Frozen in the Desert: Western Sahara and the Forgotten Conflict

> Jay Gopalan

On May 10, 1973, Sahrawi university students and soldiers from the Spanish army assembled in a small village-fort in northeast Mauritania to declare the Polisario Front.

Ten days later, seven of these individuals began their campaign across the West African coast, attacking a Spanish outpost at El-Khanga. With this began the Western Sahara Conflict – the most devastating African independence struggle that nobody has heard of.

Today, the Polisario Front continues to fight for Sahrawi self-determination in the Western half of modern Morocco. The growing guerrilla group holds control over broad swaths of land in the disputed region, calling itself the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Struggling for self-determination, the nation has been called “Africa’s last colony.” International recognition remains sparse, however, with only 54 UN member states acknowledging the SADR at the time of writing.

Darren Kew, Chair of the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, described the conflict to the HPR as “the longest that he can think of.”

He continued to note its importance as an international conflict in Africa, as opposed to many other conflicts that are waged within nations and states. He defined Morocco’s advantage in military numbers, economic development and international support, asserting that “the Moroccans hold just about all the cards . . . The only thing that has kept (them) from a complete and total victory has been the fact that the Sahrawis . . . have the winning legal argument.”

As it stands, the situation of the Sahrawi people in the Western Sahara is striking and alarming, with a death toll estimated between 14,000 and 21,000 over the 43 years of conflict. More appalling, however, is the complete lack of coverage in any form that this conflict has received. Several factors have contributed to this lack of international interest. In the Middle East, Morocco stands as a beacon of stability against seemingly endless violence and terror. This has stopped major powers from taking definite stances on the SADR, to avoid upsetting the area’s delicate balance. This indifference toward the plight of the Sahrawi people has led to their demands for independence going unrecognized, despite the enticing validity of their claims.

Old News

As time has gone by, countries have revoked their recognition of the SADR one by one. At its peak, a total of 83 states acknowledged the nation’s territorial claims – each to Moroccan condemnation. Importantly, with Morocco a key strategic player in the Cold War, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union ever risked upsetting relations by openly supporting the SADR.

This stopped the organization from receiving the momentum necessary to bring its claims into public recognition.

Further complicating the situation, big states have much to lose by upsetting the dominant Moroccan hegemony, including regional stability, trade, and strategic military positioning. Morocco is a key member of the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, providing their support without requiring significant international funding; they also have significant free trade statutes with most of the West. This dampens incentive to upset relations with Morocco, even at the expense of geopolitical progress.

Furthermore, existing international institutions allow other nations to remain passive. Susan Humphrey, of the Atlantic International Studies Organization, argued that the lack of international involvement in the Western Saharan conflict is an egregious instance of United Nations’ failure. Under the ideals of the United Nations, self-determination and decolonization for the Sahrawi people should be prioritized.

Unfortunately, through its emphasis on sovereignty, the UN allows countries to unashamedly place their own interests first, ahead of collective international principles.

This allows self-interest to become the determining factor in international involvement, meaning that when countries have little to gain, there is correspondingly little chance of their involvement.

The lack of international interest in the SADR is augmented by a Moroccan media blackout that continues to hide news about Western Saharan developments from the international community.

Jihane Bergaoui, Moroccan specialist at Amnesty International, cited several instances of a crackdown on the freedom of expression to the HPR. These include a recent trial of seven Moroccan journalists who dared encourage citizen journalism via smartphone, and the forced shutting down of “one of the only independent news websites in the country.”

This lack of transparency allows Moroccan abuses to continue unchecked by international watchdogs and human rights organizations.

On this point, the HPR spoke with Ahmed Benchemsi, founder of the Moroccan journal TelQuel and twice-recipient of the European Union’s Best Investigative Journalist in the Arab World award. As the Advocacy and Communication Director of the Middle East for the Human Rights Watch, he stated that “the organization has not been allowed in Morocco since the summer of 2015. It’s not just us… Amnesty has been banned as well, and regularly, [foreign] journalists are just expelled.” He continued to remark that “[the Human Rights Watch] doesn’t believe that the territory should be independent… or back the claim for Moroccan inclusion. We just… hope that the conflict is solved through whatever peaceful, rights-respecting, means.”

Ultimately, the Western Sahara is held back by the interests of the stable, strategically-important state of Morocco. According to Kew, “the Sahrawis don’t threaten any oil, or any major resource areas. They’re in the middle of the desert, and they’re very small.” This has led to a lack of international involvement, and a complete silence in the international media. In the absence of resources, or other strategic importance, the SADR remains outside of the purview of powerful nations.

When Populations Fall through the Cracks

The same trends that characterize international reactions to the Western Sahara are also evident throughout history. Viewing conflict in the Western Sahara through the lens of other civil wars can provide important insights on the future of the SADR. Accordingly, it is instructive to apply existing templates to the still-unresolved conflict. If the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority is any indication, without external factors calling immediate international interest, the Polisario Front may be doomed to violence and obscurity.

In July of 1983, Sri Lanka was ravaged by national pogroms against the Tamil Hindu minority. These resulted in an initial estimate up to 3,000 dead, and an additional 150,000 made homeless.

This ignited the Sri Lankan Civil War, known not only for its 26 years of human rights abuses on both sides, but also for its striking lack of international interest or action.

The main players, the Sri Lankan Army and the guerrilla Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, were simultaneously condemned as terrorists by some and hailed as freedom fighters by others. Here, underreporting in Sri Lanka followed a similar pattern to the struggle of the Sahrawi people in the Western Sahara.

In the case of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the regional strategic power was India.

Throughout the conflict, the Indian Research and Analysis Wing provided support to various Tamil rebel groups, to display regional supremacy and satisfy the Tamil minority in India.

This pushed the Sri Lankan government to devolve more power to Tamils, hampering long-term state stability. Moreover, India’s explicit support eradicated any possibility of concerted international action, lest other countries risk upsetting a delicate power dynamic.

Though the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal officially called out member states of the United Nations for failing to justly support the peace process in Sri Lanka, the compelling interest of the international community lay ultimately in retaining Indian support.

The Sri Lankan conflict was declared resolved in 2009, when the Sri Lankan army took control of final land in the Tamil Tigers’ possession, killing the group’s leader.

With this, the country asserted Sri Lankan victory, and set its focus towards maintaining long-term peace and stability. These initiatives included the identification and resettlement of internally displaced persons, the release of occupied military land, and the renovation of infrastructure.

Despite this, however, tensions remain high. The Human Rights Watch continues to call on the Sri Lankan government to investigate human rights abuses during the war. A majority of Tamils still live in poverty, with hundreds of acres of fertile land destroyed or under government control. To fully heal the wounds from decades of war, the country will require a massive, unprecedented overhaul.

The Sri Lankan conflict provides two lessons for the future of the Western Sahara. The first is confirmation that in humanitarian crises, the international community is motivated to act not by altruism, but by compelling external interest. For this very reason, the SADR remains inconspicuous, commanding the attention of no major powers.

Second, Sri Lanka only saw progress after a significant, brutal, and internal offensive, which remains lacking by both sides in the Western Sahara. Kew noted to the HPR that “the conflict has been stable for many, many years,” and shows no signs of sustained deviation from this norm. When this offensive will come to the Western Sahara is an open question; however, when it does it will spill blood that may have been spared with earlier international intervention.

The Fight Continues

As it stands, the Western Sahara appears to remain locked in a limbo where international attention is too weak, neither vilifying nor emboldening the rebel organizations. As is common in underreported international conflicts, this lack of attention arises from the interests of a stable, strategically important state, and comes at the expense of self-determination for a minority.

Even for a conflict that has continued for so long, hope shines through. At the very least, the Sahrawi people remain motivated, as the struggle for independence and self-determination continues. With an established parliamentary government system, the SADR functions adequately, spending millions of dollars on infrastructure.

Whether the Moroccan state will decide to prize unity or federalized nationhood for the SADR remains up for debate. However, without international support, this battle has raged for three decades, and seems poised to continue for three more. – Harvard Political Review

April 2017
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