Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Western Sahara: Africa's last colony?

For over 30 years the lands of the Western Sahara and its people, the Sahrawi, have been in a deadlock of conflict, violence and non-identity. The main actors within this conflict have failed to find a resolution to the problem and still abide by a flawed compromise nearly 20 years old. This has resulted in disaster for all of the countries involved in this land dispute: Algeria still has over 100,000 Sahrawi refugees living on their border, Mauritania suffer from intense trafficking problems and economic problems, Morocco still has the heavy economic burden of supplying 120,000 troops to patrol the Moroccan Wall and the Sahrawi are still displaced and have no land to call their own. The UN has failed to find a compromise to this ongoing land dispute and is still financially burdened by the problem. Clearly existing efforts to define, determine and distribute the lands of the Western Sahara have been unsuccessful, insufficient and ineffective; will there ever be a solution and who is responsible for finding it?

Independence and Conflict

Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony was granted independence in 1975 with disastrous results.
As soon as the Spanish left, the land was plunged into conflict as Moroccan and Mauritanian armies invaded Western Sahara to claim the land as their own. Mauritania, however, withdrew its forces within 3 years and subsequently declared their recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Morocco, on the other hand, pursued and battled the guerrilla resistance of the Sahrawi people; ultimately winning with the construction of the Moroccan wall (or ‘Wall of Shame’ to the native Sahrawi people) which stretched all the way across Western Sahara. This wall effectively took all of the useful Western Saharan land and left the Sahrawi people with a ‘free zone’: simply a mass of uninhabitable desert. Morocco also surrounded the wall with millions of land mines, making the wall the most heavily land mined region on earth and rendering it not only inhabitable but highly dangerous.

The Sahrawi Perspective
The Sahwari now reside mostly in the town of Tindouf in Algeria and there are over 100,000 refugees living in camps there, as well as it being the main Polisario army base. The Polisario Front is a Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement working for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco. They claim Western Sahara is their native home and that they should have the right to self determination under the UN Resolution 1514 (XV) which states the’ right of colonised peoples to independence’. In 1975, the UN enforced this resolution but this was ignored and deemed to be invalid by Morocco. A solution was then proposed in which a referendum would be put to the Sahrawi people with the cooperation of Morocco where they would choose whether or not they wanted to be Moroccan or an independent nation. Morocco, however, negated their support for this; ending all long term prospects for a solution. Forty years on the Sahrawi people are still waiting for the right to self determination, with no sight of their circumstances changing.

The Moroccan Perspective
Morocco claims the western conception of law regarding the region ignores the affected terrirories’ historical and judical tradition: its view is that because Morocco has existed for centuries, the source of its sovereignty as well as the path of its borders do not follow from a Western conception of a nation-state. Instead, the historical tie with the Cherifian sultan who is also, according to the doctrine of the Moroccan monarchy, “the Commander of the faithful” constitutes the foundation of its sovereignty.They rejected the referendum proposed by the UN in 1975 for this reason and also as it meant there is a high possibility they will lose their land in Western
This ongoing battle to keep the Western Sahara, however, is not easy or sustainable for Morocco. The cost of building the wall and supplying the wall with its 120,000 troops (a figure higher than the Sahrawi population) has taken its toll on the country economically, with key areas such as health, education and domestic security suffering.
Furthermore, Morocco’s actions have also had significant political costs such as their forced exit of the African Union and relations with other African states as Morocco is seen within Africa as an occupying power, in particular with neighbouring Algeria and other Maghreb countries as their economic agreements are now suspended due to this conflict with an estimated $3Billion loss over the 5 countries per year.

The International Perspective
The UN’s involvement with the Western Sahara conflict began with the establishment of the ‘United Nations Mission for the Referendum of Western Sahara’ (MINURSO) which was put into place to create a referendum for the Sahrawi people, this, however, was unsuccessful. Therefore, the UN’s primary involvement with the conflict now is that of providing aid and managing the refugee situation, rather than attempts to find a political solution. The UN spends an average of $45Million a year on these efforts, not including the cost of the Security Council activity, the different special envoys of the UN Secretary- General, and international aid for the Tindouf camp refugees.

The Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS) are an advisory body to the Moroccan Governement and have been in place since 1970. Recent developements have been very promising with Morrocco proposing autonomy for the southern provinces in western Sahara this is supported by the Polisario and could be the break through they have been looking for. This however does have complications as Algeria do not support this and have now closed Moroccan/Algerian borders this poses problems for the people in the Tindouf camps as they cannot pass through the Moroccan border, this emphasises increasing fears from the international community on human rights abuses within the camps.

This conflict is now over 30 years old and with no current or foreseeable solution; international bodies such as the UN should be finding new ways of addressing the stalemate between the two countries as this conflict puts strain on all who live in and around it. What should the UN be doing? Should other bodies and nations get more involved? And is there a realistic solution to the end of this bitter conflict?

By Chloe Smith