WESTERN SAHARA: Saharawi refugees are forgotten victims of conflict


Kamal Fadel

On August 18, Richard Lugar, chairperson of the US Senate foreign relations committee, and acting as a special envoy of US President George Bush, oversaw the release by the Polisario Front of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara of the last remaining Moroccan prisoners of war.

When Lugar flew to Morocco with the POWs, about 170,000 Saharawi refugees — more than half of Western Sahara's total population — were still in camps in the Algerian desert waiting to return home after 30 years of separation from their families and homeland.

Western Sahara was a Spanish colony between 1884 and 1975. As the Spanish were preparing to withdraw, the two neighbouring countries — Morocco and Mauritania — invaded and occupied the territory, which is rich in phosphates and other mineral resources. Western Sahara also has one of the best fishing grounds in the world.

There are believed to be large oil and gas reserves off the coast of Western Sahara, where companies such as the US Kerr-McGee Corporation are exploring for oil, according to a July 21 report on the CorpWatch website (see <http://www.corpwatch.org>)."

Western Sahara is thus very similar to East Timor, prior to the end of the Indonesian occupation. It is a decolonisation issue that has been on the UN's agenda since 1965. The International Court of Justice ruled in 1975 that neither Morocco nor Mauritania had sovereignty over Western Sahara before the Spanish colonisation and that the Saharawi people were entitled to the democratic right of national self-determination.

The invasion of Western Sahara by Morocco and Mauritania led to a war of resistance by the Saharawi people, organised by the Polisario Front.

Polisario resistance fighters defeated the Mauritanians, whose government signed peace treaty with Polisario in 1979. Morocco then seized the land given up by Mauritania.

In 1991 the Polisario Front and Morocco agreed to a cease-fire as part of a UN settlement plan. For the past 14 years the UN has been involved in finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict through the organisation of a referendum on self-determination.

However, despite numerous reaffirmations of the referendum proposal by the UN Security Council, Morocco continues to prevent the referendum from taking place. The UN mission in Western Sahara has already cost over US$600 million, but there are no encouraging signs of a speedy resolution to this long-lasting conflict.

During 30 years of occupation, the Saharawi people have conducted their struggle for freedom within international norms. They have never used terrorism to attract attention to their plight.

Many see the Saharawis as an example of a secular Muslim nation that celebrates the role of women and which could be a beacon of hope in the Maghreb region.

Unfortunately, some members of the UN Security Council have been very tolerant of the Moroccan attitude. This makes it seem that Morocco's brutality is being rewarded, while the patience and good attitude of the Saharawi people continue to be ignored.

For us Saharawis, it is hard to fathom why our moderate and pragmatic attitude has not attracted a positive response from the influential powers when our aim is to establish a modern state based on democracy and respect of human rights. This is the same objective that wars were supposedly waged to accomplish in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Morocco is trying hard to convince the world community of a solution that would legitimise its illegal occupation of our country. Such a solution will be doomed to fail as it is undemocratic and illegitimate, contrary to the aspirations of the Saharawi people and the verdict of the International Court of Justice. It will also be in contravention of the UN decolonisation process as well as the UN resolutions in support of the right of self-determination for the Saharawi people.

In recent months peaceful demonstrations have been taking place in the occupied areas of Western Sahara to demand respect for human rights and in support of independence for the territory. Morocco's response was to arrest, torture and jail for long terms many of the demonstrators and their leaders.

The rejection by the Saharawis in the occupied zones of Morocco's presence is quite telling. It shows that our people are determined to achieve their legitimate objectives of freedom and independence and that Morocco's policy of the carrot and stick in the hope of winning the hearts and minds of the Saharawis for the past 30 years has failed dramatically.

The UN mission's mandate expires on October 31. This is an opportunity for the major powers in the world to encourage a just and lasting solution to a conflict that has been a source of instability and misery for a long time in an important region of the world.

The resolution of the conflict in Western Sahara is easy if there is a sincere will and determination from the members of the UN Security Council. A just solution to this conflict will be of benefit to the peoples of Western Sahara and Morocco. The Maghreb region will enjoy the stability, peace and progress needed in the current international environment.

[Kamal Fadel is the Polisario representative to Australia.]

From Green Left Weekly, August 31, 2005.
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