Western Sahara, the never-ending colony

For Western Sahara natives the decolonization process never took place, after 40 years they still live in refugee camps.
By Michele Benericetti (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Western Sahara Conflict is more than a forgotten crisis, it is a thorny geopolitical issue which lasts for 40 years. Despite the involvement of several international actors, such as the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, the situation is still in deadlock and Saharawi people are still looking for recognition.  

The Western Sahara is a desertic territory, which borders the North Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania, Morocco and Algeria, a strategic postion next to Canary Islands. Moreover, it is rich of natural resources, such as phosphates, fish and crude oil.

A former Spanish colony in the Nineteenth Century, the Region is center of a territorial dispute since 1975, between the Kingdom of Morocco and indigenous Saharawi people, led by the political-military organization ”POLISARIO Front”, abbreviation for  “Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro”.

In 1976, after sixteenth year war, the Polisario Front declared an independent Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), after the ICJ confirmed the legal right to self-determination for the Saharawi and rejected the territorial claims made on the region by Morocco and Mauritania. However, Morocco illegally occupied the two-thirds of the Western Sahara and built a military sand wall, known as ‘The Berm’, guarded along its entire length by soldiers and secured by landmines running the Territory from North to South, as reported in the official website of the Western Sahara Representation at the UN.

Since then, the area has been divided in two parts by the wall, a bigger part occupied and administrated by Morocco and a smaller one, known as Free Zone, under the POLISARIO Front control and backed by Algeria.  

When legality is powerless

After 41 years later the SADR has been recognized by only 83 on 193 countries of the UN and the nation is still struggling for independence.

Darren Kew, Chair of the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, described the huge imbalance of strengths in the conflict: Morocco is a stable member of the UN, with a developed economy, consistent military forces and acting with the consent of the International Community, whereas the Saharawi Republic holds just a legal win. In fact, the advisory opinion of the ICJ made clear that the Western Saharans have the sovereign power over Western Sahara and that a free referendum for independent Saharans is a right.

Despite the Court judgment and the establishment in 1991 of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) by the Security Council, in its resolution 690 (1991), the situation in Western Sahara is not changed and at today the referendum never took place. Furthermore, the MINURSO is the only peacekeeping mission which does not have a mandate over human rights, although numerous abuses have been denounced by Western Sahara Monitoring and NGOs, such as Amnesty International.  “Impartial and sustained human rights monitoring by the UN would offer some protection to a population that lives with the daily threat of abuses by the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario Front” sustains Magdalena Mughrabi, Interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.

No hope grows in the desert

The ceasefire settled in 1991 did not end the Saharawi pains.

In the Morocco-occupied territory the Saharawi experience every day human rights violations and abuses. Disappearances, torture, intimidations, detainments, abuse in captivity, denial of fair trials are just some of them, as denounced by Human Rights Watch on Western Sahara. The freedoms of expression, association and dissent are stifled by Moroccan authorities through prosecutions, expulsions and imprisonments, suffered by several journalists, researchers and activists as Amnesty International explains in Morocco/Western Sahara Report. The Saharawi population live dispersed since the beginning of the war, more than 200,000 live in refugee camps in Southern West Algeria. In an inhospitable desert, a generation of Saharawi is born and grown and together with volunteers and humanitarian NGOs, the community built an organized society which put first education and health care. But it is not enough. The deadlock about the referendum make impossible for the Sahrawi to start a new life, beyond refugee camps, abuses and exploitation.

Fahda Bachir Mohamed, 27 years old was born in the Laâyoune refugee camp and told her story for “40 FACES 40 YEARS” photo exhibition made by Oxfam International.

“Whether you are educated or not, you have no prospects when you go back to the refugee camps, and no work. You can’t do anything with all that knowledge because you’re not at home. Even I haven’t got any future prospects, despite having a degree. But because I lived away from my parents during all those years of studying, I want to be with them now, to share their suffering, until the day when they can go back to their homeland”.

Forgotten powers

In 1918 W. Wilson spoke for the first time about “self-determination”, essential principle of modern international law, that sanction the right for a community to be sovereign and independent over its territory and freely chose its form of government.

Since then all around the world people fought for that right, including the Saharawi. In 2017 this community is still fighting to call their motherland a Nation.

It is probably true that one single person’s opinion is not useful to change things, but it is surely true that the public opinion can influence politics, and information is the best weapon. In front of the Saharawi tragedy, it is important to remember a forgotten power of our times: the power that well-informed citizens have to choose carefully their politicians and taking actions through them. If the public opinion would use its forgotten power, getting involved in politics and being active part of the decision-making process, perhaps tomorrow the Saharawi will finally have the same power to decide for themselves.

Western Sahara, the never-ending colony
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Human Rights
Stefania Mascolo

Stefania is currently a student in International Relations, Security and Development Master program at Universidad autónoma de Barcelona, Spain. Previously graduated in International Relations and Diplomacy at Università di Bologna, Italy, she focuses her studies on European geopolitics and Foreign affairs, along with human and animal rights and environmental defense. She combines International Affairs with journalism and literature through publications and teaching experience in Europe and South America.
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