The state is called Western Sahara, the people are called Sahrawis, and this is their story.
First, some history: In the mid 20th century states in Africa began to be granted independence from their colonial powers. Today, all African states are considered sovereign and face the long struggle to reinstate their position in the international hierarchy.
All but one.
Western Sahara is situated on the northwest coastline of Africa, bordering Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. Despite being mostly comprised of desert land and lacking sufficient rainfall for most agricultural activities, the country does have fish-rich waters and large amounts of phosphate. It also potentially possesses a large amount of oil.
Unlike most African states, which, upon withdrawal of their colonial powers were offered a referendum on independence, Western Sahara was immediately laid claim to by its neighboring countries of Morocco and Mauritania. Spain, its former colonizer, rather than handing independence to the Sahrawis cut a deal with Morocco and Mauritania by signing the “Madrid Agreement,” in which Spain split the territory between the neighboring countries. In doing so, Spain both avoided a messy colonial war with their Moroccan neighbor, and gained access to the fish and phosphate in return for their favor.
In 1975 Morocco invaded and occupied Western Sahara.
A month earlier, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had ruled that neither Morocco nor Mauritania had any legal claim to territorial sovereignty over Western Sahara. Morocco went ahead and occupied them anyway.
This was an illegal occupation.
The Moroccan occupation did not come without resistance from the Sahrawi people, who had developed a strong sense of nationalism in the 1960s, which gave birth to the Polisario Front, who are the sole representative of the Sahrawis. This Front had successfully rid itself of Spanish power through guerrilla warfare, and now faced the task of doing the same to its neighboring powers.
War between the Polisario Front and Morocco began soon after the 1975 invasion.
In 1979 Mauritania withdrew its right to Western Sahara and Morocco secured effective control of most of the territory.
There are an estimated 500,000 Sahrawi people, of which an estimated 100,000 have been forced into refugee camps in Algeria. They have been there for 38 years and are completely reliant on foreign aid. Morocco has built a 2,700-kilometer-long wall scattered with millions of landmines to prevent those in refugee camps from returning to their country. This is the longest strip of landmines in the world.
So why, now that Morocco has been illegally occupying this country for 38 years and considering that under UN law “freely expressed self-determination is an unalienable right,” did the international powers not step in and demand a referendum on independence, akin to those that all other African states had been granted?
The answer is because other, more dominant world powers were at play. When Morocco first invaded Western Sahara, the Moroccan government had strong backing from Spain, France and the Reagan administration in the United States. All these countries saw Morocco as a key ally in the Middle East, and didn’t want to disturb their relationship by giving support for a referendum on independence, even if it was backed by international law. The UN is weak to powers such as these, and often don’t implement international law, if it contradicts an interest of a powerful country. This has been visible in the way the UN has failed to implement international law in the case of Western Sahara.
The UN has been attempting — in the broadest sense of the term — to find a solution to the question of sovereignty and self-determination since 1991. The worst failure of theirs is their refusal to implement human rights monitoring in Western Sahara, despite numerous amounts of reports of heinous abuse. Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, said in their 2008 report on Western Sahara that:
“The government bans peaceful demonstrations and refuses legal recognition to human rights organizations; the security forces arbitrarily arrest demonstrators and suspected Sahrawi activists, beat them and subject them to torture, and force them to sign incriminating police statements, all with virtual impunity; and the courts convict and imprison them after unfair trials.”Many people have never heard of this conflict. It is hugely under-represented in the news media, both by a corrupt censored Moroccan media, and by an internationally corrupt media who are unwilling to publish stories outside of a familiar narrative and that pose super-powers in a negative light.
I believe the path to the freedom of the Sahrawi people is through telling more people the story. I will tell this story, the story of the people, over and over again. I hope that after reading this you will too.