A Chance for Peace in Western Sahara
February 5, 2019
Wrapped along the coast of Northwest Africa is the continent's last colony: Western Sahara. For over a century, the people of Western Sahara have been denied our fundamental right to decide our future. First a Spanish colony, Western Sahara was brutally annexed by our Northern neighbor, Morocco, in 1975. Our people have been forced to choose between the horrors of occupation and the hardship of being a refugee ever since.
At the time of Morocco's incursion, my family was one of thousands forced from our native land of Western Sahara into the refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Like many of my fellow Sahrawis, some of my family did not survive. Of those who did, many remained in the occupied territories, unable to flee the sudden onslaught of the Moroccan army.
Today, a 2,700 km sand wall lined with landmines and Moroccan soldiers—the largest active military barrier in the world—partitions Western Sahara into two distinct territories. Thousands of fractured families live on either side. West of the so-called "Berm" (or more accurately, the "wall of shame"), Sahrawis live under Moroccan occupation, where they are subjected to a strict media blockade and daily human rights abuses. East of the wall, Sahrawis live in freedom, but as refugees, making due with mud huts and inadequate resources, all hoping to make the long-awaited journey back to the land of our fathers and mothers.
Western Sahara is a territory divided but a people united. Whether in the Sahrawi refugee camps in neighboring Algeria, the occupied territories of Western Sahara or in exile, we share a common goal: to live in freedom in our native land and to exercise our long-denied right to self-determination, a right that was promised to us—but never delivered—by the United Nations and the Security Council close to three decades ago. However, after years of broken promises and reneged peace agreements it seems peace may finally be possible.
Recent months have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity on Western Sahara, prompted by a newly assertive position taken by the Trump administration and the appointment of a new personal envoy for the UN secretary-general, former German President Horst Kӧhler.
Both have made clear that the status quo is over. The U.S. administration, in particular, has insisted that there can be no more "business as usual" with Western Sahara. The time for political progress is now. The U.S.'s new commitment to resolving the issue—and its decision to link the renewal of the mandate of the UN mission for Western Sahara to progress made on the political progress—has yielded a significant result: a resumption of diplomatic talks designed to end the decades-long stalemate and deliver on our people's rights to self-determination.
The renewed attention has re-invigorated the political process and created new chances for peace. In December, I participated as a representative of the Frente POLISARIO in the first UN-led roundtable meeting on Western Sahara held in six years. Over two days, the two parties—the Frente POLISARIO and Morocco—met face-to-face and participated in discussions centered on reaching a conclusion to the conflict in Western Sahara. Our neighbors—Algeria and Mauritania—also took part in the meeting.
These initial talks did not lead to a monumental breakthrough, but that could not have been expected. What they did do was build confidence in the process. Both parties left Geneva with a commitment to keep the conversation going—and to make further progress in the months ahead. The next roundtable is tentiatively scheduled for March, where it is hoped we will tackle some of the difficult issues at the heart of the conflict.
Looking forward, there is no question that future rounds of talks will have to produce more substance. However, we Sahrawis are cautiously optimistic. We have long believed that with sufficient political will, the conflict in Western Sahara is one that can—and should—be resolved through diplomacy. After all, in 1991 we came painfully close to resolving the conflict through a self-determination referendum that was agreed on by both parties under the UN auspices. The referendum, which was supposed to be held in 1992, would have given our people the chance to choose between independence and integration with Morocco. Over two decades later, that referendum has still not taken place because of the many obstacles put in its way by Morocco, which fears it will lose at the ballot box.
To achieve a peaceful and lasting solution, Sahrawis have made many—often painful—concessions, none of which was ever reciprocated by Morocco. If this current peace process is going to succeed, the international community will have to do things differently and be prepared to use all diplomatic tools in its hands to ensure that Morocco is constructively committed to the process. This means countries must be prepared to apply the right mix of incentives and pressure.
Thus far, the U.S. administration has shown a genuine willingness to exert meaningful pressure on the parties—threatening to rescind its support for the UN peacekeeping mission's mandate if progress on the political track is not achieved. Looking forward, the United States—and other members of the United Nations—will have to consider what other means can be used to encourage Morocco to negotiate in good faith and to take the difficult decisions that it has long avoided.
It is obvious that ending one of the longest-running conflicts in Africa will require the political will and determination of all countries with a stake in the continent's security and economic development. That includes European countries, too.
Europe has long overlooked Morocco's rampant human rights abuses in the occupied territories for fear of antagonizing the Moroccan monarchy, which it views as a strategic ally. Just last month, the European Parliament authorized a non-binding trade deal greenlighting Morocco's plundering of Western Sahara's natural resources—a decision that effectively pre-empts political negotiations, and deals a blow to the UN personal envoy overseeing the political process. It is unethical and illegal, as determined repeatedly by the European Court of Justice.
Rather than take steps that weaken the UN political process, Europe should be politically coherent and show the resolve necessary to end this conflict once and for all. The international community must put its collective influence behind these negotiations to ensure that both parties engage in good faith and that the process finally leads to a just and lasting solution that fulfills the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination under international law.
It is time our people had the chance to choose their future—for given the choice, we would create a peaceful, inclusive, and law-abiding State. Despite the hardships of life in the refugee camps and the very limited resources, our people can pride themselves on having built a modern society that cherishes and promotes the values of social justice, democracy, gender equality, tolerance, and rule of law. We are among the most educated societies in Africa and our literacy rates amongst the highest on the continent. We have worked hard to promote gender equality and to ensure that women participate fully in public affairs and play a fundamental role in all aspects of political, social, and economic life of our society. Women now have leadership roles, including as governors of refugee camps, as members of the POLISARIO leadership, and as members of our negotiating team in the UN-sponsored talks. Yet in the occupied territories of Western Sahara, women—including some of our most celebrated icons—endure imprisonment, beatings, and other hardships imposed by Morocco just for non-violently defending their right to self-determination.
Despite Morocco's illegal barrier to our West, well-functioning state institutions in the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic have thrived and provide public services to all our citizens. We Sahrawis manage our own schools, run our own hospitals and administrative offices, and provide governance and security to the more than 174,000 Sahrawis who live as refugees. We have had over four decades of democratic governance, successfully running elections at the local and national level. Moreover, for 27 years, our independence movement has been ardently committed to non-violence, and to the pursuit of diplomatic means to create the state we desire in our homeland of Western Sahara. All the while, Morocco has plundered our fisheries and phosphate reserves in the occupied territories, imprisoned and beaten those who dare to call for freedom, and invested billions of dollars to entrench a brutal occupation that brazenly violates international law.
It is time to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Western Sahara. After 27 years spent waiting for independence, our people's patience is wearing thin and confidence in the UN process is diminishing. Sahrawis are tired of broken promises and wary of meetings in far-flung capitals that all too often fail to deliver. Sahrawis' expectations—and their growing frustration—are all the more reason to move ahead robustly and quickly to ensure the current UN process succeeds where others have failed.
No doubt, there will be difficult decisions required from all sides. But we, the Frente POLISARIO, have always proved willing to do what it takes to achieve our people's right to self-determination. It is time for the international community to create the context in which Morocco feels compelled to do the same.
After the speech that he gave at Defense Forum Foundation in Washington, DC in March 1998, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton was asked what U.S. security interests were involved in Western Sahara. Recalling his work on this issue along with former Secretary of States James Baker, he said: "What we were doing was based on a pretty fundamental American principle: that we wanted the people of the Western Sahara to make up their mind what their status was going to be."
This is exactly what our people have been asking for—to be given a chance to exercise our internationally recognized right to self-determination and to decide our future freely and democratically. Basic democratic principles and the rules of international law all support this legitimate aspiration. It is time the international community support it, too, not only in words but also in deeds.