International i-responsability towards the Sahrawi people

The Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in Africa, was progressively abandoned by Spain from 1975 onwards. In view of the situation, the International Court of Justice pronounced the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. However, on November 6 of that same year, King Hassan II, taking advantage of the political crisis rife throughout Franco’s regime in Spain, ordered the “Green March”, whereby 350,000 civilian settlers and 25,000 soldiers of Moroccan origin occupied the region. He therefore sought support and legitimisation for annexation of the area to the Kingdom of Morocco, meanwhile preventing a referendum being held to legitimise the independence of Western Sahara, in view of the more than foreseeable result.

The operation was “sold” to European public opinion as a “peaceful invasion by the local population”, despite the fact that the civilian occupation was accompanied by military invasion of the region and that the humble Moroccan settlers, substantially different in their observances, rites and customs to the Sahrawi people, crossed the border drawn by the promises of a better life. As a result of the military siege, violent clashes occurred, forcing most of the Sahrawi population to flee in exodus towards what was meant to be a provisional place of refuge. They crossed 600 kilometres of desert to the present location of the camps, an arid and inhospitable area to the south of Tindouf, in Algeria.

Weeks after the March, as General Franco was in his death throes, the Tripartite Madrid Accords were signed, under which the Spanish Government transferred to Mauritania administration of the southern third of the Sahrawi region and to Morocco the two thirds further to the north. In exchange, Spain maintained important rights to fish and to exploit the rich phosphate deposits. But the agreements were made in complete disregard for the Sahrawi people and the International Court of Justice, which had clearly established that no state had the right to any kind of sovereignty whatsoever over the region.

As a reaction to these assaults on and violations of human rights, in 1976 the Polisario Front, a freedom group recognised by the UN as the sole and only legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD) and launched a war of national freedom on Morocco and Mauritania to recover their place in the world. The RASD has obtained diplomatic recognition by more than eighty countries, although this figure varies depending on the source. These are largely Latin American and African countries. However, no European countries have recognised the Sahrawi Republic. This includes Spain, despite the fact that it has, as a former colonial power, the legal and moral responsibility to protect Sahrawi independence.

In 1979, Mauritania withdrew from the conflict and recognised the RASD. With Morocco the fight would continue for yet another decade, until the drain on its economy represented by maintaining the fight forced it to negotiate. On 6th September 1991, a ceasefire finally took effect, starting point for application of the Settlement Plan negotiated between Morocco and the Polisario Front in 1988, intended to lead to the holding of a referendum on self-determination in a period of six months. As agreed, only two options were to be proposed: independence of the region or its integration to Morocco. The census of the people who could participate in the referendum was also agreed upon and delimited.

With the breakout of civil war in Algeria, Morocco once again obliged postponement of the referendum in the hope that Algeria would withdraw its backing of the Sahrawi people; something which never happened. Since then, the Moroccan Government has constantly and indefinitely postponed the date of the referendum, the ultimate objective agreed upon in the peace plan. They used myriad ploys to scupper the process of identifying voters until, in 2000, a rigorous census was put together with UN mediation. That’s when Morocco abandoned the Peace Plan, accusing the UN of being partial and thereby revealing its true intentions. These delaying tactics obey the country’s interest to maintain occupation of Western Sahara, while it goes about projects of economic development in benefit of itself and of the European and Western powers, accomplices in this injustice.

With abandon of the Peace Plan, Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary-General, commissioned James Baker –special envoy of the international body for the Sahara– to find a solution acceptable to both parties not strictly adhering to International Law. The “Baker Plan”, drawn up in 2003, anticipated a five-year process of limited autonomy for the Sahrawi people ending with a consultation to decide the future of the region. In addition to the Sahrawi people on the UN census, the Moroccan settlers, who tripled the Sahrawi population in number, were also to participate. While the Polisario Front approved this proposal, Morocco did not. The reason for its refusal is that the Moroccan Government lacked faith in its own settler population.

The UN Security Council has the capacity to impose a specific solution, such as the Settlement Plan, which, in addition to having been freely negotiated by the parties, had its approval. But the veto issued by France, Morocco’s unconditional ally, made this solution impossible, bringing the peace process to a dead end. The United Nations have openly stated that the conflict must be solved through exercising by the Sahrawi people of their right to free determination. Despite this, turning a blind eye, the European Union, including countries like Spain, continues to illegally negotiate with Morocco regarding the exploitation of the region’s natural resources (fishing, phosphates, etc.).

Meanwhile, the Sahrawi people continues to resist the situation split into two parts: those who suffer the brutal occupation and repression of the Moroccan military on their own land, and those who have survived since then thanks to humanitarian aid in the Algerian refugee camps.

Film: Sons of the Clouds, the Last Colony (Hijos de las nubes, la última colonia)

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  • San Sebastián Donostia 2016
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  • AIETE: Casa de la Paz y los Derechos Humanos