Western Sahara: The East Timor of north Africa

April 5, 2000


WESTERN SAHARA: The East Timor of north Africa

Western Sahara: The East Timor of north Africa

Western Sahara is on north-west Africa's Atlantic coast, bordered by Morocco in the north, Algeria in the north-east and Mauritania in the south and south-east.

Western Sahara was a Spanish colony for almost 100 years, until 1975. In 1963, Western Sahara was included in the United Nations' list of non self-governing territories. In October 1964, the UN Decolonisation Committee adopted its first resolution on Western Sahara, urging Spain to start the process of decolonising the territory. The UN General Assembly issued a similar resolution on December 16, 1965.

However, Western Sahara remained a Spanish colony until Madrid signed a secret agreement with Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. It handed the territory over to these two countries, whose armies invaded Western Sahara in the same year. This agreement was never recognised or ratified under international law.

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution deploring the invasion and called on Morocco to withdraw, but the resolution was never enforced. The invasion provoked a prolonged war causing great suffering to the indigenous Saharawi people who have since been denied their basic human rights.

In 1979, Mauritania abandoned its territorial claim over Western Sahara and signed a peace treaty with the Polisario Front, the organisation leading the fight of the Saharawi people for Western Sahara's independence. However, Morocco maintained administrative control and claimed sovereignty over most of the country.

Today 76 counties recognise the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), proclaimed in 1976, as the legitimate title for the Western Sahara. The SADR was admitted to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) as a full member in 1984.

Peace plan

In August 1988, as a result of war-weariness and international pressure, Morocco agreed to a UN-OAU peace plan. Central to the plan was the holding of a referendum to allow the Saharawi people to exercise their right to self-determination. A cease-fire was declared in 1991 and a UN mission (MINURSO) was deployed to prepare the referendum. The referendum should have taken place in January 1992.

However, the peace process was stalled due to Morocco's refusal to reach agreement on who should be allowed to vote and who should be excluded. Morocco submitted a list of 120,000 names which it claimed should be added to the voter list based on the 1974 census conducted by Spain. The 1974 census counted some 70,000 Saharawis.

Kofi Annan, who became UN secretary-general in 1997, appointed former US secretary of state James Baker as his special envoy for Western Sahara. Baker's mediation efforts made progress.

On January 17, the UN published the results of the five-year process to identify those eligible to vote in the referendum: 86,386 were deemed eligible to vote. The referendum was scheduled for July.

Unfortunately, the referendum has now been delayed indefinitely because Morocco is again insisting that all those who were rejected as legitimate voters be allowed to appeal. Morocco has handed the UN a list of 135,000 people, the majority of whom live in Morocco and have no new evidence to show why they should be allowed to vote. This could mean a delay of many years before the referendum can be held. It is also a flagrant violation of the agreements signed by Morocco.

The latest report from the office of the UN secretary-general, on February 17, contained a "sobering assessment" of the peace plan. It doubted that there would be "a smooth and consensual implementation of the settlement plan and other agreements". Annan's assessment is that the "timetable envisaged is no longer valid and the date for the referendum can still not be set with certainty".

Annan proposed to the Security Council that UN envoy Baker initiate a new round of mediation between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Baker has three months to complete his mission. The council approved this initiative on February 29 and has asked the UN secretary-general to provide an assessment of the situation before May 31.

MINURSO has spent nine years and more than US$437 million without achieving its mission. The human cost to the Saharawi people, suffering in refugee camps and facing human rights abuses by the Moroccan occupiers, is far greater.

Since 1991, Morocco has benefited from maintaining the status quo. It has absolute control over the majority of the territory and its valuable mineral resources. Any kind of protest from the Saharawis in the occupied areas is brutally suppressed.


In March, peaceful demonstrations in the cities of El Ayoun and Smara were brutally suppressed. Hundreds of people were injured. Others were imprisoned and tortured. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International confirm that there are hundreds of Saharawis who are unaccounted for during the last 25 years.

The Saharawi people are disappointed and annoyed by the endless delays in conducting the referendum. Each time the UN makes progress, Morocco puts up new obstructions. The UN has not condemned Morocco's behaviour, and MINURSO does not have the mandate to enforce the implementation of the peace plan.

If the UN fails to organise the referendum, the alternative will be a return to war. This time the international community must hold Morocco responsible for not honouring its obligations. The UN will be under extreme pressure to impose sanctions on Morocco and denounce its illegal occupation of Western Sahara. Those responsible for atrocities in occupied Western Sahara, who have killed and disappeared innocent Saharawis, will have to be brought to justice. The UN will also be pressed to admit the Saharawi republic to its ranks.

It is vital that the international community prevent a UN failure in Western Sahara and a return to war. Sadly, the international community has so far been long on words and short on action. In 1975, the world watched our country be stolen and the culprits were allowed to get away with it.

Today, the same culprits have been given a chance to redeem themselves but are still behaving very badly. It remains the moral and legal duty of the UN to find a just and lasting solution to the conflict in Western Sahara. A strong commitment is needed to end the Saharawis' plight and prevent the eruption of further hostilities.

The case of Western Sahara is similar to East Timor. The Saharawis have suffered a great deal and their patience has been exhausted. The Australian public played a vital role in helping the East Timorese regain their independence. The Saharawis look with great expectations to similar assistance to end 25 years of brutal occupation of their homeland.

[The author is the Australian representative of the Polisario Front. The Australia-Western Sahara Association is an organisation that seeks justice for the Saharawi people by raising awareness of their plight and Saharawi refugees. E-mail <awsa@ihug.com.au>, visit <http://www.awsa-westernsahara.org> or write to AWSA, PO Box 846, Rozelle, NSW 2039. For information on Western Sahara visit <http://www.arso.org>.]


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