Comment: Time for action in Western Sahara
October 25, 2013 Leave a comment
In October United Nations envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, began a diplomatic push to finally blot out one of the darkest stains on the UN’s record.
The visit took in Rabat, Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and the territory controlled by the Polisario Front, which fought a 16-year war against the Moroccans. The goal was to break a decades-long deadlock and move toward finally solving the problem of the UN’s last “non self-governing territory” in Africa.
The occupation by Morocco of most of the territory now known as Western Sahara has lasted 38 years. In 1975 Morocco’s then king, Hassan II, organized an invasion and simultaneous mass civilian demonstration in the former Spanish colony. The population suffered. Tens of thousands fled from their homes to refugee camps across the Algerian border. They still languish there, scratching the best existence they can, reliant on humanitarian aid.
Those Sahrawi who remained found themselves living under harsh Moroccan rule, terrorized by the security forces, and increasingly marginalized by subsidized Moroccan settlement. Today an armed force of between 100,000 and 140,000 troops is maintained for a population of just half a million.
In October 2010, it was in occupied Western Sahara that the first die of the Arab spring was cast. Sahrawi civil rights groups organized the establishment of a tent-city and mass protests just outside the capital Laayoune. The demonstrations were crushed by the state more quickly and efficiently than those of perhaps any other Arab Spring movement.
Human rights abuses, documented by journalists and NGOs, remain rife. When I visited the occupied territory myself last year, I collected evidence of routine repression, assault and even extra-judicial killings, or “disappearances”.
Despite this, the underfunded UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is one of only four in the UN’s history to have no mandate for monitoring human rights abuses.
The UN’s failures in Western Sahara are manifold. First it failed to properly enforce the decolonisation of the territory, then it failed to enforce a World Court decision invalidating the claims of both Morocco and Mauritania to Western Sahara. Finally it has failed for over twenty years to successfully organize a self-determination referendum that was supposed to be held in 1992.
There are many explanations (all unacceptable) for this deadly impasse. The most important is that Morocco’s refusal to allow a just settlement of the issue is repeatedly excused by European powers.
France continues to block diplomatic efforts at the UN that could bring an end to the conflict, including moves to give MINURSO a human rights mandate. Spain, historically the administering power, with obvious responsibility for events in Western Sahara, has largely gone along with this.
British and United States policy has been more varied. The US originally supported King Hassan and bankrolled the early Moroccan military campaignagainst the Polisario. But although their position has mostly been one of support for Morocco, whose GCC membership and counter-terrorism support programmes have afforded it breathing room, the landscape is changing.
It was the US, supported by Britain, that proposed a human rights mandate be added to MINURSO in the organisation’s annual renewal in April of this year.
An extensive campaign against this move by Morocco eventually resulted in Security Council resolution 2099 “stressing the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps”, but dropping the human rights monitor mandate. Although ultimately disappointing, this seemed an encouraging sign. With the US administration open to positive policies on resolving the Western Sahara issue, the minimal action of UN human rights monitoring in the territory seems within reach.
The Western Sahara conflict may be ignored by most of the world most of the time, but it will it not fully go away either. Earlier this month the UN decolonisation committee received 81 requests for the Western Sahara issue to be included on its agenda.
The immediate priority for Ross and the UN should be official human rights monitoring. Britain, Spain, and critically France, should take this chance to publicly and unequivocally express support for MINURSO human rights monitoring. This has gone on long enough.
This article was originally published with Le Monde Diplomatique on October 21st 2013.