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By: Mat Nashed
A three-decade cease-fire unraveled in the Western Sahara between Morocco and the pro-independence front Polisario, which represents the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
A Moroccan military operation in El Guergarat triggered the breakdown on 14 November 2020. El Gergarat is a town in the southern tip of the Western Sahara that acts as a United Nations-monitored buffer zone, dividing territory controlled by Morocco and Polisario.
Morocco said that it attacked Polisario for obstructing a key trade route to neighboring Mauritania. But Omeima Abdeslam, Polisaro’s UN ambassador working on human rights in Geneva, denied the accusation and said that the route was blocked by civilians. She stressed that violence erupted once Moroccan troops crossed into the restricted territory, prompting Polisario to declare a ‘resumption of armed struggle” to defend the rights of its people.
In the eyes of Polisario, Saharawi anger has been brewing for years due to the perception that the global community has ignored their plight.
The conflict dates back to Spain’s colonial withdrawal from the region in 1975. That year, Mauritania, Morocco, and the Polisario Front staked a claim to the desert land.
Polisario, whose leadership lives in exile in Tindouf Algeria, inked a peace agreement with Mauritania four years later. The armed group continued to wage a guerrilla war against Morocco until 1991. That’s when the two sides finally agreed to freeze the conflict and implement an UN-monitored buffer zone until a referendum was held. The status-quo saw Morocco maintain control over two-thirds of the territory.
The UN peacekeeping mission tasked with organizing the referendum, known as MINURSO, nearly brokered a deal in 1997. According to the terms of the resolution, Sahrawis would be given a vote to determine whether they would remain an autonomous region in Morocco or become an independent state. The deceased Moroccan ruler, King Hassan II, rejected the resolution, citing concerns over who would be qualified to vote.
Electoral lists have been a major point of contention due to Morocco’s attempts to reshape the demographics since 1975. More than 60 percent of Western Sahara’s half a million inhabitants are now Moroccan due to a top down policy to relocate hundreds of thousands of citizens to the disputed territory.
Despite the obstacles, former U.N special envoy James Baker managed to convince Polisario to allow Moroccans in the Western Sahara to participate in any potential referendum. The concession was seen as a major breakthrough that won support from the U.N Security Council. However, Morocco rejected the solution because it included the possibility of awarding Sahrawis independence.
The two-sides haven’t been able to overcome this impasse. Morocco has taken a particularly stubborn stance over the last several years. In November 2015, it declared that the secretary-general’s special representative, U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross, was unwelcomed in the Western Sahara after he tried to lobby Rabat to restart negotiations.
Dozens of U.N staffers from MINURSO were then expelled from Western Sahara the following year. The incident took place after the former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon labeled Morocco’s presence in the disputed territory an ‘occupation’ during his trip to Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria. Polisario viewed these incidents as a clear sign that Morocco preferred the status quo to any resolution that would accommodate the wishes of the Sahrawi people.
But analysts warn that the status quo is unsustainable. Annual aid to the camps is shrinking from $10 million to about $7 million, while jobs are rapidly declining. The desperation is pushing more Saharawi youth to migrate irregularly, turn to narco-trafficking or even extremism. These are predictable outcomes considering most young Saharawi’s have little faith that diplomacy can solve their ordeal.
“When our fathers were fighting against the Moroccan occupation, the whole world, and especially the U.N, were listening to Polisario,” Hamdi, a youth leader in the camps, told International Crisis Group in 2018. “Either we get our land back or we go back to war.”
At least now the plight of Sahrawis is making headlines again. Youth activists are trying to capitalize on the attention by urging the global community to take swift measures. Enguuiya Mohamed Lahu, the President of Nova, a youth-led Sahrawi organization that promotes non-violence, stressed that the U.N Secretary General must immediately appoint a new UN Personal Envoy for Western Sahara. The last envoy, former German President Horst Kohler, resigned in 2019 for health reasons. The post has remained vacant ever since.
Whoever is appointed next will have to push Morocco back to the negotiating table with the support of the global community. Morocco is nonetheless reluctant to engage in meaningful talks. Over time, they have used diplomacy to cement their occupation by convincing many African countries to reverse support for Saharawi independence. Rabat has also pushed the narrative that Polisario is little more than an Algerian backed militant group.
Algeria, for its part, politically supports Polisaro despite misappropriating and taxing European Union aid to Sahrawi refugees. But Algiers hasn’t co-opted the liberation movement, whose sole objective remains unchanged since 1975.
International law also clearly supports the right to self-determination for any demographic recognized as a ‘people.’ Two U.N declarations – the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and the 1970 Friendly Relations Declaration – support secession as a last resort to liberate a people from oppressive colonial rule. Both declarations warn that self-determination could impact the territorial boundaries of colonial states.
Rabat, of course, would never cede territory that it considers sovereign land. Neither would Sahrawis accept to relinquish their right to self-determination. The global community needs to find ways to maneuver around this impasse and bring both sides back to the negotiating table. Otherwise, a thawing conflict could erupt into flames.