatorship across North Africa that became the Arab Spring. Two months before the Arab Spring erupted, 20,000 Saharawi established a camp in protest of the Moroccan occupation and human rights violations. A couple weeks into the protest, Moroccan officials entered the camp and arrested the peaceful protesters over several days. Professor Noam Chomsky has stated more than once that this incident was a preview of the Arab Spring . Polisario, despite being the institution most likely to lead a response, did very little, and the Saharawi missed out on the shedding of the dictators.
In conclusion, the Moroccan occupation is the result of having powerful friends, legal manipulation of irrelevant laws and the fatigue of the primary political organization representing the Saharawi. The occupation is thuggery reminiscent of colonial behavior of an era past, behavior much more belligerent than the neo-colonialism often discussed in African political literature. The Saharawi have not since the late 19th century displayed any widespread belief in negotiation without independence, and the conflict will continue until Morocco’s Western Sahara policy finally crosses over onto the right side of history.
Image by United Nations Photo