On 31st October, to mark the 34th anniversary of the occupation of Western Sahara, campaigners held a vigil outside the Moroccan embassy in London where they called for an end to the current crackdown on peaceful activists and the release of seven prominent human rights defenders currently imprisoned, awaiting sentence from a military court in Rabat. Their ‘crime’ was to visit the refugee camps where around 165,000 Saharawi refugees have lived for three decades. The arrests have been condemned by politicians and human rights organisations around the world including Amnesty International.
Stefan Simanowitz reports on how the recent escalation of repression in occupied Western Sahara could jeapordise UN-sponsored negatiations
In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, as decolonisation movements gained momentum across the continent, it became increasingly clear that the Spanish would have to cede control of Western Sahara. In 1973 a Saharawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, began an insurgency against the Spanish colonial rule. As preparations were being made for transition to independence, the Moroccans and Mauritainians both asserted territorial claims over the area. These claims were dismissed by the International Court of Justice which stated that whilst there had been “legal ties of allegiance between the Sultan of Morocco and some of the tribes living in the territory of Western Sahara” the facts did “not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco”. The ICJ also upheld United Nations (UN) resolution 1541 (XV) of 1960 on the decolonisation of Western Sahara and the right of its people to self-determination.
In response to the ICJ ruling the Moroccans sent her troops over the border. On 6th November 1975, Morocco organised a mass mobilization known as the Green March where hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians crossed into Western Sahara. With Franco on his deathbed, the Spanish hurriedly signed the Madrid Accords in which they agreed to divide Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritainia in exchange for continued fishing rights and partial ownership of mining interests. In February 1976, the Spanish withdrew from Western Sahara, the Moroccans and Mauriatians occupied much of the territory and the Polisario Front declared creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). A fifteen-year war ensued, the Mauritanians withdrawing in 1979. The fighting was brutal, with the Moroccans using their well equipped army and air-force to full effect but the Saharawi’s conducting an effective counter insurgency. In 1991 a ceasefire was declared and under the terms of a UN agreement a referendum for self-determination was promised. Seventeen years later the Saharawi are still awaiting that referendum.
Despite efforts by the international community the referendum has been continually obstructed by the Moroccans who have remained in occupation of roughly three quarters of Western Sahara. Over half the Saharawi population still live in exile living in four large camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert separated from their homeland by a 2500km fortified barrier known as ‘the wall’.
Despite many attempts to break the long-running diplomatic stalemate, progress towards a resolution has been tortuously slow. However, the election of President Obama and the recent appointment of Christopher Ross as the new UN Special Envoy to Western Sahara has given renewed hope to those wanting to see the conflict resolved. After touring the region and meeting the key players in June Mr Ross concluded that he was “optimistic” about the prospects of a breakthrough. His visit came just months after the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1871 extending the mandate of MINURSO until 30 April 2010 and calling for “negotiations without preconditions and in good faith, with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which would provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”.
On 10th and 11th August informal meetings took place between representatives of Morocco and Polisario in the Austrian town of Duernstein. Although the detail of what was agreed in these closed-door negotiations was not made public, Mr Ross’ statement at the end of the talks gives reason for cautious optimism. “The discussions took place in an atmosphere of serious engagement, frankness, and mutual respect,” he said. “The parties reiterated their commitment to continue their negotiations as soon as possible, and (I) will fix the date and place of the next meeting in consultation with the parties.”
It is against this positive backdrop that the latest crackdown against Saharawi activists is taking place. The seven arrested Saharawi human rights activists – Ahmed Alansari, Brahim Dahane, Yahdih Ettarouzi, Saleh Labihi, Dakja Lashgar, Rachid Sghir and Ali Salem Tamek – are the most high profile of dozens of campaigners and their families who have been subject to arbritary arrest and violence over the past six weeks. The seven belong to a number of human rights organizations and civil society groups and have long track records of monitoring of and reporting on human rights violations in Western Sahara. They were arrested in Casablanca on 8th October after returning from a visit to the refugee camps in the Algerian desert and are awaiting sentence from a military court in Rabat.
In recent years the UN High Commissioner for Human rights have raised concerns over violations of human rights in the occupied territory. A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch found that Morocco has violated the rights to expression, association, and assembly in Western Sahara. An Amnesty International report of the same year found that “politically motivated administrative impediments have been used to prevent human rights groups obtaining legal registration and curtailing their scope of activities.”
Since May 2005 there have been a series of non-violent protests by the Saharawi population – the ‘intifada’ – which have been violently broken up by Moroccan forces and numerous people have been arrested, tortured or ‘disappeared’. Indeed, since the Moroccan occupation over 500 Saharawis have been declared missing. There have been calls for the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) to be given a human rights monitoring role in order to prevent abuses but it remains the only UN Peacekeeping mission without such a role.
Since the start of Octboer, human rights groups within occupied Western Sahara have documented a steep rise in instances of violence, arrest and torture of Saharawi activists. Whilst some cases – such as the Oxford Six and the Casablanca Seven – get coverage in the media, the vast majority of the repression goes unreported. Some political analysts are convinced that this unprovoked escalation of repression is an attempt by the Moroccan authorities to scupper UN-sponsored negotiations before they even start. If this is indeed their strategy, it seems to be working.
On 27th October the Polisario Front threatened to pull out of negotiations with Morocco unless seven detained activists were freed. Were the activists to be given long jail terms or even sentenced to death, there is a danger that the next round of negotiations will stall. The collapse of the talks or the souring of the atmosphere needed for productive dialogue would not augur well. The Saharawi would be forced to continue to either live under occupation or languish in refugee camps. The Moroccan occupation would continue in violation of international law. The King of Morocco Mohammed VI made his position very clear in 2007 when he said, “We shall not give up one inch of our beloved Sahara” he said. “Not a grain of its sand”. Perhaps only increased international political pressure will make him and his government change their minds.