Western Sahara is recognised by the United Nations as the last non-self-governing territory in Africa. Between 1973 and 1991 it was at war, as the pro-independence Polisario Front fought first against colonial rulers Spain, and after 1975, against Morocco, which invaded with Spanish encouragement.
In 1991, a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire was supposed to bring peace, based on a referendum on independence. However, the UN-promised referendum has never been held. Overt support from France, and more tacit support from the US, has enabled Morocco to have it indefinitely postponed.
UN rhetoric continues to assume an ongoing peace process that recognises self-determination. However, for the Saharawi people, the agreement has not meant peace, despite an absence of war.
Since the 1980s, Western Sahara has been divided by a fortified wall built by Morocco to keep Polisario forces out. This 2500 kilometre barrier is guarded by 100,000 Moroccan soldiers and bordered by between 5-7 million land mines. This makes it the longest continuous minefield in the world.
Neither peace nor war
Since 1991, a UN peacekeeping force, ironically named the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), has helped keep the Moroccan and Polisario forces separated along this boundary.
Inside the wall, Moroccan forces occupy about two thirds of Western Sahara. This includes all urban areas, phosphate-rich areas in the north and the coastal region with access to rich marine fisheries and potential offshore oil and gas. Outside the wall, is only desert.
Protected by the wall and by MINURSO, the Moroccan state is using the protracted peace process to change the “facts on the ground” before any act of self-determination. In this way, it is seeking extinguish the Saharawi nation.
More than half the Saharawi population were driven out in 1975 by Moroccan and Mauretanian forces, backed by French air power. They and their descendants ― about 165,000 people ― still live in “temporary” refugee camps on the Algerian border.
In the occupied zone there has been large-scale state-organised transmigration of Moroccan settlers. Economic and educational opportunities are denied to the Saharawi population while the state heavily subsidises the living standards of settlers. The Saharawi population is now outnumbered two to one by Moroccan settlers inside the wall.
President of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and Secretary General of the Polisario Front Mohamed Abdelaziz has described the occupied Saharawi territories inside the wall as a prison, “despite the presence of the UN flag,” UPESonline.info reported in September last year.
Morocco is an absolute monarchy with a poor record on human rights towards its own nationals. Repression of the Saharawi population in the occupied zone is extreme. Expression of pro-independence sentiment or displaying the national flag is illegal.
Human rights abuses
Human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented abuses of human rights. These include arbitrary arrest, torture and extra-judicial killings in custody directed at pro-independence activists, journalists and Saharawi people struggling for social and economic rights.
Representatives of international NGOs, UN agencies and parliamentary delegations are frequently denied access to or deported from Western Sahara by Moroccan authorities.
MINURSO, meanwhile, does not have a mandate to even monitor or document human rights abuses. “It is the only modern UN peacekeeping operation without a human rights component,” an Amnesty International statement said in April last year.
The SADR, which was established by Polisario in 1976, is recognised by the African Union, most African states and some states in Latin America and Asia.
France is the most prominent Western country to officially support Moroccan sovereignty. France militarily intervened against Polisario during the 1975-1978 war between Mauritania and Western Sahara, and has been Morocco's most consistent backer.
French interests in the region include oil and gas exploration and fisheries. European Union nations are divided over recognition of Moroccan claims to Western Sahara. However, France has driven EU policy, in particular the series of legally dubious agreements with Morocco that allow EU fishing fleets access to Saharawi fisheries.
The US has no official position on Western Sahara, despite Morocco being an important regional ally and market for US arms. Unofficially, the US backs its ally. The stated aim of US diplomacy is to advance the UN peace plan for a referendum-based settlement.
However, a leaked confidential diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Morocco, dated March 2, 2006, said: “[A]n independent state in the Western Sahara was not conceivable to the US … primarily because such a state was not likely to be viable.
“A mutually agreed solution … in which Saharawis can realize self-determination in the context of Moroccan sovereignty, was the preferred solution. The US believed this was attainable.”
US interests in Western Sahara are partly economic. US companies are actually more involved in offshore hydrocarbon exploration than French companies.
Morocco is seen as a stable ally in the “war on terror”, the official framework of US policy in North Africa and the Middle East. This is despite a lack of separation between the religious establishment and the state and Morocco's urban slums providing many recruits for Islamist terror networks.
The leaked diplomatic cable showed the US gives serious consideration to Moroccan propaganda claims that the Polisario-run refugee camps on the Algerian border are breeding grounds for religious extremism and criminality ― and that an independent Western Sahara would destabilise the region.
In fact, the camps have remained largely free from criminal gangs and religious extremism. This is remarkable considering their population is displaced, young and mostly unemployed.
The camps are impoverished: food and water have to be brought in from outside but the UN agencies that provide it calculate the amount on the basis of the number of refugees who arrived in the camps, not taking natural population growth into account.
Families are often divided because the only economic opportunities are as guest workers overseas, mostly in Spain.
However, the left-wing Polisario Front has instituted a participatory and egalitarian form of governance that has created a high degree of social cohesion and lack of alienation.
Cuba has been one of the most consistent supporters of Saharawi sovereignty and has helped provide health care and education in the camps.
The administration of the camps is secular but without restriction on religious worship.
The July 16, 2013 Guardian Weekly reported that women were prominent in Polisario's armed forces and in civil society. Polisario is committed to gender equality and a combination of education and legislation has been used to combat oppression within the family. By contrast, under Moroccan law, husbands are allowed to rape and beat their wives.
Moroccan propaganda emphasises Polisario's leftist ideology and the SADR's long-standing relationship with Cuba, reflecting that US policy toward Western Sahara was formed in context of the Cold War.
The September 20, 2005 Washington Times uncritically reported a recurring Moroccan claim that Saharawi children and youth were deported to Cuba where they are “indoctrinated by the Cuban authorities in Marxist ideology and a healthy dose of anti-Americanism”.
The basis of these allegations is the thousands of Saharawi students who have received tertiary education in Cuba.
After the December 17 announcement that the US and Cuba were working to normalise relations, Saharawi leaders have expressed the hope that this could lead to a change in the US stance on Western Sahara, UPESonline.info reported on January 4.
“We woke up very happy with the historical announcement of President Obama establishing new relations with Cuba. We hope that Mr. Obama will take another historic position and enforce international law on the Western Sahara. We are tired of waiting,” governor of Smara refugee camp Adda Ibrahim said.
“What President Obama did with Cuba gives us hope that there will be a clear vision for the Western Sahara,” Khadija Hamdi, Minister of Culture for the SADR said.
“The US having better relations with Cuba is in the interest of the entire world … The time must come for the US to realise it is in its interest to put an end to this impasse and put the UN referendum in place,” Brahim Mojtar, SADR’s Minister of Cooperation, said.