Comment: The EU is supporting a brutal military occupation in Western Sahara

For 38 years the occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco has been largely ignored by the rest of the world. The reasons for this aren’t profound. It’s sparsely populated, difficult to get to, and not particularly strategically important. It is also one of the greatest moral failures in the international community’s modern history.

In 1975, in violation of a World Court judgement, Morocco invaded the former Spanish colony and effectively annexed it. The people who lived in the territory, the Sahrawi, fled in their thousands as their villages were burned and livestock slaughtered.

Tens of thousands were driven into refugee camps across the border with Algeria where they remain to this day, surviving as best they can on pitiful levels of humanitarian aid. Those who stayed in their homes face severe repression in a police state which maintains an armed force over 100,000 strong for a population of just 500,000.

The story of Western Sahara is one riddled with injustice and cruelty, but its latest chapter is particularly shameful. On Tuesday, International Human Rights Day, the European Parliament voted to approve an agreement that not only provides moral cover for the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, it provides material support for it.

The EU agreement grants access to Moroccan waters for European fishing companies, the majority of them Spanish, in return for payments of around $55m. It also provides access, in direct contravention of a UN legal counsel statement from 2002, to Western Sahara’s waters.

The Sahrawi have not been consulted about this and do not consent to it. Both representatives in the refugee camps and activists in the occupied territory have publicly denounced the EU agreement, which they claim is an attack on their right to self-determination, and acts to support the occupation.

It isn’t possible to counter this argument, because it happens to be correct, so Morocco has resorted instead to more force. In Western Sahara’s capital Laayoune, protests against the agreement – again, held on International Human Rights Day – were met with a brutal police and army response which has been caught on video.

This is typical. Any Sahrawi who dare to speak out at all in the territory, let alone about lucrative international contracts, are subjected to a vicious campaign of repression by Moroccan security forces.

When I was last in the occupied territory (undercover, as access is very restricted) a young woman, no older then 30, showed me a set of prosthetic teeth she now wears as a result of what happened  on last year’s International Human Rights Day. Her name was Salimah, and she had been beaten so badly by Moroccan security forces that all six of her lower front teeth were smashed in.

It was in Western Sahara in October 2010 that the Arab Spring revolts began, and where they were most effectively crushed by state power. European leaders have repeatedly claimed to support  democratic Arab Spring movements and the spirit of freedom and justice they were built on.

Should the EU proceed in supporting the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara in this manner, it will be difficult to conclude that European rhetoric about democracy, freedom, and human rights amounts to anything other than neat hypocrisy.


This article was originally published with The Independent on December 13th 2013.

Caught on camera: Sudan’s war on its own population


Fires rage and craters litter the Sudanese town of Abu Zabad after a Sudanese Armed Forces raid aimed at “eradicating” rebel groups in West Kordofan state.

The raid, which included extensive aerial bombardment of the town, appears to have taken place in response to the rebel seizure of Abu Zabad on November 17, and has been captured by satellite images.

Analysis of the open-source satellite intelligence reveals evidence of government troop movements consistent with an expanding offensive against rebel groups such as the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North.

Images show Sudanese Armed Forces and military equipment – including hundreds of armoured trucks and Heavy-Lift Transporters – massing at nearby bases between late October and mid-November before the November 17 attack. At El Obeid air base, four Russian Mi-24 helicopters, three Nanchang Q-5 bombers, two Mig-29 fighter-bombers, two Antonov aircraft, one Mi-17 transport helicopter, and one Shaanxi Y-8 transport are seen organising before images show evidence of aerial bombardment around the town.

Abu Zabad is situated along a rail supply line and has been the site of recent conflict between the rebels and army, causing widespread civilian suffering.

The images were collected by the Satellite Sentinel Project, and show bases in the town of Dilling housing an array of artillery units, including howitzer cannons, Chinese type-59 130mm field guns, and tanks. The Satellite Sentinel Project monitors the human security situation in Sudan’s borderlands and is primarily funded by Not On Our Watch, a charity campaigning for action against mass atrocities.

Renewed offensive

Sudan’s Defence Minister Abdel-Rahim Mohamed Hussein announced the launch of military operations in the region on November 11. “We will not stop until we crush the rebels,” said Hussein, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes allegedly committed in Darfur.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North and the Justice and Equality Movement have been locked in a bloody conflict with the central Sudanese government surrounding the disputed Abyei region since 2010. Hostilities intensified after the division of Sudan and South Sudan, when the groups re-emphasised claims that the Khartoum government is highly repressive and discriminatory towards those in Sudan’s peripheral states.

The conflict also has roots in the 2003 Darfur war, in which an estimated 300,000 people are believed to have been killed. Khartoum has banned the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North and Justice and Equality Movement for advocating the overthrow of the current regime. The government’s campaign against rebels in Kordofan is part of President Omar al-Bashir’s promise to “eradicate rebel groups” by 2015.

In an October report the Satellite Sentinel Project, which tracks the Sudanese government’s armed forces, began to document increased military activity at state facilities in El Obeid and Kadugli, and warned there was a high risk of a renewed offensive. “The build-up of aerial assets across Sudan, particularly in El Obeid, Dilling and the surrounding environs, signals a major offensive,” the project said.

On November 17, fighters with the Sudan Revolutionary Front – a group aligned with the Justice and Equality Movement – stormed Abu Zabad. The rebel group seized positions held by Sudan’s security forces and held them for several hours.

During the latest push the Sudanese Armed Forces have mobilised almost 5,000 troops and 365 vehicles, including armoured vehicles, a spokesperson from the Satellite Sentinel Project told Al Jazeera. The organisation now says more large-scale attacks may be looming.

“When we’ve seen this kind of rhetoric and these movements in the past, it was right before major atrocities and war crimes which were basically indiscriminate towards civilians and rebels,” said Akshaya Kumar, Sudan lead at the Enough Project, an anti-genocide campaigning group that works with the Satellite Sentinel Project. “The rebels had been in Abu Zabad, but there are serious effects on civilians from this kind of disproportionate action. It’s a style of repression not congruent with the rules of war as I understand them.”

Fighting between the government and rebel groups continues. On Wednesday, army colonel Alswarmy Khalid Saad confirmed to Africa Reviewthat their troops had clashed with Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Northforces in South Kordofan. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Northhas been accused by the army of attacking Kadugli, the regional capital. Local reports claim the joint Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North rebel forces launched a counter-attack against government forces on Thursday near the Abu Zabad area.

Meanwhile, during the past year, Sudan has been building up its military capabilities – especially its air power – with contracts emerging for new helicopters and fighters. The air-power build-up is also visible in Satellite Sentinel Project reports, which show an Ilyushin Il-76 airlifter at El Obeid, a large transport aircraft previously unseen in the area.

The Sudanese air force received its first shipment of Sukhoi Su-24 ground attack aircraft at the Wadi Sayyidna air base earlier this year.

“The main advantage of the new Su-24s is that they are supersonic, so do not have to be deployed as close to the action. This means they can be based at a relatively central airfield and still be able to carry out air strikes where ever needed in southern and western Sudan,” said Jeremy Binnie, a senior analyst and Middle East/Africa editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Sudan has also signed contracts for Russian Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters this year, according to a British defence analyst and the Russian newspaper Vedomosti.

Civilians affected

The civilian population in Abu Zabad has been blamed by the authorities for rebel activity, and have been charged by security forces with carrying out espionage for the Sudan Revolutionary Front, according to reports from Radio Dabanga.

The military campaign in the area is having serious effects on civilians, according to the Enough Project. The government officially agreed to a ceasefire in early November to allow access for a UN vaccination programme in rebel areas. But Kumar of the Enough Project said the campaign never got started.

“There’s been a total lack of commitment to allow access for the UN vaccination campaign against polio. In fact, the troop movements begin at exactly the same time as the promises that were made, so it looks like there was no intention of allowing UN access,” she said. Polio cases have been reported in neighbouring South Sudan.

Jerome Tubiana, a Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera there are credible reports suggesting that more than 700,000 civilians are affected by the conflict between government and rebels, including 436,000 displaced within the rebel areas.

“Government forces have fallen back on their familiar pattern of striking at communities suspected of supporting the rebels, so as to prevent the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North from living off the surrounding civilian population,” the International Crisis Group said in a report this year. “Widespread and regular bombing raids have significant impact on civilians. The most significant consequence is fear that has displaced hundreds of thousands, many to seek shelter in mountain caves.”

This article was originally published with Al Jazeera on December 2nd 2013.