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Why Western Sahara matters

Western_Sahara_Project-SADR_flagLast week I was part of a delegation from the all-parliamentary Western Sahara group to visit the Moroccan-occupied territory, with John Hillary of War on Want and John Gurr of the Western Sahara resources group.

We held over 20 meetings with a wide range of groups of former prisoners, human rights campaigners, women’s organisations, disability groups and trade unions.

We also met the Morocco-appointed governor of the region as well as the mayor of the city of Laayoune and pro-Moroccan civil society groups, the Moroccan Human Rights group and Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber, the head of Minurso, the UN mission set up to work for a referendum on Western Sahara independence.

So why does Western Sahara matter?

When the European powers divided up Africa in the late 19th century Spain became master of this vast area of mainly desert land, stretching from Algeria to the Atlantic and south to Mauritania.

From the 1950s colony after colony achieved independence. French influence on Morocco ended in 1956, though Mauritania and Algeria had to fight bloody wars for their own independence.

Spain finally withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975 after the death of fascist dictator General Franco.

But it handed administration of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania – sparking a war when Sahrawi national liberation front Polisario launched a bid to win self-determination.

Mauritania soon withdrew but Morocco did not and has occupied the country since. It built a sand wall around most of the territory ahead of a ceasefire in 1991. The landmines from the fighting will take another decade to clear.

The UN set up Minurso, which still has offices in Laayoune as well as in Tindhouf, Algeria.

Years of negotiation over how a referendum on the territory’s future proved fruitless as Morocco and Polisario were unable to agree on an electoral roll.

The UN has since suspended its referendum plans.

Rabat asserts that the area should be an autonomous part of Morocco. Former US secretary of state James Baker suggested a compromise, with a referendum on independence after 10 years.

Polisario reluctantly agreed, only for the proposal to be rejected by Morocco.

The majority of Sahrawis live in refugee camps in Algeria. There are 100,000 people stuck in camps in the Algerian desert, many of whom have been there since the 1970s.

The remaining Sahrawi population in the territory are now outnumbered by Moroccan settlers. Many now rely on the Moroccan state and para-state companies for work.

In legal terms the territory is a non-self governing territory, in other words occupied. That has been the reason for opposition to the EU’s fishing agreement with Morocco which allows Western Sahara fish to enter our shops.

Behind the dispute lie the national ambitions of Morocco and the huge mineral wealth of phosphates which stream out of the territory through Laayoune, as well as prodigious quantities of fish off the coast.

There are now increasing Moroccan farming activities around the other main city of Dhakla, with vast tomato plantations being established. Some of the products end up in our supermarkets.

The abuses of Western Sahara residents goes on. When we met representatives of the Collective of Human Rights Defenders of Western Sahara (Codesa) we heard of arbitrary arrests, the detention of young people and discrimination against those who speak in favour of self-determination.

Codesa president Aminatou Haidar was herself jailed for years – and kept blindfolded for four of them.

She has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

The president of the Sahrawi Phosphate Workers Union explained to us that in 1975 24,000 people, all Sahrawi, had worked in the industry, but now it was a tiny percentage of that and Sahrawis were on worse-paid jobs.

We also met the families of people who have been killed and of those still in prison.

But Moroccan-based civil society groups all supported autonomy within Morocco, while being unspecific about what that meant.

They talked of the importance of the national Human Rights Commission and about social and economic development. The proximity of the Canary Island and the potential to increase tourism were raised.

When we met the governor and the mayor of Laayoune both insisted that autonomy could be a solution to the political crisis – and both heaped abuse on Algeria for housing the refugees and supporting Polisario.

A constant refrain was that human rights had been politicised and there was freedom of expression in Western Sahara.

Certainly there has been development, with good roads and huge infrastructure projects in Laayoune.

The whole occupied region is virtually tax-free and settlers’ salaries are higher than in Morocco. The cost to the Moroccan government is enormous.

But we sensed a surreal disconnect when we left the sumptuous mayor’s residence to observe a demonstration.

Minurso’s mandate is up for renewal on April 15 and all Sahrawi self-determination groups demand that it should have a human rights mandate added.

Demonstrations are called on the 15th of every month to highlight this.

We drove through the streets in the wind and rain to where the demonstration was due to assemble.

We saw van-loads of young men getting out and being given large sticks which they used to beat any young man they saw walking or running down the street.

The small number who managed to assemble anyway were forcibly dispersed.

Our car was then stopped and the police attempted to arrest our driver, a Codesa member, for alleged traffic violations, and remove his car with a tow-truck.

We were actually attached to the tow truck with two of us still in the car.

After an hour of argument and the arrival of the Human Rights Commission our driver was released and we agreed to leave the area in his company.

His car was however removed as the police thought investigating his road tax was clearly a priority and could only be done by confiscating the vehicle. The operation involved at least 30 police officers.

Later that night the governor put out a statement saying we had “incited” young people to demonstrate by our presence.

And the following morning we met a woman with a badly bruised and cut hand from her attempt to attend the demo.

Throughout our visit we were accompanied by unmarked police vehicles and motorbikes which followed us everywhere and waited outside each meeting we attended.

The lack of a clear choice over Western Sahara’s future has set settlers against local people in some – not all – cases and brought a huge police and army presence to the region.

Why? A conflict going back to colonisation has blighted the lives of the Sahrawi people.

Their resources should not be exploited until there is an agreement allowing them to choose their future, a choice they have never been allowed to make.

The UN must immediately renew Minurso and extend its mandate to monitor human rights throughout the territory.


  1. Dave Roberts says:

    I was there in 2005 and by the sound of it there seems to have been a huge investment programme but a similar amount of repression. I too witnessed demonstrations in El Aaiun so nothing much as changed. I was just a tourist and my hotel room was searched.

  2. swatantra says:

    What mineral resources are there there?
    Morrocco has escapped scrutiny for a long time, but its about time we challenged autocracies like Morrocco and Saudi Arabia, and nop longer befriended them.

  3. Dave Roberts says:

    The country has one of largest phosphate deposits in the world. South of El Aaiun there is conveyor belt miles long leading out to ships waiting to take it.

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