Western Sahara, clear-cut conflict of decolonization in Africa
By Hana Saada
ALGERIA – Large delegations are taking part in the 15th Congress of Western Sahara’s Polisario Front, being held from 19 to 23 December in the liberated territories, Tfariti. Different issues are on the agenda of the conference comprising: speeches, documents presented by sub-committees, as well as deliberations. The Sahrawi President of the Republic, Secretary-General of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, delivered his speech, stressing his country’s categorical refusal of new procrastinations or the prolongation of Moroccan occupation.
The Algerian delegation, representing Algeria, an important actor in the conflict given its constant principles with regard to the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination, a principle advocated by the UN for the settlement of this issue within the framework of its Charters and decisions as well as the African Union (AU), lauded the Polisario Front’s commitment to all the UN decisions relating to the cessation of hostilities, considering that the time has come for the United Nations to assume its responsibilities while reiterating Algeria’s support for all UN efforts for a just solution guaranteeing the Sahrawi people the right to self-determination and independence.
Participants from different countries reiterated with one voice, during this 15th edition of the Congress of the Polisario Front, their stable and unwavering position towards the right of the Saharawi people to exercise its right to self-determination.
Western Sahara is a Non-Self-Governing Territory of the UN that lies in the Sahel region bordered by Algeria, Kingdom of Morocco, and Mauritania. This territory is home to the Sahrawis, a collective name for the indigenous peoples living in and around the region. They speak the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic. Similarly, many others also speak Spanish as a second language due to the region’s colonial past. Their 50-year dispute broke out when the territory was first occupied by Morocco since November 1975, as thousands of Moroccan civilians, flanked by the Moroccan military, crossed into Western Sahara in defiance of Spain, which ruled the region since 1884, a step denounced by most countries and institutions, including the International Court of Justice which stated, few days before, that there was no “legal tie of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and the Moroccan State”. According to Adala UK, on the 6th of November 1975, Morocco organized what it called a “Green March” to officially invade the North of Western Sahara moving 350,000 Moroccan settlers to the territory. This occupation coincided with the termination of the Spanish status as Administrative Power, creating a vacuum which imposed on the UN to assume its responsibility there.
Subsequently, the United Nations Security Council called on Morocco to withdraw from the territory; however, its effort was in vain. It was obvious that Morocco was violating not only the UN Charter’s principles, such as abstention from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”, but also the African Union Constitutive Act’s sacred principle of “respect of borders existing on achievement of independence”.
The International Court of Justice’s opinion of 1975 indicated, also, that the native Sahrawi people of Western Sahara are the only sovereign power in Western Sahara. It also considered that it “has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.” (para. 129, 162) (Adala UK).
This status quo did not please the Sahrawi people; in response to the Moroccan occupation, they mobilized for armed struggle under the leadership of the Polisario Front, the successor of the liberation movement of Seguia el-Hamra and Oued ed-Dahab of Mohammed Bassiri, created on May 10, 1973. This Frente has been recognized by the UN General Assembly Resolution 34/37 of 1979 as the sole legitimate representative of the Saharawi people.
Years later, precisely in 1991, the warring parties concluded a ceasefire agreement, culminating in the establishment of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which is assuming its responsibility till nowadays.
Despite a cease-fire in 1991 that put an end to the armed combat, Western Sahara remains a disputed territory. Nowadays, Morocco controls parts of the territory. However, the United Nations refers to Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory and maintains a stance favoring self-determination for its people.
UN body is attaching great interests to the Sahrawi cause, expressing willingness to find a solution ensuring the self-determination of the Sahrawi people, in accordance with the relevant resolutions of the Council. Several important judicial decisions concerning Western Sahara have been issued to assure Sahrawi’s full right to self-determination. To wit; Resolution 1514 of December 14, 1960, also known as the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples” amplifies the anti-colonial struggles of peoples and their full sovereignty. The declaration states: “Subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights”.
In December 2016 the European Court of Justice affirmed that a Non-Self-Governing Territory has a separate and distinct status from that of the administering state.
On December, 23rs, 2016, UN General Assembly Resolution 71/103 stated that any economic or other activity that has a negative impact on the interests of the peoples of the Non-Self-Governing Territories and on the exercise of their right to self-determination is contrary to the purposes and principles of the Charter” of the United Nations, referring to EU trade agreements with Morocco that includes the Sahrawi territory which has significant phosphate reserves and offshore fishing.
In 2017 the High Court stated that the territory of Western Sahara is Africa’s last colonized territory, vesting control of the natural resources of Western Sahara in the Saharawi people.
Moving to the territory’s neighbors, namely Algeria, it is playing a crucial role in the conflict, providing huge supports to the Sahrawi cause. In addition to providing shelter, financial and humanitarian aids to Sahrawi refugees, the Algerian government has always voiced its recognition to the Polisario Front as the Solo representative of the Sahrawi people.
For Algeria, Western Sahara is a question of decolonization between the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco given that this territory is inscribed on the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, pending the implementation of the historic resolution 1514 of the General Assembly, which establishes the right of colonized peoples to self-determination and independence, and Algeria will always remain peace patron at the regional and international levels. Algeria has always reiterated its keenness to continue to support the Saharawi people to realize their right to self-determination and independence, considering this position as an international obligation, and Algeria will always assume its role as negotiations’ supervisor.
Despite the fact that the United Nations officially considers Morocco and the Polisario Front as the main parties to the conflict, former UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan viewed Algeria as a stakeholder in the Western Sahara conflict, stressing in its presence in all discussions and negotiations.
After the swearing-in ceremony on Thursday, the newly-elected Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune delivered his first presidential address, in which he reaffirmed Algeria’s steadfast stance on the issue of Western Sahara, considering it an issue of decolonization in the hands of the United Nations and the African Union.
For its part, the African Union (AU) remains constantly committed to resolving this conflict, notably through its supreme mechanism. The Pan-African Organization has further strengthened the mandate of its Special Envoy for Western Sahara and set up a troika as a monitoring mechanism to back AU’s efforts and the UN process.
Two months ago, Security Council extended the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) for 12 months, until 31 October 2020 in a resolution adopted with 13 votes.
The resolution emphasized the need to achieve “a realistic, practicable and enduring and compromise based political solution to the Western Sahara question. Committed to renew the negotiation process, the Personal Envoy expressed intention to invite Morocco, the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Frente Polisario), Algeria and Mauritania to meet again, both committed to remaining engaged throughout the process in a spirit of realism and compromise, with a view to resume negotiations without preconditions and in good faith, and cooperate fully with MINURSO, including through the Mission’s free interaction with all interlocutors to achieve a just, lasting, mutually acceptable peace in Western Sahara, based on principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Globally, as of 2019, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has been recognized by 84 UN member states. Those countries advocate the lasting and mutually acceptable solution that will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, while welcoming the momentum spurred by the two round table meetings, the last held in March, with the lead negotiator Horst Köhler, Germany’s ex-president and UN special envoy for Western Sahara and the delegations of the warring parties, namely; Morocco and the Polisario Front and, as well as the neighboring countries, Algeria and Mauritania, in attendance. They were held under the aegis of UN Special Envoy Horst Kohler in a spirit of openness and a climate of mutual respect. During the meeting, the delegations had in-depth discussions on how to reach a political and mutually acceptable solution to the Sahrawi question. A solution that is realistic, achievable, sustainable and founded on a just, lasting compromise, and ensuring the self-determination of the Sahrawi people, in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution 2440 (2018), while stressing on the need to identifying the points of convergence.
Russian Federation, for its part, supports the direct talks between the parties to the conflicts; Morocco and the Frente Polisario. Noting that the Russian military observers are deployed to the Mission, it always stresses that it is unacceptable to dilute previously agreed parameters and thereby undermining the core principles that could pave the way to a mutually acceptable settlement.
China, Angola, Peru, Indonesia, Equatorial Guinea in addition to other countries from all the continents of the World, on different occasions, underline the importance of resuming negotiations as soon as possible on the basis of Charter principles and previous Security Council decisions, while calling upon all stakeholders to remain committed to the process and to work for a just and mutually acceptable solution.
South Africa has always voiced its support and honorable positions in defending the liberation of the African continent in international forums, in particular, the issue of the Sahrawi people, noting that Africa will not be free as long as Western Sahara, the last colony in Africa, is occupied.
Earlier, the Southern African Development Community convened a Solidarity Conference with the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in Tshwane. The conference confirmed the region’s support for the decolonization of the occupied territory and for the holding of a referendum on self-determination for the Saharawi people.
Morocco argues that Western Sahara is too sparse to control an independent government, which may result, according to the claims of the Moroccan American Center for Policy, in further instability that could allow terrorism and criminal activities on its southern border. In addition, there are many other factors as Western Sahara is extremely rich in minerals and offers nearly 700 miles of Atlantic coastline for fishing and offshore oil drilling, making it potentially valuable.
According to President of the Sahrawi Petroleum and Mining Authority, Ghali Zbeir, Morocco has been plundering of the Sahrawi resources, notably phosphate and fishery products since the beginning of the occupation, with the continuing complicity of certain foreign companies despite the binding ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). He stressed that Moroccan occupation has exploited and exported the phosphate extracted from the occupied Sahrawi territories, notably from mine Boukraâ, adding that 2.1 million tonnes of phosphate have been exported in 2014 and that 2000 tonnes of phosphate were transported every hour.
Fisheries resources, he continued, are also largely plundered as Western Sahara Coast is one of the world’s richest in fisheries resources.
Among other resources plundered, the Sahrawi official mentioned renewable energies. With the help of foreign companies, especially from France and Italy, Morocco built solar and wind power plants, which produce and export energy to Morocco. The German Investment Bank contributes to the financing of these companies, he said.
For his part, the President of British NGO Adala UK, Sidi Fadel, noted, according to SPS, that “Saharawi resources, which rightly belong to the Saharawi people, cannot be controlled by any foreign country; not Morocco nor the European Union, because Western Sahara’s land does not fall under either of their sovereignty”, referring to a series of policies of illegal means and an agreement that was made without consulting MEPs.
“For 43 years of Moroccan invasion into the region of Western Sahara, Moroccan forces have made more than 250,000 Saharawi citizens abandon their homes and move into neighboring countries, making it the biggest forced displacement in North Africa since 1975. The continued policy of repression and impoverishment of the Saharawi people on their land, which boasts so many riches, has forced a large number of Saharawis to migrate to other parts of the world. A lack of support for international law from the European Union, alongside the inability of the international community to fulfill the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination, as established by numerous UN resolutions, is another cause of impoverishment and migration for the Saharawis.”
In conclusion, Western Sahara is located in a very sensitive region, affected by a bunch of scourges, including terrorism, cross-border crime, drug dealing, and illegal migration. The failure to achieve a peaceful, just, lasting, realistic and mutually acceptable solution and in respect of international law will likely plunge the North African region into turmoil and total chaos. This solution would, also, allow the Sahal region to coordinate its efforts with a view to launching intensive programs of economic and social investments in the border zones that lack development in addition to stronger coordination in terms of security.
Internationally, depriving the Saharawi people from freely deciding over their future and the failure to convince Morocco to immediately withdraw from the territory, respect its internationally recognized borders and allow the Saharawi Republic, the founding member of the AU, to exercise full control over all its territory would also entail a dangerous precedent in international law where strong nations can violate the territorial integrity and freedom of weaker ones.
To this end, any proposed solution to this clear-cut conflict of decolonization must be discussed, decided and approved by the Sahrawi people and them alone. No other country, organization or entity is entitled to decide over the future of the territory. A free vote in a long-promised referendum on self-determination must be organized under the supervision of both the UN and the AU, in which the people of Western Sahara should make a decision between various choices, namely; independence, free association with another entity or the integration into an existing entity.