Is Peace Possible in the Western Sahara?
In the bleak desert region of Algeria, around 165,000 Saharawi refugees have been living in camps for 34 years, in the desperate hope of an eventual return to their homeland, the Western Sahara. Situated on the Atlantic coast, the Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony, shares borders with Morocco to the north, Mauritania to the south and Algeria to the east. It has immense natural resources including some of the largest phosphate mines in the world, extremely rich fisheries, and possibly crude oil off its coastline, making it an important bargaining tool in international politics.
In 1975 King Hassan II of Morocco sent in a 350,000-strong civilian invasion of the Western Sahara, known as the “Green March”. Shortly before, Spain, under UN pressure to decolonise the territory, had been discussing independence for the Western Sahara with the Saharawi liberation movement, known as the Polisario. However, rather than risk war with Morocco, the Spanish government illegally passed the territory over to Morocco and Mauritania, abandoning its former colony to a grim fate.
By 1979, Mauritania retreated but Morocco continued in its colonial aspirations, pushing back Polisario fighters by constructing a large defensive barrier, known as the “berm” that cuts the Western Sahara in two. This berm consists of 2,700km of defensive walls 3-4 meters high, patrolled by 130,000 Moroccan soldiers, and surrounded by minefields for its entire length. It is the longest military wall in the world, separating the Saharawis who did not escape during the 1975 invasion from those who now live in exile in refugee camps situated in the harsh conditions of the barren Algerian desert. Despite the 1969 UN call for self-determination of the Saharawi people which it has restated in every resolution since, the international community continues to ignore the Saharawi people’s plight and is reluctant to force Morocco to end its unlawful and brutal occupation.
The final round of the peace talks between the Polisario and Morocco held last month in Manhasset, New York, has failed. Whereas the Polisario will accept no less than a self-determination referendum with the option of total independence for its people, King Mohammed VI has declared, “whatever formula for a consensual solution should emerge from the negotiations, Morocco, its king and its people, will never accept anything other than autonomy”.
But the two sides of the Western Sahara conflict are no strangers to diplomatic stalemates. The initial 1991 Settlement Plan which called for the implementation of a self-determination referendum was blocked by Morocco and subsequently abandoned.
The next strategy, masterminded by UN envoy James Baker, envisaged granting the Western Sahara the status of autonomy within the Kingdom of Morocco. Yet this so-called solution was seen as unacceptable to both the Polisario and the UN Security Council and was consequently scrapped.
Baker’s second plan offered a referendum with the option of independence in which Moroccan settlers as well as Saharawis would be entitled to vote. In an unanticipated diplomatic move, the Polisario accepted the plan, surprising considering that Moroccan settlers outnumber ethnic Saharawis by a ratio of more than 2:1. But equally astonishing was Morocco’s rejection of the plan. Perhaps it feared that its own settlers, sick of the unjust, repressive monarchy, would vote in favour of the socialist, democratic Polisario.
Utterly frustrated and faced with yet another failure, Baker resigned. Currently, the situation of neither peace nor war persists for the Saharawis in the refugee camps of Algeria, whilst those in the Occupied Territories continue to endure daily human rights abuses. Is there any hope of a closure to the case of Africa’s last colony? What other tactics exist apart from the seemingly fruitless path of international diplomacy?
The strategy for peace of the Saharawi civilians living under Moroccan occupation has been the instigation of a non-violent intifada. Taking to the streets on an almost daily basis, Saharawis protest with placards against the occupation, hang the Saharawi flag in strategic positions and paint Polisario slogans on the exterior walls of their homes. They film the subsequent punishment beatings carried out by the Moroccan security forces and upload the images on websites such as YouTube in order to transmit the evidence of the abuses to the international community.
Is this strategy a viable route to peace? It certainly has many advantages. Firstly, it de-legitimises Moroccan violence, given that heavy-handed repression of peaceful protest is never easy to justify. Secondly, it adds to the shame of those Western powers that explain their support for Morocco by claiming that the Kingdom is the best hope for “stability” in the North African region. Can a country that practices violent, systematic repression really be a source of stability? Thirdly, the strategy undermines the Moroccan assertion that the territory is under control, which is indicated by the fear shown by the security forces in their approach to Saharawi resistance.
But has the non-violent war had any tangible successes? The charismatic “Saharawi Ghandi” Aminatou Haidar, one of the iconic leaders of the movement whose beaten body has often appeared on solidarity websites as a testament to Moroccan human rights abuses, has recently been released from jail following international grassroots pressure. This is surely a persuasive example of the power that peaceful protest can have. But for any change in the current stalemate, international NGOs and public opinion would have to put a huge amount of pressure on their respective governments. Unfortunately, the general public are still largely uninformed of the dismal fate of the Saharawis. As long as this situation of unawareness persists, the conflict will continue whilst world leaders look on indifferently.