The Western Sahara conflict: A Short History

The Western Sahara conflict: A Short History
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By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem | Appeared first at The Levant News in Jan 2016 –

Islam News – LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara — The Western Sahara issue has resurged to the forefront after the European Court of Justice decided on Dec. 11, 2015 to cancel a trade deal between the European Union (EU) and Morocco.

 The Polisario Front [Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro”], which has been calling for the independence of the Westerm Sahara, filed a complaint on Nov. 2012 to the European Court of Justice to object to the agreement that might include agricultural products from the disputed region’s territories.

The Polisario Front has been seeking to achieve the independence of the Western Sahara since the end of the Spanish occupation on Feb. 26, 1976.

 Morocco had taken over most of the Sahara’s territories following the Green March in October 1975, which was a mass demonstration that included around 350,000 people and called for by late King Hassan II to pressure Spain to retreat from the Sahara.

 However, the Sahrawis who were demanding independence refused this march and believed it aimed at enrooting Morocco’s occupation of the Sahara. Sahrawis are composed of many tribes and are largely speakers of the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic; they are the original population of the Sahara since the migration of Arab tribes to North Africa in the 11th century.

Morocco and Mauritania wanted in 1975 to annex the Western Sahara, which was under the Spanish occupation (1884–1975), to their territories because each state claimed the Sahara belongs to it. Morocco referred the case in October 1975 to the International Court of Justice, which admitted the existence of historical and legal ties attesting to the loyalty of several Sahrawi tribes to Morocco’s Sultan.

  The International Court of Justice decided on October 16, 1975, “The materials and information presented to the Court show the existence, at the time of Spanish colonization, of legal ties of allegiance between the Sultan of Morocco and some of the tribes living in the territory of Western Sahara. They equally show the existence of rights, including some rights relating to the land, which constituted legal ties between the Mauritanian entity and the territory of Western Sahara”.

 On the other hand, “The Court’s conclusion is that the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly 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.”

Thanks to the Green March, Morocco succeeded in pushing Spain to retreat from the Sahara, which witnessed an influx of thousands of Moroccans seeking to mark the region’s “Moroccan” character.

Moroccan legal researcher Bouhaj Saheb told The Levant News, “Morocco did not take over the Sahara’s territories. In fact, a tripartite agreement dubbed the Madrid Accord was signed on Nov. 14, 1975 between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. The Green March was staged after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an advisory opinion in The Hague, stipulating the existence of allegiance ties between the Moroccan Alawite sultans and the Sahrawis in the south.”

With Algeria’s support, due to its border conflict with Morocco that led to a war in October 1963, the Polisario Front has been fighting, for four decades, for the independence from Morocco, which considers the Sahara part of its territories and refuses to give it up.

 The Sahara’s surface area is of 266,000 square kilometers.

The conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front led to a war that lasted until 1991, after which a ceasefire was reached and the UN deployed its forces to ensure the respect of the truce.

A Sahrawi tribal sheikh from Laayoune, the capital of the Western Sahara, told The Levant News on condition of anonymity that the historical allegiance ties between Morocco and the Sahara date back to centuries.

Maa’ al-Aynayn, a pro-Polisario Front activist, told The Levant News that the Sahrawis are demanding independence, according to the right of self-determination that the UN has guaranteed. He also refused Morocco’s claim that the Sahara is part of its territories and believes that Sahrawis have their own identity, tribes and various traditions and that the Sahara was historically independent from Morocco before the Spanish occupation.

Maa’ al-Aynayn further noted that most Sahrawis advocate independence, but a minority still wants the Sahara to remain part of Morocco due to interests with the Moroccan authorities.

In early 1997, the UN Secretary-General restarted the identification process of the Sahrawis who have the right to vote in a referendum. However, the parties remained unable to arrive at a consensus on how to deal with applicants from the three tribes groups, as each party was dubious about the residents of the other’s regions. Morocco accused the Polisario Front of bringing in Sahrawi tribes from Algeria and Mali and sheltering them in the Sahrawi Refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.

The Polisario Front also doubts the identity of some of the residents of the Sahara territories under Morocco’s rule and claims that thousands of Moroccans were accommodated and admitted to the tribes under the pretext that they affiliated with these tribes.

Abdullah, a Sahrawi resident living in Laayoune said to The Levant News that the Sahrawi Identification Committee is composed of two tribal sheikhs, one pro-Polisario and another pro-Morocco.

 The committee aims at identifying the indigenous Sahrawis. The Polisario sheikhs verify the identity of the Western Sahara residents who are not among their supporters. The resident said that the identity of his sister was accepted, but his was refused.

Bouhaj Saheb said to The Levant News, “After the failed attempt to determine the identities of the Sahrawis qualified to participate in the referendum, Morocco submitted an autonomy proposal,” indicating that the Polisario Front represents only about 40,000 or 50,000 Sahrawis and not all of the Sahrawis who account for more than 400,000 people.

 Other sources said some 100,000 refugees still live in Polisario’s camps in Algeria.

Saheb accused the Polisario Front and Algeria that hosts the Polisario leadership and the refugees in its territories, of imposing a military blockade on the Tindouf refugee’s camps since refugees cannot return to the Sahara territory in Morocco, which calls for their return and regards them as detainees by the Polisario.

A Sahrawi who has lived for 40 years in one of the Tindouf camps told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity about the suffering of the refugees living in tents in the desert since four decades.

 They are deprived of most normal health, education and economic life conditions.

Morocco accuses the Polisario leaders of corruption and of exploiting the refugee problem by having access to and trading in UN and European aids.

The Sahrawis calling for independence attribute Morocco’s insistence on sovereignty over the Sahara to the availability of major resources in the [Western Sahara] territory, in particular phosphates and an enormous marine wealth.

The former UN envoy to the Western Sahara, James Baker, proposed in June 2001 a solution to the conflict based on autonomy for Saharawis under Moroccan sovereignty, a referendum after a four-year transition period, and voting rights for Moroccan settlers resident in Western Sahara for over a year. Polisario rejected this formula.

The former UN Secretary Gen. Kofi Annan suggested partition in 2002, whereby the administration of the territory would be divided between Morocco (Two-thirds) and the Polisario (One third). However, Morocco refused yet again.

In July 2003, the UN adopted a compromise resolution proposing that Western Sahara become a semi-autonomous region of Morocco for a transition period of up to five years. Then, a referendum would then take place on independence, semi-autonomy or integration with Morocco.

 Polisario signaled its readiness to accept, but Morocco rejected the plan, citing security concerns. Envoy James Baker resigned in June 2004 and the UN process remains deadlocked.

On Dec. 9, 2015, the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, submitted his report about his mediation to solve the Sahara conflict to the Security Council.

 He admitted failure of his mission, noting that Morocco refused to resume direct negotiations, and contented itself to by implementing the broad autonomy, while the Polisario Front insisted on the referendum and threatened to go back to war.

Ross added that UN Secretary-General Pan Ki-Moon would visit the region in January 2016 in order to provide special support for the peace process in Western Sahara.

Some experts believe that the conflict is an extension of the Sand War between Morocco and Algeria that broke out in Oct. 1963 because of border-related issues.

The Western Sahara issue seems to be insolvable since each party is sticking to its own proposal.

 However, a real rapprochement between Algeria and Morocco may contribute to finding a quick solution to this issue, since Algeria is the main supporter of Polisario and it uses it to pressure Morocco in their border conflict.

Dr. Haytham Mouzahem is the head of Centre for Asian and Chinese Studies, and the editor-in-chief of Islam News.

Islam News