The Enduring Struggle for Saharawi Liberation



In December 2020, the United States recognized the settler colonial sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara. In exchange, the Moroccan monarchy normalized its relationship with another settler colonial state, Israel. Saharawi writer Sidahmed Jouly provides us with a synthesis of the last 45 years of struggle for the liberation of the country.

The conflict in Western Sahara is one of the oldest running conflicts in Africa, which has resulted in the longest refugee crisis in the continent. Western Sahara used to be known as “the Spanish Sahara,” as it was colonized by Spain from 1884 to 1975. Unlike many European countries, Spain left this former colony without decolonizing it. Neither did the Spanish State enable the Saharawi people of their right to self-determination, as the United Nations (U.N.) has constantly had asked for since the territory was listed as a non-self-governing territory since 1963, pending the decolonization process. Instead, in a move that goes against international law and legality, Spain decided to divide the territory between Morocco and Mauritania who both claimed state sovereignty over our country. These claims were refuted by the International Court of Justice(ICJ), whose advisory opinion on Western Sahara in 1975 called for the viability and implementation of U.N. resolutions that underscore the right of the Saharawi people in self-determination and independence.

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Girl carrying the SADR (Western Sahara) flag during the 41th anniversary of proclamation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic in 2017. / Courtesy of Saharawi Voice.

After its illegal partition, the Saharawi territory became a battlefield for the indigenous Polisario Front — recognized by the U.N. as the political representative of Western Sahara — which is forced to push back new invaders. In 1979, Mauritania relinquished its occupied southern lands to sign a peace treaty with the Polisario in Algiers, recognizing Western Sahara as an independent country. However, the territory that Mauritania had withdrawn from was subsequently invaded and annexed by Morocco, further escalating military confrontations.

Since then, about two thirds of the territory has been occupied by Morocco and the rest is under Polisario control, which is considered by Saharawis as liberated territories.

After 16 years of war, the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and the two parties, namely Morocco and the Polisario Front, signed a peace agreement for which a referendum of self-determination was the ultimate goal. For these purposes, the U.N. set up a peace mission under the acronym of MINURSO (U.N. Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara). This mission has been tasked to monitor the ceasefire and, as its name suggests, to organize a free and democratic referendum through which the people of Western Sahara would decide on their future. Under James Baker’s tenure as the U.N. secretary general’s special representative to Western Sahara, the list of eligible voters was finalized and the voters were ready to cast their votes in the referendum ballot boxes. Fearing an overwhelming vote in favor of independence, Morocco began setting up a series of obstacles, in order to abort all attempts to hold the promised referendum.

The Polisario then decided to self-proclaim its republic in 1976, known as the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), declared in order to fill the political vacuum after the Spain withdrawal. The SADR now enjoys full membership within the African Union and is widely supported by countries that endured the atrocities of European colonialism and anti-communist Cold War attempts of destabilization, who had fought back with their own anti-colonial movements, such as South Africa, Algeria, Venezuela, Cuba, and others.

Despite its fight for self-determination, Western Sahara does not often make the world media headlines. However, on December 10, 2020, the issue of Western Sahara has gained a lot more international media coverage after Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the country in exchange for Morocco normalizing its relationship with Israel.

Western Sahara’s wealth of natural resources has turned from a blessing to a target for imperialist extraction: these include phosphate mines, fishing resources as well as potential oil reserves that belong to a small indigenous population. In addition to receiving support from France at the level of the U.N. Security Council, the Moroccan regime has always felt emboldened to move forward with its occupation. They gradually consolidated it through involving many international companies to take part in the plundering of Saharawi people’s natural resources and lands in order to legitimize its de facto occupation. Meanwhile, the indigenous Saharawis live in extreme poverty either in refugee camps that are dependent on humanitarian aid or in the occupied territories under brutal oppression and blockade.

On November 13, 2020, the Moroccan army carried out a military operation against some Saharawi civilians who were protesting in the buffer zone of the Guerguerat region, thus violating the ceasefire agreement and causing the war to break out again in Western Sahara, despite 29 years of truce between Saharawi and Moroccan armies. Nevertheless, Morocco still denies the war for political and economic reasons, such as concerns around uprisings in the occupied territories, also fears that the dozens of foreign companies operating illegally in Western Sahara will leave.

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Aerial shot (2019) of Smara refugee camp, one of the six Saharawi refugee camps located near Tindouf in southwest Algeria. / Courtesy of Saharawi Voice.

The situation in Western Sahara under the Moroccan occupation has always been vehemently criticized by human rights organizations and public demonstrations, which are generally being led by Saharawi women. These forms of dissent have always been met with Morocco’s police brutality, trying with all means to keep the territory closed in front of journalists and international observers. Moreover, the MINURSO is one of few U.N. missions in the world that does not have the mandate of monitoring and reporting human rights violations. This is due to the role played by France within the security council, to obstruct any action that may harm Morocco’s image. France’s complicity, therefore, leaves the Saharawis under the mercy of Moroccan occupier forces.

The people of Western Sahara have been divided for more than 40 years. Whilst some continue to live in the occupied territories as a minority amongst a majority of Moroccan settlers who flooded their country after the military invasion, the other portion of Saharawis are scattered between five refugee camps that were set up during the 1970s in the middle of the Algerian desert, near Tindouf. These two groups of people are separated by the longest active military wall in the world known as the Berm, described by the Saharawis as the Wall of Shame. This wall is surrounded by millions of landmines that still claim the lives of many Saharawis and their animals.

The illegal exploitation and extraction of Western Sahara mineral, fishery, and other resources has been criticized by many international institutions including U.N. legal top counsel, Hans Corell in 2002, and the European Court of Justice in 2016 and 2018. These institutions, in illustration, have publicly rendered their judgment in considering Morocco and Western Sahara as distinct and separated territories. Consequently, any exploitation of occupied Western Sahara’s resources must take into account the approval and the benefits of the Saharawi people or their legitimate representatives. However, many companies and the E.U. itself still deliberately takes part in this illegal plundering and ignores the verdicts that their own courts have issued before. Their interests are undoubtedly driven by economic and strategic benefits with Morocco, showing what is prioritized above the international law and the lives of Saharawis.

As a Saharawi who spent most of my life living in refugee camps in exile southwest of Algeria, I have always felt that our struggle is linked to other struggles against injustice and occupation around the world, such as in Palestine and West Papua. There are many similarities between the two causes of Palestine and Western Sahara, and although the occupation in Western Sahara draws considerably less attention than the Israeli occupation of Palestine, these two causes have much in common. This is in spite of the tireless attempts by Morocco to paint the Saharawi struggle as a separate issue, whilst proclaiming support for Palestine (see Rana B.Khoury, Western Sahara and Palestine: A comparative study of occupation, colonialism and nationalism, 2011). Palestine and Western Sahara are connected as clear cases of occupation in international law, as well as in the ways both colonizing occupations in these lands utilize the same tactics in order to assert their legitimacy. Separating walls are one of these tactics used on both occupied lands to divide people from each other. Both occupiers are also defended by imperial powers that make sure to remain unpunished. Israel and Morocco both use media propaganda, foreign investments, and settlers to create a de facto occupation that the rest of the world normalizes, whilst the rightful owners — Saharawis and Palestinians — continue to suffer on a regular basis in refugee camps, in exile, or on their occupied lands. However, I still believe in international solidarity and people’s power to push for change and support the Saharawi fight for our lands and self-determination, to raise more awareness about Western Sahara such as through academia and the media. Much can be done in order to help shed light on this neglected struggle issue. ■