Western Sahara is the Africa’s forgotten conflict. While the world worries about Iraq and Afghanistan, while Africa busies itself with Sudan and Somalia, the Sahrawi stay penned up in their tented camps in the desert, guarded by 100,000 of Morocco’s finest soldiers and denied the right to choose their own fate, a right granted them two decades ago by none other than the United Nations.
The country – can we call it that? – is in a strange kind of limbo. Diplomatically and legally their case is watertight: the UN has recognised that Morocco’s occupation of the area has no historical legitimacy and the African Union recognises Western Sahara as a country, at the expense of Morocco.
But on the ground, nothing has changed in the two decades since the Polisario, the freedom fighting movement turned hamstrung governors, laid down its arms at the behest of the international community. In the intervening period, Morocco has dug in, helped by its large army presence and subsidised settlers, stalling the referendum so effectively that it’s on no one’s agenda for the foreseeable future.
Once a year, however, the United Nations remembers Western Sahara. That is when the mandate for the UN peacekeeping force deployed to the area comes up for renewal. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (known by the French acronym Minurso) has signally failed in its titular mission, which isn’t that much of a surprise when you realise it is made up of only 235 uniformed troops. It does other things, though. The mandate includes monitoring the ceasefire between the Polisario and Morocco, making sure everyone stays in their designated locations, and implementing the various accords on prisoner releases. They just about manage to maintain the stability of the status quo but don’t enjoy a wide enough mandate or sufficient resources to really make a difference.
Every year, Western Sahara and the Minurso mandate come up for debate in the United Nations Security Council. This year, as usual, the mandate will be renewed with no substantive changes, ensuring at least another year of limbo for Western Sahara. But some pressure, however slight, was exerted to change this – and it was led by an unlikely source.
South Africa, having previously showed little concern about the affairs of such a remote region, took a sudden interest in the case (the cynic in me suggests that this has something to do with securing Western Sahara’s vote in the AU Commission chairperson elections). Our ambassador to the UN, Baso Sangqu, requested a minor alteration to Minurso’s mandate. He argued that it should be expanded to explicitly include monitoring of human rights abuses, as well as a rebuke to Morocco to end its restrictions on and monitoring of Minurso. This suggestion did not find favour with the Security Council, which reached a deal to renew, in essence, the current mandate, seemingly content to ignore the many reports of human rights violations emanating from the region.
Sangqu was also unhappy – Reuters described him as “outraged” – with what he alleged was the deliberate toning down of the UN report on Western Sahara presented to the Security Council.
“That was very deplorable,” he said of the report, which went through three versions before being finalised. “All of it (was) progressively being neutralised. We think it’s not good for the secretary-general. Not now, not on this issue, not in the future. And I think most colleagues share this view.”
Even if it was neutralised – and a Reuters analysis suggests this was not the case – the findings are still damning, raising more questions about why the UN is so reluctant to take further action. The report alleged the Moroccan authorities were spying on Minurso, and in it Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon complained that it was “unable to exercise fully its peacekeeping monitoring, observation and reporting functions, or avail of the authority to reverse the erosion” of its ability to function.
In other words, the UN knows that Minurso, as it currently operates, is a toothless, compromised institution – yet the Security Council won’t do anything about it.
As far as the Polisario is concerned, France carries most of the blame for this. “France continues to block [attempts to expand Minurso’s mandate],” wrote Carne Ross, a former British diplomat and current advisor to the Polisario, in the Guardian.
“Its obstruction is unreported; it is carried out in small rooms at the UN, where French diplomats softly declare that they will not permit human rights ‘language’ in the resolution. Their press spokesman tries not to answer questions about it from the few journalists who take an interest.”
The Polisario’s New York representative was even less diplomatic. “We can only denounce, as we have done before, the feverish attempts by the French delegation at the UN which aim to place all obstacles in the way of Security Council action on Western Sahara,” said Ahmed Boukari.
France has denied all these “groundless allegations”, but does enjoy a close relationship with Morocco.
Either way, Western Sahara appears doomed to another year of purgatory, denied its long-awaited referendum and largely ignored by the international community. As instability spreads across the Sahara – from Libya to Mali to Mauritania – it should come as no surprise if Western Sahara is next.
Abdelkader Abderrahmane, a senior researcher with the Institute of Security Studies who specialises in the politics of Western Sahara, agrees that something has to give. “History has taught us that even the harshest forms of colonisation end in one way or another. Also, given Morocco’s stubbornness over the conflict and the absence of any resolution on the horizon, any hope for a referendum may now rest on the emergence of a North African civil society. The so-called ‘Internet and Facebook generation’, which has succeeded in ousting despotic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya may well in the near future unite and become a transnational force to press for a solution on Western Sahara. Having said that, the Sahrawi youth is getting impatient after such a long stalemate. And the Arab Spring may well convince them sooner or later to take up arms.”
In this light, the UN’s obstinate attachment to the status quo might prove short-sighted indeed. DM
Photo: Sahrawi men sit on a car during 35th anniversary celebrations of their independence movement for Western Sahara from Morocco, in Tifariti, southwestern Algeria on 27 February 2011. REUTERS/Juan Medina.
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