Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Future of Western Sahara

Whats going on with the present Western Sahara? 



Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front failed to make progress in mediated talks on Western Sahara’s status in 2011.  Informal negotiations failed once again, with no future round scheduled. Meanwhile, Sahrawis continued to be denied basic political, civil, and economic rights.

Western Sahara was ruled by Spain for nearly a century until Spanish troops withdrew in 1976, following a bloody guerrilla conflict with the pro-independence Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front). Mauritania and Morocco both claimed the resource-rich region, agreeing to a partition in which Morocco received the northern two-thirds. However, the Polisario Front proclaimed an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and continued its guerrilla campaign. Mauritania renounced its claim in 1979, and Morocco filled the vacuum by annexing the entire territory.
Moroccan and Polisario forces engaged in a low-intensity armed conflict until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991. The agreement called for residents of Western Sahara to vote in a referendum on independence the following year, to be supervised by the newly established UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). However, the vote never took place, with the two sides failing to agree on voter eligibility.
Morocco tried to bolster its annexation by offering financial incentives for Moroccans to move to Western Sahara and for Sahrawis to move to Morocco. Morocco also used more coercive measures, engaging in forced resettlements of Sahrawis and long-term detention and “disappearances” of pro-independence activists. Neighboring Algeria will not accept Moroccan control of the territory and hosts refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, which are home to an estimated 90,000 Sahrawis as well as the SADR government in exile.
In 2004, the Polisario Front accepted a UN Security Council plan that called for up to five years of autonomy followed by a referendum on the territory’s status. However, Morocco rejected the plan, fearing it could lead to independence, and in 2007 offered its own autonomy plan.
 Because the Polisario Front remains committed to an eventual referendum with independence as an option, while Morocco continues to push for autonomy, the two sides have failed to make meaningful progress in a series of negotiations that started in 2007 and continued in 2011. A November 2010 meeting was overshadowed by a confrontation in the Gadaym Izik protest camp outside Western Sahara’s main city, Laayoune, in which Moroccan forces violently dispersed residents who had mobilized within the camp. Around a dozen people were killed and scores were injured in the fighting, although the precise numbers are difficult to verify. The talks were reconvened on July 19–21, 2011, and brokered by the UN special envoy, Christopher Ross. These talks, which also included Algeria and Mauritania, failed as well.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

As the occupying force in Western Sahara, Morocco controls local elections and works to ensure that independence-minded leaders are excluded from both the local political process and the Moroccan Parliament.
Reports of corruption are widespread. Although the territory possesses extensive natural resources, including phosphate, iron ore deposits, hydrocarbon reserves, and fisheries, the local population remains largely impoverished.
The Moroccan constitution provides for freedom of the press, but this is severely limited in Western Sahara, and there is little independent Sahrawi media activity. Moroccan law bars the media and individuals from challenging Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, leading to self-censorship. The authorities expel or detain Sahrawi, Moroccan, and foreign reporters who attempt to conduct first-hand reporting on the issue. The internet and independent satellite broadcasts are largely unavailable due to economic constraints.
Nearly all Sahrawis are Sunni Muslims, as are most Moroccans, and Moroccan authorities generally do not interfere with their freedom of worship. There are no major universities or institutions of higher learning in Western Sahara.
Sahrawis are not permitted to form independent political or nongovernmental organizations, and their freedom of assembly is severely restricted. As in previous years, activists supporting independence and their suspected foreign sympathizers were subject to harassment. In April 2010, activists faced harassment at the Laayoune airport upon their return from the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Tindouf. Sahrawis are technically subject to Moroccan labor laws, but there is little organized labor activity in the territory.
International human rights groups have criticized Morocco’s record in Western Sahara for decades. In the aftermath of the November 2010 clashes outside Laayoune, Amnesty International renewed its call for independent monitoring of human rights violations. Three Sahrawi activists who had been arrested in Morocco in October 2009—Brahim Dahane, Ali Salem Tamek, and Ahmed Naciri—were released from prisons in Salé and Casablanca in April 2011.
In October 2011, Moroccan police prohibited two Spanish members of the European Parliament, Willy Meyer and Jόse Pérez Ventura, from disembarking from an airplane at the Laayoune airport; they were seeking to observe the human rights situation in Western Sahara. Spain lodged a formal protest about the treatment of the men, who reportedly sustained injuries in an altercation on the airplane stairway.
The Polisario Front has also been accused of disregarding human rights. In September 2010, the Polisario Front arrested a Sahrawi dissenter, Mostapha Selma Sidi Mouloud, as he returned to the Tindouf camps after publicly endorsing Morocco’s autonomy plan in Western Sahara. A former police chief, Sidi Mouloud, was held by the Polisario for more than two months before being released in December 2010 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; he now lives in exile in Mauritania and has kept a low profile.
Morocco and the Polisario Front both restrict free movement in potential conflict areas. Morocco has been accused of using force and financial incentives to alter the composition of Western Sahara’s population.
The SADR government routinely signs contracts with firms for the exploration of oil and gas, although these cannot be implemented given the territory’s status, and no credible free market exists within the territory.
Sahrawi women face much of the same cultural and legal discrimination as Moroccan women. The significant reform in 2004 of the Moroccan Mudawwana—a law governing issues including marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody—does not appear to have been applied to Western Sahara. Conditions are generally worse for women living in rural areas, where poverty and illiteracy rates are higher.

Ratings Change: 

Western Sahara’s civil liberties rating declined from 6 to 7 due to the inability of civil society groups to form and operate, as well as serious restrictions on property rights and business activity.

Life under Moroccan rule

The fighting drove much of the indigenous population of Western Sahara into refugee camps in Tindouf in southern Algeria, but some remain as a minority within the territory, west of the 2,600-kilometre separation wall that Morocco built during the war with the Polisario.

The UN peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, has limited jurisdiction: unusually for such missions, the UN Security Council has not given it a mandate to monitor rights abuses. Nor is it sufficiently staffed: the mission has only six police officers and 237 military personnel covering an area larger than Britain. MINURSO staff said they need an additional 10 civilian police just to monitor their own compound.
Media access in Western Sahara is extremely restricted: almost no foreign journalists are given permits to enter, and the occasional groups of journalists who are allowed in have their movement controlled by the state. Accordingly, little is known about the lives of the Sahrawi in the disputed territory.

"Our group is underground," Fatima Tobarra, president of the Sahrawi Observatory for Women and Children, told Al Jazeera. "We tried to make an official organisation, but the authorities refused even to receive our application, so we can have no premises."
Neither the Moroccan police nor the Moroccan government's human rights department responded to requests for comment for this article.

Life expectancy is just 54 years in Western Sahara, tellingly lower than Morocco's 72. The Observatory says discrimination and abuses against the local population are rampant."The police here guard the schools, and intimidate the Sahrawi children, then inside they are discriminated against by the teachers who are almost always Moroccans, so attendance drops," said Tobarra.

"Our children are not even allowed to join the activity groups that the Moroccan children have, so we run groups for them."

Many of the families have had relatives killed or "disappeared". Fatima's own father and uncle were split up as refugees, and neither have been heard from since. Her grandfather and grandmother were both jailed in Agdz prison, and died there, she said.

"We cannot live like this, and we will not," Fatima said. "We want our self-determination so that we can live good lives. The people in other countries, in Tunisia, in Yemen, they won their freedom - and we want that to happen here. It has to happen here."

Repressing resistance

Despite the extensive security apparatus, the Sahrawi have been holding demonstrations against Moroccan rule, and what they see as their second-class citizenship, for years.

This peaked in October 2010, with the establishment of the Gdeim Izik protest camp: a tent city set up by activists south-east of Laayoune. The camp was forcibly dismantled by the Moroccan police, and between 11 and 36 Sahrawi were killed as well as eight members of the Moroccan security forces.

A group called Coordination Gdeim Izik played a key role in the protest camp, and continues to organise regular non-violent demonstrations in Laayoune, Smara, and Dakhla. Most recently, they organised a protest on International Human Rights Day in front of the Moroccan Human Rights Organisation (CCDH) office in Laayoune.

The protest was forcibly broken up, and many - like Salimah, a Sahrawi woman in her late twenties - were beaten. "I was very badly attacked. They smashed my teeth to pieces and I had to get them reconstructed," she said, displaying the artificial replacements that now lie in place of her lower front six teeth. "The police came to the protest out of their uniforms and beat us with clubs."

Another young member, Khalil, said that the security forces have become adept at pre-empting and breaking up protests, routinely using clubs and batons against anyone who attends. "They do not care if you are young, old, man, woman - if you come to the protests they will attack you," he said.

Some demonstrators have lost their lives in the protests. Maryem Dambar says she watched her brother, Said Dambar, be shot in the head by police at a protest near his own house in Laayoune in December 2010.

Maryem says the Moroccan security forces then attacked the house, clubbing her and her mother after she fled inside. The police subsequently denied all responsibility for Said's death, and to this day refuse to admit that the killing happened, or to investigate it.

"All our family wants is justice for Said," Maryem said. "I saw him killed, and cannot understand how the Moroccans can deny that they murdered him. If there were any human rights in Western Sahara, Said's death would not be denied, and his killers would be brought to justice."
The case may not be unique. Human Rights Watch has complained that Moroccoan authorities failed to follow-up on the beating of the group's research assistant in 2010, calling the attack a "case study of impunity for police violence".
"If there is impunity for police who beat up a citizen who works for an international organization in broad daylight, in front of witnesses and despite formal complaints, it's clear how vulnerable ordinary citizens are," Sarah Lee Whitson, a Human Rights Watch spokesperson, said in a March 2012 statement.
'Restricted freedoms'
In April, Amnesty International reported that: "Sahrawis advocating self-determination for the people of Western Sahara remained subject to restrictions on their freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and leading activists continued to face prosecution."

Despite the danger of documenting unrest - anyone caught filming or taking pictures of protests in Western Sahara faces punishment, and usually the destruction of the camera equipment - Coordination Gdeim Izik say they have video evidence of the attacks on their protests.

In one video seen by this reporter, a 55-year-old woman is savagely beaten and kicked to the floor by two riot policemen; in another, uniformed military personnel beat a young girl so severely she had to be hospitalised, according to her friends. A senior member of the group, Sidi Muhammad Ramadiy, pointed to the screen and said: "This is human rights for Morocco."

The group's de facto leader, Lahib Salhi, said: "We live here always under the eyes, and under the clubs of the Moroccans. The world must do what it promised to do when the UN first came: hold the referendum, and give us the chance to live as we wish to live."

Many Sahrawis in fact blame the international community. "The Moroccans make the claim on our land because they can, because they are strong and because they are supported by France, the United States, and Britain," said Salhi. "But they know the claim is false. The Mauritanians once claimed Western Sahara for themselves. Where are they now? How much longer will the world permit this injustice?"



  1. A little long of a post, but overall I think Western Sahara is a very interesting case to look at. Since Western Sahara is currently an occupied territory by Morocco and as you mentioned a resource rich nation that is coveted by other local countries in the region it is interesting to see if any change will come out of the Arab Spring uprising that surround them. Possibly more instability in region could give Western Sahara the push it needs to finally be fully autonomous. Something that I feel could play a major factor in the ability for Western Sahara to receive more autonomy would be the international factors as you brought up towards the end of the post. Morocco has been supported in its claim to Western Sahara by Europe and thus international pressure to allow more independence and liberty has been weak. But, with the changes in Western approach to the MENA region because of the demand for freedom, something to look for going forward would be the changing attitudes of big West super powers in nations claiming territory of another nation without support by that country's general population.

  2. Thank you Kristina, I know it is a little long, but there has been a big exposure in recent news on the topic of Western Sahara. Thank you for your feedback. I will use some of your ideas in my paper. I urge to think though, do you actually believe a world super power will intervene in Western Sahara even if a media outsourced Arab Spring revolution was to arise? I don't believe the resources available are profitable enough for anyone to intervene, thus leading to the demise of the country. its an unfortunate fate, but i guess that's why countries step in at all in any foreign politics... monetary benefit.