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    Back Issues

    Pambazuka News 618: Special Issue: Western Sahara - Africa's last colony revisited

    The authoritative electronic weekly newsletter and platform for social justice in Africa

    Pambazuka News is delivered free to you with the support of donations from Friends of Pambazuka.


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    Pambazuka News (English edition): ISSN 1753-6839

    CONTENTS: 1. Features


    Western Sahara occupied, Africa re-colonised

    Malainin Lakhal


    cc M E
    In introducing this second special issue on the occupied Western Sahara in Pambazuka News, Malainin Lakhal argues that it is ‘a subject that should concern all Africans, and all actors who know that Africa can never rise up as a Union or as a future power unless it jointly struggles for its freedom from poverty, ignorance, re-colonisation, foreign exploitation, internal rivalry, and lack of communication between all its peoples and elite.’

    The conflict in Western Sahara seems to gain more and more visibility and importance in the regional and international geopolitics this last decade, despite the great lack of media coverage and academic analysis of its different facts, aspects, possible consequences and perspectives. It is thanks to some brilliant academics, jurists, human rights defenders, activists and journalists, both foreign and Saharawi that the question of Western Sahara has remained impossible to ignore whenever the debate tackles the future of North Africa, the Maghreb Union, the North-South and South-South interrelations and influence.

    This clear-cut and easily identified conflict is about decolonisation in terms of international law. It is brought to the spotlight by the contributors in this Pambazuka special issue on Western Sahara. They have proven each in his or her own way how the Western Sahara conflict is made complicated by the opposite positions held by the two parties to the conflict, Polisario and Morocco. The former wants decolonisation and self-determination, the latter wants territorial expansion by military means. But also by the conflicting geo-political agendas of the regional actors and the super power nations who have their own agendas and strategic goals, not only regarding their position on Western Sahara, but also their vision of the future of all North Africa, African Union and the Middle East.


    The objective of this second special issue on the conflict of Western Sahara is not the result of a simple opportunity to cover one of the hottest conflicts on the modern political arena. It is rather a well thought-out and carefully discussed step towards communicating to readers some of the international legal facts, political theory debates, and on-the-ground realities relating to the last colony in Africa. It is thus a subject that should concern all Africans, and all actors who know that Africa can never rise up as a Union or as a future power unless it jointly struggles for its freedom from poverty, ignorance, re-colonisation, foreign exploitation, internal rivalry, and lack of communication between all its peoples and elite. Africa needs to build its model for the future on the basis of a conscious awareness about the huge potential it has, and above all its human resources.

    This second special issue presents some new aspects and discussions of the conflict in Western Sahara. It cannot of course cover everything, but it offers a lot of interesting questions, ideas and facts to those who would like to know better what is at stake in the region. What is at stake is that the international legal order seems to be so easily violated and purposely manipulated by certain international actors, especially Morocco. Morocco could not continue its illegal occupation of Western Sahara and defy more than 100 United Nations resolutions unless it had a mysterious green light from Uncle Paris, and an even more mysterious complicity from other countries such as the US. But above all a criminal and immoral support from multinationals and international trade that does not care about the violation of the Saharawi people's right over their own natural resources. Readers can read this history of the Western Sahara conflict in the article submitted by Aluat Hamudi, a Saharawi Master’s student.


    So what is at stake is momentous. Are Africans aware of it? This is another question. But what is certain is that the persistence of the occupation of Western Sahara, the violations of Saharawi people's political, economic, social and cultural Rights, the exploitative plundering of their natural resources and the persistent pressures exercised directly or indirectly over them during the last 40 years is only maintaining a very dangerous situation that can explode at any time, especially in a region that is far from stable. Dr Jacob Mundy contributes again by writing about the security issues across the Sahara-Sahel region, as part of a wider debate about Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara also a factor of regional instability. Dr Sidi Omar, a Saharawi colleague writes of the involvement of the African Union in the Western Sahara story, and of the factors that should rather convince the parties to reach a peaceful and fair solution so as to make this region one of the main assets of the Maghreb and African Union.

    The articles collected in this edition cover many issues but our main theme focuses on the legal issues of the conflict and the status of Morocco in Western Sahara. The article by Pedro Pinto Leite and Jeffrey J. Smith offers a new insight in their detailed examination that questions technical legal theory on self-determination processes and the United Nations. Katlyn Thomas has provided us with her October 2012 Testimony to the Special Political and Decolonisation Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, alongside which we also provide the web link to the United Nations Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York June 2012 full report on the legal issues involved and the principle of self-determination.

    Western Sahara Resource Watch provides an update on an imminent vote in the European Union regarding the importance of protecting Western Sahara’s natural resources, another key issue in the persistence of illegal occupation. It was thus impossible to prepare this second issue without a special focus on this key topic of the Moroccan and European illegal exploitation of the natural resources of this territory, but also a chance to listen to the stories that Saharawi activists and fishermen on the ground, such as Khalil Asmar and Mohammed El Baykam, sent us.

    The Saharawi women and the unique experience of the Saharawi refugees in the process of the efforts of nation-state building is another aspect that is seldom discussed. The few studies on this subject were almost all done by wonderful women from many countries who were able to visit these camps and see first-hand how they function, such as Dr Alice Wilson’s introduction to the Saharawi direct democracy experiment based on her PhD research, and Sonia Rossetti’s PhD research on Saharawi women’s involvement in state building.

    Joining them are four Saharawi women, Fatimetu, Senia, Asria and Agaila, all students and who illuminate the thoughts and experiences of being refugee youth caught up in exile from their homeland. We hope this serves to show how the Saharawi woman is a pillar in the building of the modern experience of Saharawi society.


    The phenomenon of the massive and systematic violations of human rights in Western Sahara is another major aspect treated in this issue. It is a phenomenon because it is strikingly obvious that the Moroccan authorities of occupation are blatantly violating all internationally recognized rights, freedoms and liberties in this colony, while the international community seems to be wilfully turning a blind eye on this fact. All international human rights organizations, without a single exception, including the UN High Office of Human rights in addition to governments, parliaments, political parties, trade unions and civil society actors, have been denouncing the many human rights violations committed against Saharawi civilians in the occupied zones of Western Sahara. Konstantina Isidoros has provided a summary about the 17 February 2013 news of the Moroccan military tribunal of 25 Saharawi human rights activists and provides readers with links to the world-wide campaign groups who have spoken against the military sentencing of civilians.

    Yet in the 40 years since Morocco’s illegal invasion of Western Sahara, the UN Security Council seems to be unable to adopt a simple resolution to mandate the UN peacekeeping mission (MINURSO) in the territory to monitor and protect Saharawi civilians from the Moroccan oppression and humiliation. MINURSO is in fact the only UN peacekeeping mission in the world without a Human Rights component and this is ‘thanks’ to the French refusal in the UN Security Council to allow such a decision to be taken. Both the UK based Western Sahara Campaign and Vivian Solana (also a PhD researcher) share their updates with us on this imminent renewal of the MINURSO mandate, and Salah Mohammed provides an insight of what happened when Christopher Ross, the UN special envoy, came for the first time to El Aaiun in Western Sahara in early November 2012.


    Another astonishing factor that can help readers, as Africans, to link with the Saharawi people and self-determination struggle is the history of Saharawi culture, which is ethnically a mixture of Arabs, Berbers and Africans. So too is Saharawi music deeply rooted in both African and Arab-Berber traditions. We are grateful to Danielle Smith and Violeta Ruano from the UK based arts and human rights charity, Sandblast, for providing us with the visual colour, culture and music of the Saharawi, which we weave through this very international law-themed second issue. Danielle’s article illuminates how Sandblast has set up a music project in the refugee camps and Violeta shares her PhD research on Saharawi music’s role in our independence struggle. In contrast, Saharawi journalist and activist, Said Zeroual and RuGaibi Abdullah Mohammed Sheikh, have written how Saharawi under Moroccan military occupation feel about the theft of their culture and history, which is another important issue about our cultural heritage.

    Finally, this Pambazuka second issue on Western Sahara offers valuable information about new books and films on our as yet un-decolonised African nation. Anthony Pazzanita, a long-time Western Sahara observer and current editor of the ‘Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara’, joins us again by sharing his forthcoming book review of ‘Western Sahara: The Refugee Nation’ by Pablo San Martín, another academic researcher who lived in the refugee camps. Throughout the special issue, we have posted links to the a range of films and documentaries from which readers can further discover how the Saharawi are trying to use the tools of non-violent protests and freedom of speech to continue to resist the occupier, despite facing enormous pressures, oppression and violence.

    * Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!
    * Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

    * Malainin Lakhal, in the Saharawi refugee camps, is Secretary General of the Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union

    Africa’s longest and most forgotten territorial conflict

    Aluat Hamudi


    cc A D A
    Despite wide international recognition, Western Sahara still remains under occupation because of a complex web of geopolitical and strategic interests of neighbouring countries and their Western allies

    The conflict of Western Sahara is one of Africa’s longest lasting territorial disputes. It has been going on for more than three decades. The territory is contested by Morocco and the Polisario Front, which on 27 February 1976 formally proclaimed a government-in-exile called the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. The self-proclaimed republic has been a member of the African Union since 1984. It has been recognized by more than 80 nations. In the meantime, the issue has been on the UN agenda since 1966, yet the international community has failed to find a suitable solution between the two concerned parties. The reasons for this failure are the lack of interest from the international community and the West’s power struggles in the strategic region of North Africa.

    In 2007, the Kingdom of Morocco proposed the Autonomy Plan in which ‘the people of Western Sahara will have local control over their affairs through legislative, executive and judicial institutions under the aegis of the Moroccan sovereignty.’ [1] The plan was rejected by the Polisario Front and academic Jacob Mundy wrote a paper explaining why. [2]

    This paper presents a historical, political and legal account of the Western Sahara conflict and evaluates the geopolitical roles of the regional and outside powers in the conflict: Spain, Algeria, France, and the United States. See The Forgotten of Western Sahara.


    In essence, the issue of Western Sahara seems to be a simple case of self -determination: the plight of a people to decide their political status over their own territory. However upon more thorough examination, we see that the conflict is in fact far more complex and unique. It has many different dimensions: historical, political, economic, social and emotional. In order to understand the complexity of the conflict, it is important to shed some light on the historical background of this ongoing dispute.

    Western Sahara is located in the northern part of Africa along the Atlantic coast. It is bordered by Algeria to the east, Morocco to the north and Mauritania to the south. The land is mostly low lying, flat desert with some small mountains in the south and northeast. The ethnicity in Western Sahara is Arab, Berber and Black Africans most of whom are the followers of Islam. They are known as the Saharawi people. Western Sahara has an estimated population of 573, 000 inhabitants with a hundred thousand refugees living in Tindouf, Algeria. The territory has profitable natural resources including phosphates, iron ore, sand and extensive fishing along the Atlantic Coast. [3]The official languages are Arabic and Spanish.

    Given its strategic location, Western Sahara has always been a disputed area whereupon several world powers have fought to gain control over it. Spain took control of the region in 1884 under the rule of Captain Emilio Bonelli Hernando. In 1900, a convention between France and Spain was signed determining the southern border of Spain’s Sahara. Two years later, Spain and France signed another convention that demarcated the borders of Western Sahara. Spain faced unsuccessful military resistance from the leaders of the Saharawis.

    However, another structured Saharawi movement – the Harakat Tahrir Saguia El Hamra wa Uad Ed-Dahab– was formed by Mohammed Bassriri in 1969. [4] In 1970, Bassiri’s movement organized a large, peaceful demonstration at Zemla (El Aaiun), demanding the right of independence. It ended with the massacre of civilians and the arrest of hundreds of citizens. [5]

    The failure of this movement led to the establishment of a more united and organized front that included all the Saharawi political and resistance groups. The movement was called Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Rio de Oro known by its Spanish acronym as POLISARIO. The Front was led by Al-Wali Mustafa in 1973. The aim was to obliterate Spanish colonization from Western Sahara. In 1974, Spain proposed a local autonomy plan in which the native Saharawis would run their own political affairs but sovereignty would remain under Spanish control. The plan was rejected and the military struggle continued.

    Two years later, King Hassan II ordered a march what is ironically known as The Green March which featured Moroccan flags, portraits of the king and copies of the Koran (Islam’s holy book). It was a march of more than 350,000 people under the leadership of Hassan II and his army [6]. In November14, 1975, the tripartite Madrid Agreement was signed by Spain, Morocco and Mauritania, which divided Western Sahara between the two African countries whilst securing the economic interests of Spain in the phosphate and fisheries. [7] The agreement also stressed the end of Spanish control over the territory but not the sovereignty; Spain would remain the legal administrative power over Western Sahara.

    After the Madrid agreement, Morocco invaded the territory from the north and Mauritania from the south. As a result, thousands of Saharawi refugees escaped and settled in the southern Algerian desert near the city of Tindouf. They have been living there for more than three decades. In the meantime, the United Nations never accepted the Moroccan and Mauritanian occupation of Western Sahara and continues to classify the territory as a non-self-governing territory; that is an area that is yet to be decolonized. [ 8]


    The involvement of the United Nations in the Western Sahara issue began on December 16, 1965, when the General Assembly adopted its first resolution on what then was called Spanish Sahara. The resolution requested Spain to take all necessary measures to decolonize the territory by organizing a referendum that would allow the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people where they could choose between integration with Spain or independence. The Spanish government promised to organize a referendum, but never kept its promise.

    In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations states that everyone has the right to a national identity and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of that right or denied the right to change nationality. [9] Self-determination is viewed as a right of people who have a territory to decide their own political status. For this reason, on December 13, 1974, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution (No. 3292) requesting the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion at an early date on the following questions: Was the Western Sahara (Saguia El-Hamra y Rio de Oro) at the time of colonization by Spain a territory belonging to no one (terra nullius)? If the answer to the first question is negative, then what were the legal ties between this territory and the Kingdom of Morocco and the Mauritanian entity? [10]

    In response to the first question, the Court answered: ‘No’. Western Sahara was not a terra nullius. In fact, Western Sahara belonged to a people: ‘inhabited by peoples which, if nomadic, were socially and politically organized in tribes and under chiefs competent to represent them’ [11]. In other words, the ICJ had determined that the Western Sahara had belonged to the indigenous Western Saharans at the time of Spanish colonization. For the second question, the Court found no evidence of any legal ties of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and Morocco. Therefore, the ICJ had ruled that the native Saharawi population was the sovereign power in the Western Sahara, formerly known as Spanish Sahara. However, Morocco and Mauritania ignored the court’s ruling and invaded Western Sahara anyway. As a result, Polisario Front waged a nationalist war against the new invaders. In 1979, Mauritania abandoned all claims to its portion of the territory and signed a peace treaty with the Polisario Front in Algiers. [12] Nevertheless, war continued between the Polisario forces and the Moroccan royal army until the UN sponsored a ceasefire between the antagonists in 1991.

    In the same year, the U.N. Security Council adopted its resolution 690 (April 29, 1991) which established the United Nations Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in the Western Sahara known as MINURSO. It called for a referendum to offer a choice between independence and integration into Morocco. [13]

    However, for the next decade, Morocco and the Polisario differed over how to identify an electorate for the referendum, with each seeking to ensure a voter roll that would support its desired outcome. The Polisario maintained that only the 74,000 people counted in the 1974 Spanish census of the region should vote in the referendum, while Morocco argued that thousands more who had not been counted in 1974 or who had fled to Morocco previously should vote.

    In 1997, the UN supervised talks in Houston (Houston Agreement) between Morocco and the Polisario movement chaired by James Baker, former US Secretary of State, in which the two parties agreed to resolve all the pending obstacles to the holding of a referendum. In January 2003, Baker presented a compromise that ‘does not require the consent of both parties at each and every stage of implementation.’ It would lead to a referendum in four to five years, in which voters would choose integration with Morocco, autonomy, or independence. [14] The Polisario agreed to the plan; Morocco refused to consider it. In June 2004, James Baker resigned after seven years as UN special envoy to Western Sahara. His successor, Peter Van Walsum vowed to achieve a resolution.

    In 2007, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1783, requesting that the two parties, Morocco and the Polisario Front, to enter into good faith negations to solve the conflict. 15] The negotiations were to take place under the supervision of the personal envoy of the Secretary General to Western Sahara, the Dutch diplomat Peter van Walsum who was replaced by the American diplomat Christopher Ross in August 2008.

    Since 2007, the parties have engaged in a series of negotiations under the auspices of the UN but there has been no breakthrough. Each side still holds its position as the only option for a lasting resolution. Despite the 21 years of neither war nor peace, the two conflicting parties still insist on resolving the problem within the framework of international law. The question that should be asked is why the international legality has failed to solve this issue? According the former UN personal envoy to Western Sahara, Peter Van Walsum, the international legality has failed in the Western Sahara because of two main reasons: first, the weakness of the international law itself: there is no mechanism to enforce its resolutions and even if there was it cannot be applied in the case of the Western Sahara because this conflict is included under the act of the Security Council’s Chapter VI (pacific settlement of disputes) which implies that the Security Council cannot use force to advance a solution on the disagreeing parties. Second, French and the American continued political support for Morocco in the Security Council has undermined a just and lasting solution. [16] Thus, Morocco continues to occupy the disputed territory illegally.


    Despite the legality and the legitimacy of the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination, the question of Western Sahara has always been tied to geopolitics thus inhibiting a just and peaceful solution to the conflict. To gain a better understanding of the deadlock in this conflict, it is essential to analyze the positions and interests of all concerned parties: Polisario and the SADR; Morocco; Spain; Algeria; France; and the United States.


    The Polisario Front’s position on this issue has been clear and consistent. The Movement wants the people of Western Sahara to exercise their right to self-determination with the assumption that it would lead to an independent nation in Western Sahara. The Polisario declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in February 1976 and it controls 20 per cent of the territory. The self-proclaimed republic enjoys full membership of the African Union and has been recognized by over 80 nations. The primary motivation of the Polisario movement is the right of self-determination. They feel that their people have suffered under the Spanish and Moroccan invasions and thus they deserve to decide their political fate which would provide them with a better future. It is a claim that has been endorsed by the UN since 1966.


    The position of Morocco in this is dispute is very clear and as steady as the Polisario’s. It wants Western Sahara to be an integral part of its territory. Moroccan claim of sovereignty over the territory is based on historical narratives. Its army controls 80 percent of the territory. [17] There are different interests at play behind the Moroccan position. First, the conflict is very important for the stability of the Moroccan Monarchy. The monarchy uses it to gain legitimacy and popular support. Zartman notes that ‘the political usefulness of the issue as a common bond and creed of the political system since 1974 is great to the point where it imposes constraints on the policy latitude of the incumbent or any other government’. [18] Second, the regional aspiration of Morocco also contributes to its interest in this conflict. Rabat strives to be the dominant player in the North African region. Besides, the political interests, Western Sahara represent economic interests for Morocco as well. The region has large amounts of phosphates and other natural resources that form a contribution to the Moroccan economy. [19]


    From a legal perspective, Spain is still the colonial administrative power of Western Sahara. In 1975 Spain handed over the territory to Morocco and Mauritania on condition that the views of the Saharawis would be taken into account. That is to say that Spain did not sign away the sovereignty over what was its fifty-third province. As a result, the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination. Yet, Western Sahara still remains non-decolonized territory. According to Arts and Pinto, in the 1970s, Spain’s main goal was to avoid an armed conflict with the Polisario fighters. As a result it handed the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. Spain also was engaged in starting a new political system after the death of its leader, Generalissimo Franco. Today, however, Spain faces the dilemma of balancing international legal obligations and upholding geopolitical interests. [20] Zoubir and Darbouche asserted that Spain has tried to maintain balanced relations with Algeria, Morocco and the Saharawis. Yet, its stand has been also based on strategic interests in the region. The current Spanish government has connected Spain’s security to Morocco’s; it feels that cooperation with Morocco in different areas such as illegal immigration and terrorism is crucial to Spain. Meanwhile, Spain is well aware of the strategic importance of its other southern neighbor, Algeria. Algeria is a key oil and natural gas producing country. It is an economic and political partner of Spain in the region. Thus, the Spanish ‘positive neutrality over the Western Sahara is part of wider Spanish attempt to reassert itself as a player in the Maghreb.’ [21]


    Algeria has been the long-standing and main supporter of the Polisario movement. It provides the independence movement with vital political, military and logistical support. Algeria’s stand with Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination can be explained in two ways: one is the support for a legal and political principle which is the right of self-determination, and second is the struggle for supremacy in the region through the geopolitical approach. As Yahia Zoubir and Hakim Darbouche pointed out, Algeria’s main interests in the conflict derive from fears of its neighbour’s irredentism. Indeed, Morocco made claims over parts of the Algerian territory and even sought to seize southern regions by force in the fall of 1963. In addition to clear geostrategic interests, Algeria’s historical struggle for independence shaped its early diplomatic priorities around the percepts of self-determination and decolonization. [22] In addition, Algeria was and still struggles for regional supremacy over Morocco.  According to Shelley, by the 1970s the Algerian president Boumedienne’s vision of his country was as the Japan of Africa. He wanted to position Algeria as the economic and political leader in the Maghreb region. Therefore, Algeria must maintain its support for an independent Western Sahara.


    France has been the main supporter of the Moroccan position on Western Sahara. It has been consistent in its support more than any other outside power in this enduring conflict. In fact, France had threatened several times to use its veto power at the Security Council of the UN if it ever decided to enforce a solution undesirable to Morocco. According to experts on this conflict, the French position is derived from geopolitical and geostrategic interests. For France too, preservation and protection of the Moroccan regime was and is important in terms of maintaining French economic, political, military and cultural influence in North, West and Central Africa. [23] Given the fact that Algeria is the major supporter of the Polisario Front, France has also favoured Morocco because of its enormously complex relations with Algeria due to its past colonial status in Algeria. Zoubir and Darbouche asserted that Algeria’s nationalism is often at odds with France’s policy: only Algeria had demanded that France repent of its colonial past. [24] Furthermore, France stands with Morocco because of its competition with major powers such as US and Spain over its sphere of influence in the North African region. As Zoubir and Darbouche clearly state, through its strong political and economic presence in Morocco, France hopes not only to curtail growing US influence in the region, but also to prevent the establishment of an independent Saharawi state, whose population speaks Spanish, and would therefore be more receptive to Iberian influence, both culturally and economically. [25]

    Consequently, considering the fact that Western Sahara was the only Spanish colony in the region, France would not permit an independent state that might preclude its influence in a region which France identifies as its sphere of influence. Besides these factors, there are economic and commercial reasons that drive the French position on Western Sahara issue. France is Morocco’s main trading partner and the principal investor in that country. [26] Hence, it is inevitable that France continues to maintain a consistent stand regarding this conflict.


    According to experts on this matter, the U.S’s role in this conflict started when the war broke out in 1975. The Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations had provided financial and military support for Morocco’s invasion and occupation of Western Sahara from 1975 to 1991. The Bush and Clinton administrations maintained a silent position on the UN referendum process from 1992 to 1996. However, the highest level of U.S. leadership was presented in the former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker as the United Nations special envoy to Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004. Even so, James Baker resigned after seven years without any major progress. Since 2003, the U.S government’s view towards the conflict has been to leave it to the parties to reach a mutual solution while maintaining undeclared support for the Moroccan Autonomy Plan: local self-rule for the Sahrawi people under the Moroccan sovereignty.[27]

    Although, the US supports the right of self-determination in principle, its position has been favourable to Morocco as the French for geopolitical interests. The US has consistently provided decisive political and military support to Morocco, without however overtly supporting Morocco’s irredentist claim or recognizing its sovereignty over Western Sahara.[28] There are different factors that have contributed to the US position on this conflict. Karin Arts and Pedro Pinto acknowledge that during the Cold War Morocco was portrayed as the best ally for the American and western interests in the region. Despite the fact that the Soviets never supported the Saharawi nationalist movement, USA was worried about the potential emergence of a pro-Soviet state in Western Sahara. [29] In fact, Morocco and its supporters still point that the founders of the Polisario movement were Leninist, Guevarist, and Maoist sympathizers. [30] Furthermore, in August 2004, Baker confirmed this point by saying that the US’s support to Morocco is reasonable because ‘in the days of the Cold War the Polisario Front was aligned with Cuba and Libya and some other enemies of the United States, and Morocco was very close to the United States.’ [31] Furthermore, Morocco is a major ally of the US in terms of security matters. Zoubir and Darbouche pointed out tha,t since the events of the September 11 and the global war on terro,r many US officials favored Morocco for security issues. In addition, they asserted that Morocco also enjoys the support of strong lobbies which endorse the Moroccan position in the US Congress. [32]


    In conclusion, the Western Sahara conflict is one of the most neglected and forgotten territorial conflicts in today’s world. According to the UN, Western Sahara remains Africa’s last colony. However, in regards to geopolitics, the status quo of neither war nor peace seems to be the least damaging outcome. The conflict has been in deadlock for years and a mutual and an acceptable solution to all the antagonist parties is far from attainable. What the future holds for this ongoing dispute remains unclear. Only time will tell.
    See here


    1. Karin Arts and Pedro Pinto Leite. International Law and the Question of Western Shara. Rainho and Neves, Lda (Santa Maria da Feira), 2007
    2. Tobby Shelly. Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future For Africa’s Last Colony. Zed Books: 2004
    3. Hakim Darbouche, Yahia Zoubir. Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate ;International Spectator, 43:1, 91-105
    4. Maghreb Arab Press. 08 October 2012. Sahara Issue.>.
    5. United Nations Regional Information Center for Western Europe. 8 October 2012. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.>.
    6. Wikipedia. 8 October 2012. United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.>.
    7. Encyclopedia Britannica. 8 October 2012. Green March.>
    8. El Pais. 8 October 2012. Sahara’s Long and Troubled Conflict.
    9. MINURSO Mandate. 8 October 2012. MINURSO United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.>
    10. Jerome Larosch, “Caught in the Middle: UN Involvement in the Western Sahara Conflict”, The Hague, Netherlands Institute of International Relations. Clingendael Diplomacy Papers. No.11, 2007
    11. The International Court of Justice: Western Sahara Advisory Opinion . 26April 201.>
    12. William Zartman, “The Timing of Peace Initiatives: Hurting Stalemates and Ripe Moments”, the Global Review of Ethnopolitics Vol. 1, no. 1, September 2001, 8-18
    13. Macharia Munene, “History of Western Sahara and Spanish
    14. Colonisation”, United States International University, Nairobi
    15. Wikipedia. 8 October 2012. Madrid Accords.>




    [3] Conflict resolution in Western Sahara, p. 2

    [4] History of Western Sahara and Spanish colonization, p. 92

    [5] History of Western Sahara and Spanish colonisation, p. 92





    [10] ICJ, Western Sahara Advisory Opinion, 1975, 12-68 and

    [11] ICJ, Western Sahara Advisory Opinion, 1975, 12-68

    [12] History of Western Sahara and Spanish colonization, p. 92


    [14] Conflict resolution in Western Sahara, p.93



    [17] Larosch, 2007

    [18] Zartman, Ripe of Resolution, p.39.

    [19]Larosch, 2007

    [20] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p. 101

    [21] End Game in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony, p. 22

    [22] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p. 94

    [23]End Game in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony, p.199

    [24] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p.98

    [25] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p.99

    [26] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p.99


    [28] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p.100

    [29] End Game in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony, p. 9

    [30] International Law and the Question of Western Sahara, p.290

    [31] Conflicting International Policies and the Western Sahara Stalemate, p. 100

    [32] International Law and the Question of Western Sahara, p.291

    * Aluat Hamudi, a male Sahrawi student from the refugee camps, studying a Master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Transformation at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA

    OAU/AU and the question of Western Sahara

    Sidi M. Omar


    cc E W
    The continental body, which admitted Western Sahara to its membership in 1982, has consistently defended the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination and independence. But Morocco has always proved to be cunning.


    Western Sahara is the last African decolonisation case on the agenda of the United Nations. It has been on the UN list of the Non-Self-Governing Territories since 1963 when it was under Spanish colonial rule. The UN General Assembly has consistently recognised the inalienable right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination and independence, and called for the exercise of that right in accordance with General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) containing the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

    However, the decolonisation process of Western Sahara was dramatically interrupted owing to Morocco’s military invasion and occupation of the territory on 31 October 1975. Despite the successive African and international settlement efforts, the decolonisation of Western Sahara has not been completed yet because Morocco, which occupies large parts of the territory, continues to reject any solution to the conflict based on the exercise by the Sahrawi people of their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.

    Against this background, the paper will examine how the question of Western Sahara has been dealt with within the African context by looking at the role played by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and its successor the African Union (AU) in the international efforts aimed at the decolonisation of the last colony in Africa. The history of the engagement of the African continental organisation with the question of Western Sahara is long and multifaceted. The paper will thus focus mainly on some defining moments of the OAU/AU treatment of the question of Western Sahara as well as the policy line that has informed their engagement with the question at different stages of its evolution until the present day. The paper will also touch on some key political events relating to the development of the question of Western Sahara in order to set the general context in which the OAU/AU treatment of this question began and evolved over the past six decades.


    It is pertinent to underline, at the outset, that the official policy of the OAU regarding the question of Western Sahara was essentially guided by the principles and objectives of the OAU Charter, in particular those relating to the total decolonisation of the African territories under foreign occupation. As may be recalled, one of the main purposes of the OAU Charter, which was adopted and signed by the Heads of African States and Governments assembled in the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 25 May 1963, was to eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa (Article II; d). In addition, the First Conference of Independent African Heads of State and Government, held in Addis Ababa, from 22 to 25 May 1963, adopted resolution CIAS/Plen.2/Rev.2 on decolonisation in which the African leaders expressed their unanimous conviction of the urgent necessity of coordinating and intensifying their efforts to accelerate the unconditional attainment of national independence of all African territories still under foreign domination. They also reaffirmed the duty of all African Independent States to support dependent peoples in Africa in their struggle for freedom and independence. Recognising that border problems constituted a grave and permanent factor of dissention, the OAU was moreover unequivocal in establishing the intangibility of borders inherited from colonial period as a key guiding principle of the incipient continental organisation. To this end, the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, meeting in its First Ordinary Session in Cairo, Egypt, from 17 to 21 July 1964, adopted resolution AHG/Res. 16(I) on Border Disputes among African States. Considering that the borders of African States, on the day of their independence, constituted a tangible reality, the OAU Assembly solemnly declared that all Member States had pledged themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence.

    It is also significant to recall in this context that the creation of the OAU in 1963 coincided with the inclusion of Spanish Sahara, as it was then known, on the list of the UN Non-Self-Governing Territories under Chapter XI of the UN Charter, which included those territories whose peoples had not yet attained a full measure of self-government. Two years later, the UN General Assembly adopted its first resolution on Spanish Sahara on 16 December 1965. In resolution 2072, recalling resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960, the UN requested Spain, as the administering power of the territory, to take all necessary measures to liberate Spanish Sahara from colonial domination.

    As indicated earlier, the policy of the OAU regarding the question of Western Sahara was based on the organisation’s principles and objectives particularly those relating to decolonisation, and it was on this basis that the OAU was seized of the then Spanish Sahara as an African country under foreign occupation. This policy was further reinforced by the status accorded to the territory by the UN as a Non-Self-Governing Territory whose people were entitled to exercise their inalienable right to elf-determination in accordance with General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) containing the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. It was in this context that the OAU Council of Ministers, meeting in its Seventh Ordinary Session in Addis Ababa, from 31 October to 4 November 1966, adopted resolution CM/Res. 82 (VII) on the Territories under Spanish Domination. Considering Article 2 of the OAU Charter, which laid down the eradication of all forms of colonialism from the continent as one of the main goals of the OAU, the Council of Ministers expressed its full support to all efforts aimed at the immediate and unconditional liberation of all African territories under Spanish domination (Ifni, Spanish Sahara, Equatorial Guinea and Fernando Po). It also appealed to Spain to initiate resolutely a process giving freedom and independence to all these regions, and to refrain from all steps, which might create in them a situation jeopardising peace and security in Africa.

    In its Thirteenth Ordinary Session, held in Addis Ababa, from 27 August to 6 September 1969, the OAU Council of Ministers adopted resolution CM/Res. 206 (XIII) on Decolonisation and Apartheid. In the resolution, the Council reaffirmed the legitimacy of the struggle launched in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea (Bissau), Namibia, South Africa, French Somaliland (Djibouti), Spanish Sahara and the Comoro Islands, and recommended that more substantial aid be extended to the African liberation movements materially, financially and diplomatically. It also urged Spain to implement resolution 2428 (XXIII) of the General Assembly on Spanish Sahara. It is to be recalled that resolution 2428 (XXIII), which was adopted on 18 December 1968 on the question of Ifni and Spanish Sahara, noted the difference in nature of the legal status of these territories as well as the processes of decolonisation envisaged for them by General Assembly resolution 2354 (XXII). Moreover, it reaffirmed the inalienable right of the people of Spanish Sahara to self-determination in accordance with General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV), and called upon Spain to refrain from any action likely to delay the process of the decolonisation of Spanish Sahara.

    The same call on Spain was reiterated by the OAU Council of Ministers, in its Fifteenth Ordinary Session, held in Addis Ababa from 24 to 31 August 1970, when it adopted resolution CM/Res. 234 (XV) on Decolonisation in which it strongly urged Spain to comply without delay with the relevant UN resolutions concerning the legitimate rights of the population of the Spanish Sahara to self-determination. It is worth mentioning that the same position was reaffirmed by the OAU Council of Ministers in its Nineteenth Ordinary Session, which was held in Rabat, Morocco, from 5 to 12 June 1972, in which the Council adopted resolution CM/Res. 272 (XIX) on Special Measures to be adopted on Decolonisation and the Struggle Against Apartheid and Racial Discrimination. Regarding Spanish Sahara, the Council expressed its solidarity with the population of the Sahara under Spanish domination and called once again on Spain to create a free and democratic atmosphere in which the people of that territory could exercise their right to self-determination and independence without delay in accordance with the UN Charter. It is of special importance to note that resolution CM/Res. 272 (XIX), which was adopted unanimously and with the positive vote of Morocco, endorsed the right of the people of Spanish Sahara not only to self-determination but also to independence.

    In its Twenty-First Ordinary Session, held in Addis Ababa, on 17 – 24 May 1973, the OAU Council of Ministers adopted resolution CM/Res.301 (XXI) on the Sahara under Spanish Domination. Referring to resolution CM/272 (XIX) that was unanimously adopted by the Rabat Summit, the Council denounced the dilatory manoeuvres of the Spanish Government and expressed its complete solidarity with the people of the Sahara under Spanish administration. It also urged the UN to assume without delay its responsibilities with regard to this problem, by ensuring the rapid application of the procedure laid down in the relevant resolutions for the total decolonisation of this region. It is worth mentioning that resolution CM/Res.301 (XXI) came few days after the creation of the Frente popular para la Liberación de Saguiat El Hamra y de Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO) on 10 May 1973 as a liberation movement with the declared objective to use armed struggle to achieve independence from Spanish colonial domination. The movement immediately gained overwhelming support among the Sahrawi population and was later recognised as the sole and legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. In the following year, the OAU Council of Ministers adopted resolution CM/Res.344 (XXIII), in which it reaffirmed, in letter and spirit, its earlier resolution on the Sahara under Spanish domination.

    Despite the pressure brought to bear by the increasing attacks of the Frente POLISARIO and the UN and OAU successive calls for the decolonisation of the territory, it was not until August 1974 that Spain finally declared that it was prepared to organise a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara in early 1975. In response to Spain’s decision, King Hassan II of Morocco announced that his country could not accept a referendum that included the option of independence for Western Sahara. Mauritania, for reasons of self-preservation, also joined Morocco in claiming Western Sahara and in calling for arbitration by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to make a judgement on the pre-colonial legal status of the territory. On 13 December 1974, the General Assembly requested the ICJ to give an advisory opinion on the status of Western Sahara prior to Spanish colonisation, and called on Spain to postpone the referendum until the General Assembly was able to decide on a decolonising process that included an ICJ advisory opinion. It was against this backdrop that the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, meeting in its Twelfth Ordinary Session, which was held in Kampala, Uganda, from 28 July to 1 August 1975, adopted resolution AHG/Res. 75 (XII) on Spanish Sahara. In the resolution, the OAU Assembly called upon Spain to abstain from all acts, which might prejudice the decolonisation process of the territory, until the opinion of the ICJ was known.

    By referring the matter to the ICJ and by managing to suspend temporarily Spain’s plans to organise the self-determination referendum in Spanish Sahara, Morocco was hoping that the Court would legally endorse its claim to the territory. However, the ICJ advisory opinion, which was released on 16 October 1975, dealt a heavy blow to Morocco’s plans. As may be recalled, the ICJ advisory opinion on Western Sahara was unequivocal in terms of denying the existence of any ties of territorial sovereignty between Morocco and Mauritania and Western Sahara on the one hand, and endorsing the decolonisation of the territory based on the principle of self-determination, on the other. In response to the ICJ ruling, King Hassan II, with the complicity of certain Western powers, ordered the military invasion and occupation of Western Sahara on 31 October 1975, thus leading to the outbreak of the armed conflict between the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Moroccan forces.

    The Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara was in violation of numerous UN and OAU resolutions as well as the OAU principle of intangibility of colonial borders and the ICJ advisory opinion on Western Sahara. In line with General Assembly resolution 2625 (XXV), which stipulates that no territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognised as legal, the UN, the OAU/AU and all UN Member States have never approved Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara or recognised the legality of its forceful annexation of the territory. In accordance with General Assembly resolutions 34/37 (1979) and 35/19 (1980), Morocco is an occupying power of Western Sahara, and the UN has never recognised it as administering power of the territory.

    Instead of assuming its responsibilities as a colonial and administering power of the territory, Spain began secret negotiations with Morocco and Mauritania, which culminated in the signing of a tripartite agreement in Madrid on 14 November 1975 whereby Spain put an end to its administration of Western Sahara. As a result, on 14 April 1976, Morocco and Mauritania signed an agreement in which Western Sahara was partitioned with the northern part given to Morocco and the southern part to Mauritania. It was also reported that Spain was assured of a 35 per cent share of the phosphates of the territory. Evidently, the Madrid agreement was null and void because its objective was to deprive a people of their inalienable right to self-determination and independence. By signing the agreement, the three signatories moreover have violated a fundamental norm of international law, namely the duty of states to fulfil in good faith their obligations in accordance with the UN Charter.

    While Spain was withdrawing from the territory leaving behind a legal and institutional vacuum, the Frente POLISARIO proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) on 27 February 1976. The proclamation of the SADR was the outcome of the anti-colonial and long-standing struggle waged by the Sahrawi people for defending their nation as well as their internationally recognised right to self-determination and independence. On 4 March 1976, the SADR had its first government and in the Third Congress of the Frente POLISARIO, held in August 1976, the SADR had its first constitution including the principles governing the establishment and operation of the state institutions. In its preamble, the constitution underlined the tripartite Arab, African and Muslim character of the Sahrawi people as well as their past and present anti-colonial resistance for defending their freedom and independence. Since its inception, the SADR has been recognised by over 80 countries around the world, and in 1984 it became a full member of the OAU and is a founding member of the AU.

    In view of the accelerating events in Western Sahara at the time, the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, meeting in its Thirteenth Ordinary Session at Port Louis, Mauritius, from 2 to 6 July 1976, adopted resolution AHG/Res. 81 (XIII) on the Convening of an Extraordinary Summit on the Question of Western Sahara. Recalling the relevant resolutions of the OAU Liberation Committee and in particular its affirmation of the sacred principle of self-determination, the OAU decided to hold an extraordinary session at summit level with the participation of the people of Western Sahara with a view to finding a lasting and just solution to the problem of Western Sahara.

    In its following ordinary session, which was held in Khartoum, Sudan, from 18 to 22 July 1978, the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government adopted resolution AHG/Res. 92 (XV) on the question of Western Sahara. In the resolution, the OAU expressed its deep concern about the serious situation prevailing in the territory and the tension in the region, resulting from Morocco’s continued occupation of Western Sahara, and affirmed the principles and objectives of the OAU Charter, in particular those relating to the total decolonisation of the continent. It took note of the advisory opinion given by the ICJ with respect to the principle of the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination and reaffirmed the responsibility of the OAU with regard to the search of a fair and peaceful solution in conformity with the principles of the OAU and UN Charters. It also decided to set up, for this purpose, an ad hoc Committee composed of at least five Heads of State of the OAU and entrusted it with the consideration of all the data on the question of Western Sahara, among which, the exercise of the right of the people of this territory to self-determination. Finally, it called upon all the States of the region to refrain from taking all actions likely to hamper the search of a fair and peaceful solution to this problem.

    The huge costs incurred during the war made King Hassan II of Morocco realise the impossibility of a military victory in Western Sahara. In an attempt to halt the advance of the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army and the increasing diplomatic achievements made by the Sahrawi Republic in Africa and elsewhere, King Hassan II was forced to contemplate, albeit for tactical reasons, the possibility of holding a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara as a way-out of the conflict.

    In its Eighteenth Ordinary Session held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 24 to 27 June 1981, the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government examined the report of the Secretary-General and the Reports of the Fifth and Sixth Sessions of the Ad-Hoc Committee of Heads of State on Western Sahara. It also noted with appreciation the solemn commitment made by King Hassan II of Morocco to accept the holding of referendum in the Western Sahara to enable the people of that territory to exercise their right to self-determination as well as his pledge to cooperate with the Ad-Hoc Committee in the search for a just, peaceful and lasting solution. The OAU Assembly consequently adopted resolution AHR/Res. 103 (XVIII) on Western Sahara in which it decided to set up an Implementation Committee with full powers to work with the UN and to take all necessary measures to guarantee the exercise by the people of Western Sahara of self-determination through a general and free referendum. It urged the parties to the conflict to observe an immediate ceasefire and directed the Implementation Committee to meet before the end of August 1981 and in collaboration with the parties in conflict to work out the modalities and all other details relevant to the implementation of the ceasefire and the conduct and administration of the referendum. It also requested the UN in conjunction with the OAU to provide a peacekeeping force to be stationed in Western Sahara to ensure peace and security during the organisation and conduct of the referendum and subsequent elections.

    The African settlement efforts then culminated in the adoption by the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, meeting in its Nineteenth Ordinary Session in Addis Ababa from 6 to 12 June 1983, of resolution AHG/Res. 104 (XIX) on Western Sahara. The resolution reaffirmed, in letter and spirit, resolution AHR/Res. 103 (XVIII) on Western Sahara, which was adopted earlier. It urged the parties to the conflict, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO, to undertake direct negotiations with a view to bringing about a ceasefire to create the necessary condition for a peaceful and fair referendum for self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, a referendum without any administrative or military constraints, under the auspices of the OAU and the UN. While deciding to remain seized of the question of Western Sahara, the OAU Assembly also welcomed the constructive attitude of the Sahrawi leaders in making it possible for the Nineteenth Summit to meet by withdrawing from it voluntarily and provisionally. The OAU resolution AHG/Res. 104 (XIX) would then constitute the cornerstone of the subsequent UN efforts aimed at decolonising Western Sahara.

    Despite the early commitment undertaken by Morocco before the OAU in 1981 and its pledge to allow the referendum to take place and to respect its outcome, it immediately became evident that Morocco was not sincere in its intentions, and that it was only playing for time. It was then in the context of responding robustly to Morocco’s manoeuvring and uncooperative attitude that the OAU took its historic decision in 1982 to admit the Sahrawi Republic (SADR) into the continental organisation, which was followed by the SADR taking up its seat as a full Member State of the OAU during the Twentieth Ordinary Session of the Assembly held in Addis Ababa on 12-15 November 1984.

    As indicated earlier, the OAU resolution AHG/Res. 104 (XIX) was instrumental in laying the foundations for the subsequent UN efforts aimed at decolonising Western Sahara. It was in this context that the UN General Assembly adopted unanimously resolution 40/50, on 2 December 1985, based on a draft that was introduced by the Chairman of the OAU, the then President of Senegal, on behalf of the African States. Resolution 40/50 mandated the Secretary-General to start discussions with the two parties to the conflict, Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO, with a view to obtaining their cooperation for the implementation of the resolution. In particular, the resolution, which also reflected the entire operative paragraphs of resolution AHG/Res. 104 (XIX) adopted by the OAU in 1983, requested the two parties to start (a) direct negotiations to reach (b) a ceasefire, and (c) to agree on the modalities of a free and fair referendum on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.

    In the framework of the General Assembly resolution 40/50, the OAU Chairman and the UN Secretary-General began, in 1986, a joint mediation aimed at obtaining acceptance by the two parties to the conflict of a settlement plan whose main aim was to enable the people of Western Sahara to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence under conditions acceptable to them and, hence, to the international community. In this context, the UN and OAU jointly elaborated a Settlement Plan that was agreed to by the two parties on 30 August 1988, and adopted by Security Council resolutions 658 (1990) and 690 (1991). The objective of the plan was to hold a free and fair referendum under UN supervision in which the Sahrawi people could exercise their right to self-determination in choosing between independence and integration into Morocco. The Security Council also mandated the establishment and deployment in the territory of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to supervise the ceasefire, which came into force on 6 September 1991, and to hold a referendum for self-determination at a specified date not later than February 1992 in accordance with the timetable for implementation as approved by the Security Council in its resolution 690 (1991).

    Once again and despite its earlier commitments to the UN/OAU Settlement Plan, Morocco immediately exhibited its unwillingness to go ahead with the holding of the self-determination referendum because it became certain that the Sahrawi voters would inevitably choose the independence of Western Sahara. The UN mission is still present in Western Sahara supervising the ceasefire, but the referendum has not been held yet owing to Morocco’s intransigent position and its outright rejection of any solution to the conflict based on the exercise by the Sahrawi people of their inalienable right to self-determination and independence. As partner of the UN in the Settlement Plan for Western Sahara, the OAU nonetheless remained seized of the question of Western Sahara whilst maintaining the same principled position regarding this issue, which was based on the principles and objectives of the OAU Charter and its relevant resolutions.


    The transformation of the OAU into the African Union (AU) was described as an event of great magnitude in the institutional evolution of the continent. It took decades for this institutional transformation to evolve and materialise, but 1999 may be singled out as the year in which the OAU Assembly decided, in conformity with the ultimate objectives of the OAU, to establish an African Union as a way to expedite the process of economic and political integration in the continent. Since then, efforts were redoubled to achieve this goal that culminated in Durban Summit, South Africa, held on 9-10 July 2002, which marked the official launching of the AU and the holding of the First Assembly of the Heads of State and Government of the African Union.

    In the AU founding Constitutive Act, which was adopted in Lomé, Togo, on 11 July 2000, the African leaders underlined that the AU shall function in accordance with a number of principles including, inter alia, sovereign equality and interdependence among Member States of the Union; respect of borders existing on achievement of independence; and prohibition of the use of force or threat to use force among Member States of the Union. It is therefore no wonder that Morocco remains the only African country that is not member of the African Union because it continues to occupy by force parts of a member State of the AU, namely the Sahrawi Republic, in violation of the objectives and principles of the AU Constitutive Act.

    As a successor of the OAU, the AU over the years has maintained the same principled position as that adopted by its predecessor vis-à-vis the question of Western Sahara. It is pertinent to highlight in this context the plan of action (SP/ASSEMBLY/PS/PLAN(I)) adopted by the AU Heads of State and Government, meeting in Tripoli, Libya, on 31 August 2009, in the Special Session on the Consideration and Resolution of Conflicts in Africa, which included the measures that needed to be taken to accelerate the resolution of conflict and crisis situations and consolidate peace in Africa. Regarding Western Sahara, the AU leaders pledged their support for the on-going UN efforts to overcome the current impasse and for relevant UN Security Council resolutions. They also called for the intensification of efforts towards the holding of a referendum to enable the people of the territory to choose between the option of independence and that of integration into the Kingdom of Morocco.

    Concerned about the human rights situation in the occupied territories of Western Sahara, the AU Executive Council, meeting in its Twentieth Ordinary Session, which was held in Addis Ababa, from 23 to 27 January 2012, adopted decision EX.CL/Dec.689(XX) on the Twenty Ninth, Thirtieth and Thirty First Activity Reports of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). Regarding the situation in Western Sahara, the Executive Council requested the ACHPR to carry out a mission to the occupied territory of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a view to investigating human rights violations and to report to the next Ordinary Session of the Executive Council in January 2013. The significance of this decision lies in that it highlights the increasing interest given by the AU to the issue of human rights in the occupied territories of the SADR as well as the AU’s stance with regards Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara.

    The AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, meeting in its Nineteenth Ordinary Session, which was held in Addis Ababa, on 15 - 16 July 2012, adopted the Report of the Peace and Security Council on its Activities and the State of Peace and Security in Africa. Regarding Western Sahara, the Assembly renewed the AU’s appeal to the Security Council for a more proactive approach to the dispute. In particular, it called upon the Security Council to endeavour to create conditions that would enable the people of Western Sahara to exercise their right to self-determination in line with international legality and the relevant AU decisions, including the AU Plan of Action adopted on 31 August 2009. In the same context, the AU Executive Council, meeting in its Twenty-Second Ordinary Session, held recently in Addis Ababa, on 21 - 25 January 2013, adopted decision EX.CL/Dec.758(XXII) on the Activity Report of the Commission. Regarding Western Sahara, the Executive Council requested the Commission to take all the necessary measures for the organisation of a referendum for self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in compliance with the relevant OAU decisions and UN resolutions.

    As indicated earlier, the decolonisation of Western Sahara has been endorsed by the UN and the OAU since the 1960s. However, due to Morocco’s continued occupation of parts of Western Sahara as well as its opposition to any solution to the conflict based on the exercise of the Sahrawi people of their inalienable right to self-determination and independence, the decolonisation of the territory has not been completed yet despite the continued African and international settlement efforts.

    The Sahrawi people nonetheless are pursuing the implementation of their national strategy in defence of their legitimate rights to recover the sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara. The Sahrawi Republic (SADR) has been consolidating its relations with a large number of countries in the world, mainly in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and South East Pacific region. At the regional and African level, the SADR has actively participated, along with friendly and neighbouring countries, in the consolidation and effectiveness of regional security structures and in combating internationally organised crime and other security threats in conformity with its obligations as a Member State of the African Union.


    In view of the above discussion, it has been made clear that the OAU/AU treatment of the question of Western Sahara has been guided by the principles and objectives of the OAU Charter and the AU Constitutive Act respectively. In particular, the solemn commitment to the total decolonisation of the African territories under foreign occupation on the basis of the inalienable right of colonial peoples to self-determination, as well as the intangibility of borders existing on the achievement of national independence has been a guiding principle for the engagement of the African continental organisation with the question of Western Sahara. In this context, for the OAU/AU, Western Sahara remains a colonial case to which the UN doctrine and practice relating to decolonisation must be applicable. This means that the only viable and legal solution to this decolonisation issue lies in the exercise by the Sahrawi people of their inalienable right to self-determination and independence through a free, fair and democratic referendum on self-determination.

    Morocco’s occupation and forcible annexation of Western Sahara in 1975, which was in violation of numerous UN and OAU resolutions as well as the OAU principle of intangibility of colonial borders and the ICJ advisory opinion on Western Sahara, has constituted an enduring denial of the inalienable right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination and independence. Moreover, after rejecting the UN/OAU Settlement Plan and successive UN-sponsored peace plans, Morocco has shown beyond any doubt that it is still unwilling to go along the peaceful, democratic and viable path leading to a lasting solution to the conflict in Western Sahara, namely the self-determination referendum.

    As the OAU responded robustly to Morocco’s intransigence by admitting the SADR into the continental organisation in 1982, the international community should now send Morocco a strong message that the basic rules of the international system and peoples’ inalienable right to self-determination and independence cannot be indefinitely held hostage to the intransigence of an occupying power that has repeatedly failed to honour its international commitments. In sum, the completion of the decolonisation of Western Sahara, the last colony in Africa, by means of ensuring the inalienable right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination and independence, will undoubtedly give an additional impetus to the on-going efforts aiming at confronting the challenges of peace and security in the continent, and will be a significant springboard for the achievement of the long-sought regional as well as continental integration.

    * Dr Sidi M. Omar is former Permanent Representative of the Sahrawi Republic (SADR) to the African Union, but is now based at Interuniversity Institute of Social Development and Peace (IUDESP), Universitat Jaume I, Castellón, Spain


    1. The right to self-determination and the indigenous people of Western Sahara. Published in: Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Volume 21, Issue 1 March 2008, pages 41-57. See here

    2. Mapping of the Conflict in Western Sahara (2009).Click here

    3. OMAR, SIDI M. (2008): Los Estudios Post-Coloniales: una Introducción Crítica, Castellón de la Plana: Universitat Jaume I. ISBN: 978-84-8021-639-5.

    4. OMAR, SIDI M. et al (2008): El Papel de la Sociedad Civil en La Construcción de la Paz en el Sáhara Occidental, Barcelona: Icaria-Editorial. ISBN: 978-84-9888-011-3.


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    The question of Western Sahara: from impasse to independence

    Pedro Pinto Leite and Jeffrey J. Smith


    cc Globe
    There is little hope for a genuine referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people. Their international supporters and the UN General Assembly should now work towards universal recognition and acceptance of the statehood of Western Sahara.

    Western Sahara remains Africa’s last colony. The Sahrawi people – with more half their population in refugee exile in desert camps and others under military occupation – are among the last people to be waiting to realise the right to self-determination, a right that in its protection and assurance is a paramount duty of the organised international community, including the United Nations. [1] Even with a formal process for their self-determination established more than 20 years ago, the right remains denied to the Sahrawi people. The international community has deferred to a United Nations that has proven unable to break the impasse over the future of the Sahrawi people because of a Security Council that is unwilling to act and a General Assembly which has relinquished its historical role to oversee decolonisation.

    Two other important norms of international law continue to be violated in Western Sahara, namely the prohibitions against territorial conquest and aggression, intended to be the basis for peace and stability in the modern order among nation-states. These norms have been all but forgotten in the Sahara and the resulting apparent impunity enjoyed by Morocco is both an objectionable precedent and a phenomenon which damages international law. The case of Western Sahara could not be more clear, whatever one’s perspective, including as a matter of international relations, law, the social and economic development of northwest Africa, and justice itself.

    Jacob Mundy, an American scholar who has written extensively on the question of Western Sahara, expresses the circumstances in the following way, with remarks that call to mind the logical construct of a Columbus’s egg:

    The [International Court of Justice’s 1975] opinion on Western Sahara is most often cited as proof definitive that Western Sahara is owed a referendum on self-determination. However, this claim is based upon a half-reading of the summary of the Court’s opinion. A full reading of the Court’s entire opinion shows that the ICJ was very clear that the sovereign power in Western Sahara was and is the native Western Saharans [the Sahrawi people]. The purpose of a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara is not to decide between competing sovereignties, whether Moroccan or Sahrawi, but to poll the Sahrawis as to whether or not they wish to retain, modify or divest their sovereignty. We need to stop talking about self-determination as an act that constitutes sovereignty in Western Sahara. Sovereignty is already constituted in Western Sahara. As the ICJ said, Western Sahara has never been terra nullius.” [2]

    This article, inspired in part by Jacob Mundy’s reasoning and impelled by the stalled dynamic of realising the Sahrawi people’s rights and resolving their circumstances, aims to inquire into the issue of self-determination, a requirement presented to the Sahrawi as the only path to some future political and legal status including possibly as an independent state. From such a discussion, we advance a proposal to overcome the current impasse.


    Several observations should be made at the outset about a referendum for Sahrawi self-determination. The most evident is that a referendum – a consultative electoral choice by the legitimate inhabitants of a colonised (i.e. non-self-governing) territory to settle upon a political status – is not required including as matter of international law or the relevant UN decolonisation resolutions (notably General Assembly Resolutions 1514 (XV) and 1541 (XV) of 14December 1960). A referendum is also not a matter of general UN policy or direction in decolonisation cases and it did not occur in the majority of cases during the era of decolonisation in the 1950s and1960s. To be sure, a referendum properly done confers legitimacy on a United Nations which has an obligation to ensure (or at least establish the underlying conditions for) orderly and democratic self-determination, especially where the organisation has a substantial role, such as in East Timor (Timor-Leste) and Namibia. The form of realising self-determination –the modality of ensuring a colonised people have available to themselves an elective choice – is less important than the substantive right to be decided upon, namely, continuation of colonisation (that is, incorporation into the colonising state),association with the former colonising state, or independence. The UN has always been clear that all three are available to such outcomes are to be always available to non-self-governing peoples, even as the number of cases dwindles, and it has particularly asserted such a range of elective choices as available to the Sahrawi people. The International Court of Justice has recently confirmed the substantive right:

    During the second half of the twentieth century, the international law of self-determination developed in such a way as to create a right to independence for the peoples of non-self-governing territories and peoples subject to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation ... A great many new States have come into existence as a result of the exercise of this right. [3]

    The conduct of a referendum organised by the UN as an ostensibly disinterested third party can also ensure a more politically acceptable outcome for the occupying state, as with Indonesia in Timor-Leste. Moreover, the important factor of political recognition of a new state – if independence is the choice of a self-determining people – in the organised international community is a useful advantage. Finally, the need to promote peace, community order and social development in a newly independent former colony, especially after a period of annexation with possible in-migration by peoples from an occupying state, would seem in part to be helped by a transparent, externally conducted and democratic process.

    The origins of the UN’s self-determination process for the Saharawi people should be recalled, noting this was first a responsibility of Spain as the coloniser of what was then Spanish Sahara, an obligation not diminished by Spain’s November 1975 agreement with Mauritania and Morocco to jointly administer the territory; the Madrid Accords. For its part, the UN plan for self-determination had its roots in efforts by the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) that began in 1982,culminating in a 1988 settlement proposal, agreed to by Morocco and the Polisario Front in the form of measures adopted by the Security Council in 1990and 1991. The agreement came at a critical moment. [4] Mauritania had already abandoned its claim to the territory and recognised the Sahrawi Republic. [5] From the moment of Mauritania’s August 1979peace treaty and admission of its conduct of an “unjust war” the Sahrawi people had only a single occupier to contend with, the Moroccan army then suffering heavy losses. [6]

    As such, the active end to hostilities came as a relief to Morocco. The 1988-91 settlement plan had several flaws, including Minurso’s lack of capacity to effectively ensure the registration of Sahrawi nationals for a self-Determination referendum and the maintenance of peace and human rights in the occupied part of the territory leading up to the actual conduct of a referendum. [7] The most serious problem was the flexibility given to Morocco to contest the enfranchisement process, the kingdom insisting that large numbers of persons with dubious connections to the Sahrawi people and the territory must be qualified, obstructive behaviour that continued until the practical end of the referendum registration process in 2004. [8] In the result, during the active years of the UN’s work toward a referendum Morocco was able to both boycott the process of voter identification and insist on the addition of large numbers of its nationals to voting lists, leading to the routine postponement of the referendum. [9] MINURSO did, however, complete the process. Almost 10 years after MINURSO was established, the number of Sahrawis eligible to take part in the vote was fixed at 86,386.Morocco, fearing defeat in any referendum, immediately contested the result. [10]

    The former United States Secretary of State James A Baker, appointed in March1997 as the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, presented a proposal to overcome such problems, the so-called Framework Agreement or Baker Plan I as it came to be known. [11] But the plan did not provide for independence as an option [12]- only autonomy within Morocco [13]- and was therefore at odds with an established norm of international law: the people of a non-self-governing territory can only be said to have reached a full measure of self-government if able to decide on an independent state, among other options. [14] This norm is the core of the right of peoples to self-determination, widely considered jus cogens and one required to be recognised and upheld by all states as an obligation erga omnes . [15] Backed thus by international law, the Polisario Front rejected Baker Plan I. [16] Undaunted, James Baker moved to develop a second plan for self-determination, one that envisioned Sahrawi self-rule under the governance of a Western Sahara Authority for a period of five years, to be followed by a referendum on independence. Baker Plan II provided that Moroccan settlers (who by then outnumbered Sahrawis in the occupied part of the territory by at least two to one) would be allowed to vote. This, too, was contrary to norms of self-determination given that the relevant UN principles after Resolution 1541 (XV) are clear that those entitled to vote are the bearers of the right to self-determination; the indigenous people of a colonised territory. [17] Here it should be recalled that in Timor-Leste’s 1999 referendum Indonesian settlers were disqualified. Nevertheless, Baker Plan II was unanimously endorsed by the Security Council. The Polisario Front reluctantly (even “surprisingly”, according to many observers) accepted the plan. It is now understood that the Sahrawi leadership endorsed Baker Plan II confident that the outcome would be one where Moroccan settlers would largely opt for independence, so escaping poverty and a dictatorial regime. [18] Anticipating that it would lose the vote, Morocco rejected the plan. [19] Moreover, it feared that democracy during the five years of transitional administration leading to the referendum could ‘infect’ the kingdom. [20]

    Any notion of a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara – regardless of the population eligible to participate – has been rejected by Morocco since 2002. Notwithstanding the stated commitment of Morocco’s Hassan II to the 190-91 UN settlement terms and the 1997 framework process, his successor Mohammed VI rejects a referendum, declaring Morocco’s claimed sovereignty over its so-called Southern Provinces to be irrevocable. [21] In June 2004 James Baker resigned in frustration over the situation.

    As alternative to a referendum, Mohammed VI introduced the idea of limited autonomy for Western Sahara. On 11 April 2007 Morocco’s government transmitted to the new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a proposal for the territory’s autonomy, styled as the “Moroccan initiative for negotiating an autonomy statute for the Sahara region” and described as “a basis for dialogue, negotiation and compromise”. [22] The Polisario Front had anticipated the initiative and so delivered to the Secretary-General a day earlier its “Proposal For A Mutually Acceptable Political Solution Assuring The Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara”. [23] By month-end the Security Council responded with Resolution 1754, urging Morocco and the Polisario Front to “enter into direct negotiations without preconditions and in good faith.” Talks started that June in Manhasset, New York and numerous rounds have been held since in various locations. While the conduct of negotiations, now under the auspices of the current Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General, the former US diplomat Christopher Ross, has meant that Morocco must contend with the Polisario Front as an equal, there has been no tangible progress since April 2007. Side talks in November 2011 on the subject of natural resources in Western Sahara were fruitless and efforts to have the UN assume a human rights monitoring role as part of MINURSO have failed. [24] From the standpoint of the involvement of the UN and the organised international community the impasse following James Baker’s resignation has continued and there has been no momentum toward either of the parties’ 2007 proposals. While this status quo is widely regarded as unacceptable, the community of states defers entirely to the UN’s conduct of the matter, thus entrenching the dynamic.


    Two decades on, it is evident that the process for an act of Sahrawi self-determination has failed. The impasse is routinely explained away as the inability of the parties themselves to change their positions in negotiations, the Polisario Front for its part viewed as intransigent because of its insistence on a credible referendum process and a reliance on international law. What the commentators have been reluctant to emphasise is that the Sahrawi position is entirely consistent with the law. The ICJ’s 2010 Kosovo advisory opinion underscores the point. And so while it cannot quite be said that the Sahrawi people were deceived when they agreed to the 1988-91 settlement and referendum arrangements, the basis of such measures has certainly and obviously been denied to them. One of the avowedly more important norms of international order and security in the modern age, colonial self-determination, goes unremedied. So, too, does any challenge to uphold another important norm, that of territorial integrity, as well as international humanitarian law in an occupation notorious for human rights abuses, the in-migration of settlers and the taking of natural resources. [25]

    There are two further unhappy results from the present impasse, namely the diminished capacity and reputation of the African Union to be a respected interlocutor to the “question” of Western Sahara and the demonstrable inability of the Security Council to resolve the conflict, whether within the norms of international law or not. The latter issue is more serious when we recall that the UN, led by the Security Council, was successful in a shorter period of time with self-determination in Namibia and Timor-Leste.

    For the Sahrawi people, the construct and requirement of the organised international community for a referendum has become deferred ad kalendas graecas.


    If the delay in resolving the “question” of Western Sahara traces itself to a stalled dynamic in arranging a referendum for the Sahrawi people (or perhaps now even the entire population as it has come to be in occupied Western Sahara) then the requirement for such a process must be critically questioned. In its 1975 Western Sahara advisory opinion the International Court of Justice confirmed that “the application of the right of self-determination requires a free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples concerned” [26] acknowledging, however, that the need to have regard for the will of the people concerned did not have to come about only by referendum. [27] A referendum if necessary, but not necessarily a referendum.

    And so the wide-ranging and accepted practice in the community of states for the assurance of “legitimate” (i.e. consultative, credible and electorally based) instances of decolonisation must be recalled. The vast majority of cases during the busy years of decolonisation reveal the acceptability of peoples exercising the right to self-determination and accession to independence without referenda. Among them can be counted all former Portuguese colonies with the exception of Timor-Leste. [28]

    Moreover, the risk of conducting a less than fully credible (or democratic) referendum in Western Sahara should be considered. A sham elective process, aside from possibly introducing an unforeseen element into the conflict over the territory, would be a further precedent that damages international law, as the case of a fraudulent consultative exercise in West Papua, the 1969 “Act of Free Choice”, has demonstrated. In any event, a referendum as it would be conducted in Western Sahara is now not one in which Moroccan nationals settled into the territory would be disqualified and so would be a referendum damaging to the principle of territorial integrity and the prohibition by international humanitarian and criminal law against population resettlement into an occupied territory.

    On the other side of the ledger, the Sahrawis credibly exercised the right of self-determination when first constituting themselves as a state. Notwithstanding the historical and legal parallels between the two cases of Timor-Leste and Western Sahara, there is an important difference to be noted. For the Timorese a referendum was arguably required because, while there had been a declaration of independence and for a brief time Timor met the statehood conditions enumerated in the Montevideo Convention and customary international law (a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states), on invasion by Indonesia governance ceased and territorial control was lost. [29] In addition, the nascent Democratic Republic of East Timor achieved only limited recognition (from 11 states) and the regional organisation, ASEAN, sided with Indonesia. Finally, the exiled Timorese leadership did not pursue a statehood construct, holding to a singular position as a non-self-governing people. In this, Portugal maintained its position as the de jure administering colonial power as demonstrated by its challenge in the ICJ to the 1989 Australia-Indonesia Timor Gap Treaty for seabed petroleum and, later, as a party to the May 1999 agreement with Indonesia for a referendum in the territory. [30] Finally, a UN conducted referendum was a useful precursor to the accepted need for the UN to administer the territory and build institutions for statehood over a three-year period until independence in May 2002. [31] The utility of such a popular, and widely supported process, can be seen at present in Kosovo and was arguably critical in the culmination of South Sudan’s long running secession effort.

    For the Sahrawi people, the circumstances are manifestly different. No serious assertion can be made that the SADR is not a state. The criteria for statehood are well established: (i) a people culturally and linguistically different from those of Morocco; [32] (ii) a defined territory within colonially prescribed and universally accepted boundaries, one-fifth of which is under its control; [33] (iii) a government with exclusive jurisdiction over a substantial part of the Sahrawi population that is in the liberated area of Western Sahara and the refugee camps at Tindouf; and (iv) the capacity to enter into relations with other states, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic having been recognised by more than 80 states (and conducting diplomatic relations with 40 of them, with embassies in 18 capitals). In addition, the SADR was admitted in 1982 to the regional organisation, the OAU (something that resulted in Morocco quitting the organisation) and is a founding member of OAU’s successor, the African Union. [34]

    While it is true that the larger and economically important part of the territory is ruled by Morocco, illegal occupation cannot of itself terminate statehood. [35] Indeed, as Kuwait’s invasion and occupation by Iraq in 1990 has shown, there is an obligation to expressly maintain territorial integrity in cases of annexation. An additional factor is the absence of a colonial administering state. International law together with widespread state practice is clear that a colonising state continues with the obligation to ensure the self-determination of a subject non-self-governing people, however much that state may be absent. Spain’s abandonment of Western Sahara might properly be construed not so much as recognition of the Saharawi Republic but of the fact that all other options for self-determination have been exhausted. [36] The problem with the existence of the Sahrawi state is two-fold: the requirement for recognition by all states as a political act whatever the material-factual existence of the Saharawi Republic and the deference to the UN in resolving the “question” of Western Sahara exclusively within the construct of self-determination and not – as with Kosovo and South Sudan at present (and in a somewhat different context, Palestine) – a new state emergent into the organised international community.

    The problem with accepting an existing, functional Sahrawi state may be the result of confusion over what has come to be a singular standard in the international community, most recently seen in the cases of secession, that states coming into being must undergo the same legitimacy requirements including a reasonably credible and democratic choice for independence and some measure of consent by the former parent (or occupying) state. [37] However, the better reason for the lack of acceptance of the Sahrawi state is the reluctance of the organised international community to disturb the status quo of a claim that is rigidly maintained by Morocco. Whatever the overarching norms of international law, deferring the matter to the United Nations has contributed to the impasse.


    By now it should be clear that a referendum for self-determination arranged for the Sahrawi people is not a mandatory requirement of international law, state practice or UN norms. If the right of self-determination is accepted – and it is almost universally by states in the case of Western Sahara – it can be accomplished by other means. The overwhelming precedent is that of moving directly to independence and therefore statehood within the colonial (non-self-governing) context. It must be recalled that the Sahrawi people have been resolute about such a choice. No serious argument, much less any credible evidence, can be asserted that the Sahrawi people favour anything less than outright statehood and have, at least with that part of their population self-governed in exile and so able to declare a consensus, said so continuously since February 27, 1976. The apparent problem of acceptance of Sahrawi statehood – in other words, recognition of the SADR – is not so much a problem of approving the existence of the state as it is a refusal to contemplate (and address the end of) an illegal occupation together with the possible political and social upheaval to result in Morocco. Moreover, a referendum held out as the only mode or route to self-determination, whether in a non-self-governing or secessionary context, establishes a norm that may be unworkable in future cases where an occupying state’s cooperation and consent is considered necessary to the exercise.


    We might ask why, when it comes to Western Sahara and the Sahrawi people, a referendum is not mandatory there been so much insistence on it. After all, there is not much doubt – arguably much less than in the previous UN referenda for Namibia and Timor-Leste – that independence would be broadly chosen. However, the Sahrawi people themselves would benefit from the perceptions resulting from a properly conducted referendum, not least of which would be the lasting basis for universal recognition by states and the further legitimisation of the Sahrawi statehood “project”, including by participation of the whole Sahrawi populace. As with Timor-Leste, the consequence of a referendum would be to set aside obstacles in the SADR’s new relationship with more powerful states, notably the United States and France, which obstacles exist because of their support to Morocco.

    Within the UN the “question” of Western Sahara has become almost exclusively the preserve of the Security Council. The role of the General Assembly, reaching a high water mark in the years of pursuing an end to occupation and self-determination in Namibia, going so far as to create a council to govern the territory in absentia, has progressively diminished. The annual resolutions of the General Assembly, taken up from the Special Political and Decolonisation Committee, while re-iterating the right to self-determination, are not pursued by the Security Council and serve to reiterate a broad acceptance of Morocco as a legitimate party through statements that settlement of the “question” of Western Sahara must be “just, lasting and mutually acceptable” to the two parties concerned.

    There is also the phenomenon of the status quo of self-determination, most starkly demonstrated by Western Sahara’s continuing inclusion on the UN’s list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, conferring a degree of protection not so much to the Sahrawi people as to at least one right they enjoy. [38] An over-assertion of statehood seemingly puts that at risk, and it is for this reason that the SADR has not sought a fuller presence in UN institutions, for example by observer status in the General Assembly or participation in the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation which conducts extensive fisheries research in Saharan coastal waters. [39]

    The situation is therefore one of schizophrenia. The Sahrawis conduct their affairs as a state, at least for that part of the population in exile that can do so, while much of the community of states is not willing to accept the formal existence of that state. [40]


    A consultative exercise as important as the election by a colonised people of their political-legal status is a desirable objective. When it comes to the Sahrawi people, the insistence on a referendum is a pragmatic choice. But that insistence has allowed the underlying right of the people of Western Sahara, namely the actual achievement of their desired status, to be frustrated. It would be different if a referendum were imposed or able to be credibly organised by the Sahrawi people both inside and outside the occupied part of Western Sahara. Neither is likely. And so the insistence on process not only obscures the desired right, it obstructs it being realised.

    How, then, can the present circumstances be addressed? What innovative approaches can be recommended, especially by those states and organisations concerned and who, through the UN, exercise a power dynamic to determine the fate of the Sahrawi people and their territory. To that essential question we turn.


    Apart from the rights of the Sahrawi people, together with the obligations owed to them as a population designated as non-self-governing, the UN Charter contains several prescriptions useful to resolve their status. Such requirements, it must be added, do not encompass the details of self-determination, a task in the after the Charter left to the General Assembly and found in Resolutions 1514 and 1541, above. In the event of territorial annexation, and there is no clearer case at present than that of Morocco in Western Sahara, the Security Council may invoke the measures at Chapter VI and VII of the Charter. Notwithstanding the impasse over Western Sahara and the nature of its initial occupation and annexation there has been no serious consideration of applying the compulsory provisions of the Charter. This is, of course, a reflection of the prevailing status quo.

    What obviously engages application of the UN Charter is the matter of Western Sahara’s territorial integrity. The right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people having been violated by invasion, such violation, the reasoning goes, can only be brought to an end by withdrawal of Moroccan forces (and government control) from the territory. [41] This was the initial direction of the Security Council when confronted by the annexation of the territory, directing in resolution 380 on 6 November 1975 that “Morocco immediately … withdraw from the Territory of Western Sahara …” [42] It is less a question of the persuasiveness of this demand than it is to realise it decades later. How can the Security Council be made to act?

    To begin with, a well-planned campaign for recognition of the Sahrawi Republic by UN member states seems timely. A useful reference point for the merits of recognition is the 2004 letter from the then President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, to Mohammed VI, explaining why South Africa had decided to recognise the Sahrawi Republic. [43] At the same time we recognise that as a matter of contemporary international law recognition is not strictly necessary for the existence of statehood, having only a declaratory value. But international politics is another matter and here it is clear recognition is profoundly important. So it is worth repeating that the SADR has been recognised by over 80 countries and the African Union. [44] In recent years, in addition to being recognised by some states ex novo (most recently South Sudan) and having established diplomatic relations with states some time after recognition (most recently Guyana), the SADR has managed to reverse the position of eight states that had suspended or “withdrawn” recognition: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chad, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Vanuatu. There are also indications that states in the Global North are considering recognition of the SADR, for example Sweden where the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs approved a resolution in November 2012 calling on that country’s government to extend recognition. [45]

    It is in this endeavour – a campaign for universal recognition of the Sahrawi state – that solidarity organisations will play an important role. That must necessarily engage coordinated action among the many worldwide groups which suggests the creation of an effective coordinating agency. Such an organisation does not yet exist and the need for it is ever more apparent. [46] By way of example, in the matter of the protection of natural resources in Western Sahara, including against their export from the territory, the Brussels based non-governmental organisation Western Sahara Resource Watch pursues case-specific and general campaign work coordinated across several countries and languages. [47] External NGO monitoring and action for human rights in occupied Western Sahara is equally sophisticated, with the Geneva based Bureau International des Droits pour le Respect humains au Sahara Occidental (BIRDHSO) created in 2002. [48] A newly organised NGO, Western Sahara Human Rights Watch (WSHRW), pursues a broader mission “to promote and support campaigns for the defense of human rights in the Western Sahara, civil and political, as well as economic or cultural.” [49] The space for coordinate action remains open for the vital work of a single respected and unifying organisation. It would necessarily need to have regard for, if not work somewhat in conjunction with, Sahrawi public diplomacy.

    It is also clear that the Saharawi Republic should continue to comport itself as a state, especially in its informal relationships with states of the Global North and in preparation for the restoral of full independence. Kosovo offers a useful example of the interim steps to be taken, including accession to international organisations and receiving assistance in certain areas, such as rule of law capacity building. When it comes to territorial integrity, it should be recalled that the SADR routinely acts in its self-interest, for example through the enactment of ocean jurisdiction legislation in 2009. [50]

    None of this is to suggest that the Sahrawi people and their leadership – both in exile at Tindouf and within occupied Western Sahara – should maintain anything less than an outspoken demand for the exercise of self-determination. Such an option must always necessarily remain available and in theory – if only because it is acceptable under international law – the resumption of armed hostilities. [51] However, the time has come for the most tenable and at least equally acceptable option to be advanced, and that is greater recognition of the Saharawi Republic. What is to result is no more an uncertain or damaging prospect for international relations, political stability in the states concerned, and the maintenance of the international legal order than has resulted from the present circumstances.


    Any campaign for wider recognition of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic must have as a primary goal approval by a majority of member states in the UN General Assembly. Subject to the specific requirements of the UN Charter for the SADR’s membership in the UN, the result would be two-fold: the extension of formal relationships by previously uninterested states together with a putting into perspective for possible action by the UN and the organised international community the problem of the illegal occupation of Western Sahara and continuing aggression that is revealed in the various dimensions of annexation, including human rights abuses, settler in-migration and the pillage of natural resources.

    The General Assembly has previously acted in a leading role for decolonisation and the creation of states, its long-running work for Namibia being the classic exemplar. While the UN Charter and precedent confer sufficient authority, it should be recalled that the General Assembly’s 1950 Uniting for Peace resolution can also be invoked, Western Sahara being an instance where the Security Council, because of a “lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there [is a] breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures … to maintain or restore international peace and security.” [52] The long-running and profoundly unjust case of Western Sahara is an ideal example of the intended use of the resolution.

    Even the most casual, objective observer must conclude that there is little prospect of the Sahrawi people enjoying a self-determination referendum of any credibility or acceptability in the years to come. Only a determinedly new approach by the UN Security Council or momentous political change in Morocco would seem to change the present impasse. Neither seems likely. With an organised international community more concerned with the revolutions of the Arab Spring, there is a reluctance to act when it comes to Western Sahara. The status quo stands to be further entrenched. And so it is time to recall that the Sahrawi people are the sovereigns of their territory, and the fact of their state is well established. From such a place there should be little distance to travel to a completed and universally accepted statehood, and that is by the path of recognition. The Sahrawi people, their international supporters and the member states of the General Assembly each have a role in the achievement of such a goal.


    [1] The term “Sahrawi” is used here as the name of the original people of the territory of Western Sahara, known as Spanish Sahara until 1975. “Saharan” is applied in the geographic context, while “Saharawi” is used in the formal name of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. The Sahrawi population numbers about 350,000;160,000 in the Tindouf camps, some 120,000 to150,000 in occupied Western Sahara and the remainder a diaspora primarily in Mauritania and Spain.

    [2] The Question of Sovereignty in the Western Sahara Conflict , presentation at the IAJUWS conference La Cuestión del Sáhara Occidental en El Marco Jurídico Internacional, Las Palmas, Canary Islands (27-28 June 2008).

    [3] Accordance with International Law of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Respect of Kosovo, Advisory Opinion, ICJ Reports 2010, page 403 at paragraph 79.

    [4] The Settlement Plan, based on an earlier peace proposal by the Organisation of African Unity, was elaborated by the United Nations and entered into effect in September 1991 with a ceasefire. The plan foresaw the organisation of a referendum of self-determination in the months to follow. MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, was established by UN Security Council Resolution 690 (29 April1991) with the mission to monitor the cease-fire and conduct the referendum.

    [5] The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic(SADR) was proclaimed on February 27, 1976.Mauritania signed a peace treaty with the Sahrawis on August 5, 1979 and recognised the SADR on February 27, 1984.

    [6] This was acknowledged by credible observers and Morocco itself. See e.g. “Desert War Flares Anew” Chicago Tribune (October 6, 1988)at: .

    [7] See, for example, the statement of former US Ambassador Frank Ruddy, who served as Deputy Chairman of MINURSO, to the Congress of the United States on January 25, 1995,

    [8] In the 1980s Morocco built a sand wall or “berm” 2,500 kilometres in length that divided the territory. Heavily garrisoned with more than100,000 Moroccan FAR soldiers stationed along it, the berm is a complex structure of bunkers, barbed wire, electronic surveillance systems and millions of landmines. The berm was reportedly constructed with the material and financial assistance of Israel, the USA and Saudi Arabia. It has received little comment, including as to its environmental impact, and is maintained contrary to international humanitarian law. Satellite imagery of the berm can be viewed on the Google Earth website.

    [9] Ambassador Frank Ruddy's report, at note7 above, denounced the obstacles put by Morocco to MINURSO‟s work. Francesco Bastagli, appointed UN Special Representative for Western Sahara in 2005, strongly criticised UN inaction on Western Sahara and resigned in protest in 2006.

    [10] This was the registration count or census figure on 30 December 1999. The Identification Commission announced the result on 15 January2000 and the Secretary-General reported it to the Security Council on 17 February 2000. See UN doc. S/2000/131(17 February 2000). “From Morocco‟s point of view, the numbers indicated total defeat.” Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy, Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010) at p. 215.

    [11] Framework Agreement on the Status of Western Sahara, Annex I of UN Secretary-General Report S/2001/613 of 20 June 2001.

    [12] The then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan may have instructed his Personal Envoy to go no further than autonomy for Western Sahara within the Moroccan state. Former UN Undersecretary-General Marrack Goulding has said that Annan asked him “to go to Houston to persuade James Baker III to accept an appointment as Special Representative and try to negotiate a deal based on enhanced autonomy for Western Sahara within the Kingdom of Morocco.” Marrack Goulding, Peacemonger (London: John Murray 2002) at pp. 214-215.

    [13] The 1999 referendum in Timor-Leste provided for the option of autonomy within the state of Indonesia as a matter of free choice by the Timorese people as well as a second option, independence. In contrast, the Western Sahara Framework Agreement required autonomy from the outset; it was to be imposed on the Sahrawi people. This contravened Principle IX of Resolution 1541(XV) which provides that: “[Any] integration should be the result of the freely expressed wishes of the Territory’s peoples acting with full knowledge of the change in their status, their wishes having been expressed through informed and democratic processes impartially conducted and based on universal adult suffrage”.

    [14] “A Non-Self-Governing Territory can be said to have reached a full measure of self-government by: (a) Emergence as a sovereign independent State; (b) Free association with an independent State; or (c) Integration with an independent State.” UNGA Resolution 1541(XV)(15 December 1960), Principle VI. See also paragraph 6 of UNGA Resolution 742 (27 November 1953): “[T]he manner in which Territories ... can become fully self-governing is primarily through the attainment of independence...”.

    [15] “The exceptional importance of the principle of the self-determination of peoples in the modern world is such that today the principle has been held to constitute an example of jus cogens, that is, “a peremptory norm of general international law”, to quote the expression used in article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties” (Hector Gros Espiell, The Right to Self Determination: Implementation of United Nations Resolutions (Study Prepared by the Special Rapporteur of the Sub Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities)E/CN.4/Sub.2/405/Rev.1, 1980).

    [16] It is instructive to recall that, from the time James A Baker was appointed until his first plan was developed, the people of Timor-Leste proceeded through the self-determination process and were assured of having independence by May 2002. It is not known how persuasive this parallel case might have been in the consideration of the Sahrawi people and their diplomatic response in rejecting the Baker Plan I.

    [17] In the same context, consider a recent report of the New York City Bar Association which notes that “the right of self-determination under international law pertains to the indigenous inhabitants of a Non-Self-Governing Territory – in this case the Sahrawis who inhabited the territory – and cannot be invoked by non-indigenous settlers”. The Legal Issues Involved In The Western Sahara Dispute – The Principle of Self-Determination and the Legal Claims of Morocco, New York City Bar Association, Committee on The United Nations, June 2012, at p.94.

    [18] Statement by Emhamed Khadad, member of the National Secretariat of the Polisario Front and coordinator for MINURSO, at a meeting on Western Sahara at the University of Utrecht, 25 March 2002.

    [19] “I would assume it was because they were worried that they wouldn’t win the vote.” James Baker in an interview with the American radio program Wide Angle, 19 August 2004, available at:

    [20] For a discussion of the response to Baker Plan II, see Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution, above note 10 at pp.234 ff.

    [21] In March 2006 during a visit to the territory Mohammed VI declared: “Morocco will not cede a single inch, nor a grain of sand of its dear Sahara”. See statement at

    [22] See Ambassador Frank Ruddy has described it as: “the latest in a long line of illusions that Morocco has created over the years to distract world attention from the real issue”, adding “The Moroccan limited autonomy plan for Western Sahara … might sound like a step forward, at least until one reads the not-so-fine print. Article 6 of the plan provides that Morocco will keep its powers in the royal domain, especially with regard to defense, external relations and the constitutional and religious prerogatives of his majesty the king. In other words, the Moroccans are offering autonomy, except in everything that counts. It gets even more disingenuous where the Moroccans say their plan will be submitted to a referendum, but fail to provide details. A referendum to be voted on by whom? By the Moroccan people? That would be absurd on the face of it. By the Saharawis themselves? If so, what happens if the Saharawis reject the plan? Would that mean Saharawi independence? The Moroccans are not likely to tolerate that result.” Karin Arts and Pedro Pinto Leite, eds, International Law and the Question of Western Sahara (Oporto: IPJET, 2007) at p. 12.

    [23] The Proposal is available at: The Polisario Front restated its acceptance of Baker Plan II, and extended the prospect of naturalising or granting citizenship to Moroccan settlers at independence and waived possible future reparations claims between the two states. The 2007 Proposal remains the Polisario Front‟s formal position, including a stated commitment to holding a “genuine referendum”.

    [24] See e.g. the 2012 annual report of the Secretary- General to the Security Council,“Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara ”(5 April 2012), UN doc. S/20121/197, at paragraphs 72 ff. See also “Preliminary Observations: Robert F. Kennedy International Delegation Visit to Morocco Occupied Western Sahara and the Refugee Camps in Algeria” (3 September 2012) available at: <>. On 28 November 2012 Christopher Ross announced he would not reconvene direct informal talks between the two parties for the time being.

    [25] The value of natural resources exported from occupied Western Sahara in 2012, primarily phosphate mineral rock and fish, will exceed $500million. See generally the website of Western Sahara Resource Watch at: <>. The cost to Morocco of its occupation has not received critical attention. We consider it to be at least $1.5billion annually in identifiable military expenditures

    [26] Western Sahara Advisory Opinion, Advisory Opinion of 16 October 1975, ICJ Rep.1975, para. 55.

    [27] “The validity of the principle of self-determination, defined as the need to pay regard to the freely expressed will of peoples, is not affected by the fact that in certain cases the General Assembly has dispensed with the requirement of consulting the inhabitants of a given territory. Those instances were based either on the consideration that a certain population did not constitute a "people" entitled to self-determination or on the conviction that a consultation was totally unnecessary, in view of special circumstances”, ibid. para. 59.

    [28] Few self-determination referenda were held in Africa. The referendum in French Togoland (1956) was not a referendum of self-determination per se , as it did not include the option of independence and so was rejected by the UN General Assembly. Those in Namibia (1989) and South Sudan (2011) were accepted and led to the independence of both countries. The referendum in Eritrea served to confirm a de facto independence – Eritrea had already won the war of liberation against Ethiopia and the referendum was a means to ensure recognition by the OAU (headquartered in Addis Ababa) and the UN.

    [29] Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (26 December1933), 165 LNTS 19.

    [30] Despite not having recognised the Democratic Republic of East Timor at the time of its unilateral declaration of independence in November 1975, Portugal severed diplomatic relations with Indonesia after the invasion.

    [31] More accurately perhaps the “restoral” of independence.

    [32] The Sahrawi speak Hassaniya, an Arab dialect different from that in Morocco.

    [33] Since Morocco completed the berm in the late 1980s, the Sahrawi have undisputed control inland or east of it, a matter confirmed by the operation of the 1990-91 UN ceasefire and referendum arrangements.

    [34] In July 2002 Mohamed Abdelaziz, President of the SADR, was elected vice-president of the African Union at its first summit. Morocco remains the only African state not a member of the regional organisation

    [35] Ian Brownlie, Principles of Public International Law, 3rd ed (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979) p. 83. In a similar way, Hector Gros Espiell notes that the “foreign occupation of a territory – an act condemned by modern international law and incapable of producing valid legal effects or of affecting the right to self-determination of the people whose territory has been occupied -constitutes an absolute violation of the right to self-determination”, above note 16 at para. 45.

    [36] In a recent article Hans Corell, the former UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, described the Madrid Accords in these terms: “On14 November 1975, a Declaration of Principles on Western Sahara was concluded in Madrid between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania (“the Madrid Agreement”), whereby the powers and responsibilities of Spain, as the administering Power of the Territory, were transferred to a temporary tripartite administration. The Madrid Agreement did not transfer sovereignty over the territory, nor did it confer upon any of the signatories the status of an administering power; Spain alone could not transfer that authority unilaterally. The transfer of the administration of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975 did not affect the international status of Western Sahara as a Non-Self-Governing Territory. On 26 February1976, Spain informed the Secretary-General that as of that date it had terminated its presence in Western Sahara and relinquished its responsibilities over the territory, thus leaving it in fact under the administration of both Morocco and Mauritania in their respective controlled areas.” “Western Sahara – status and resources”, New Routes 4/2010, pp.10-13.

    [37] Recall Hector Gros Espiell‟s reasoning: “[T]he right of peoples to self-determination has lasting force, [and] does not lapse upon first having been exercised to secure political self-determination...”, above note 16.

    [38] A protection, however, that cannot be totally taken for granted, considering for example the case of West Papua: Although the so-called “Act of Free Choice” was a sham – something later admitted by the then UN Under Secretary-General Chakravarthy Narasimhan and confirmed by the recent report of the Dutch academic Pieter Drooglever – West Papua was removed from the UN‟s list of non-self-governing territories and has since been considered part of the Republic of Indonesia. See Pieter Drooglever, An Act of Free Choice: Decolonisation and the Right to Self-Determination in West Papua (The Hague: Institute of Netherlands History, 2009).

    [39] See the website of the UNFAO/UNEP “Canary Current Large Marine Ecosystem Project” at: <>

    [40] The status of Sahrawi diplomats makes the point: Ubbi Bachir and Ali Mahamud Embarek, each formerly Polisario Front representatives in The Netherlands are now SADR ambassadors in Nigeria and Panama, respectively.

    [41] See also Susan Marks, Kuwait and East Timor: a brief study in contrast, comparing the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq with the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, International Law and the Question of East Timor, above note 22 at pp. 174-179. For the reasons outlined above her conclusions apply a fortiori to the Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara.

    [42] At paragraph 2 of the resolution. Article25 of the UN Charter obligates members of the United Nations to carry out decisions of the Security Council.

    [43] “For us not to recognise SADR in this situation is to become an accessory to the denial of the people of Western Sahara of their right to self-determination. This would constitute a grave and unacceptable betrayal of our own struggle, of the solidarity Morocco extended to us, and our commitment to respect the Charter of the United Nations and the constitutive act of the African Union.” Letter of August 1, 2004, untitled, at:

    [44] Morocco’s isolation became even more pronounced when South Sudan achieved independence, acceded to the African Union and immediately established diplomatic relations with the SADR. There has been a campaign in recent years by Morocco to secure the withdrawal of recognition of the SADR by states in the Global South, with mixed success. The commentators agree that withdrawal of recognition does not signify or hasten the end to a state’s formal existence. See Article 6 of the Montevideo Convention, above note 29. Such “withdrawals” have occasionally been absurd, for example in Guinea-Bissau’s first recognising the SADR in 1976, withdrawing recognition in 1997, again extending recognition in 2009 and withdrawing it in 2010.

    [45] See “Committee on Foreign Affairs at the Swedish parliament calls on the government to recognise SADR” (15 November 2012) at the Sahara Press Service

    [46] Professor Stephen Zunes at University of San Francisco, comparing solidarity movements in the causes of East Timor and Western Sahara, concludes this is a “factor working against Sahrāwī independence … despite their impressive efforts at building well-functioning democratic institutions in the self-governed refugee camps where the majority of their people live, the Sahrawis have never had the degree of international grassroots solidarity that the East Timorese were able to develop, which eventually eroded support of the Indonesian occupation by Western powers.” See: <>. “Though an international solidarity movement does exist for Western Sahara, primarily in Europe, it pales in comparison with the movement in support of East Timor, which grew dramatically in the1990s, and helped encourage greater media coverage on the human rights situation.” Presentation to the conference on International Law and the Question of Western Sahara, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, 27 and 28 October,2006.

    [47] See WSRW ‟s website at: <>. WSRW is thought to be unique among NGOs and solidarity groups concerned with Western Sahara by employing a staff lawyer.

    [48] See the organisation’s website at:

    [49] See WSRW‟s website at:<>. WSRW is thought to be unique among NGOs and solidarity groups concerned with Western Sahara by employing a staff lawyer. See the organisation’s website at: <>.

    [50] Law no. 03/2009 of 21 January 2009Establishing the Maritime Zones of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. The legislation resulted in the European Parliament reviewing the EU-Morocco 2007 Fisheries Partnership Agreement, which had allowed European fishing in the coastal waters of Western Sahara, leading to Parliament’s rejection of the treaty and the end of such fishing in December 2011. The SADR government has also issued petroleum exploration licenses for foreign companies in the Atlantic coastal seabed, and routinely protests the taking of natural resources from the territory to The European Commission and foreign natural resources companies.

    [51] The use of force against colonial and foreign occupation is legitimate and permissible as a matter of international law. For example, in its resolution of 3 December 1982 (“Importance of the universal realisation of the right of peoples to self-determination and of the speedy granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples for the effective guarantee and observance of human rights”) the General Assembly reaffirmed “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle”. See UN doc.A/RES/37/43.

    [52] UN General Assembly Resolution 377-A(3 November 1950) at: <>.For a discussion of the possible application of the resolution see Jean Krasno and Mitushi Das, “The Uniting for Peace Resolution and Other Ways of Circumventing the Authority of the Security Council” in Bruce Cronin and Ian Hurd, eds, The UN Security Council and the Politics of International Authority (London: Routledge, 2008)at pp. 173-195.

    * Pedro Pinto Leite is an international jurist and Jeffrey J. Smith a Canadian barrister. This article was reprinted with kind permission from the December 2012 issue of Western Sahara Review.


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    Public diplomacy and gender mainstreaming

    An ethnographic exploration of Saharawi informal representation in Italy

    Sonia Rossetti


    cc C P
    [/urlThe Saharawi case represents a unique example of women’s inclusion in state-building for an Islamic government-in-exile.
    Palestinian activist Randa Farah suggests that Saharawi women have traditionally possessed great autonomy despite being Muslim:

    […] Islam, as practiced by the Sahrawis, is tolerant and liberal. One of several examples of how SADR [Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic] has been able to draw upon local traditions is its institutionalization of women’s rights. Traditionally, women have total autonomy in managing the daily activities in and around the tent. Any form of violence against women, verbal or physical, is condemned and the man is usually ostracized by society. Consequently, these incidents are so rare that the issue of domestic violence against women or children is almost non-existent (Farah, 2003).

    It is this mix of a traditional sense of equality and religious tolerance that has helped institutionalise Saharawi women’s rights in a deliberate process that has been acknowledged and supported by various agencies of the United Nations. For instance, a report published by the Women War Peace website for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), notes that: ‘the National Union of Sahrawi Women (NUSW) is a powerful force that has successfully brought together thousands of Sahrawi women to advocate for their involvement in political and economic processes in the search for peace’ (2010).

    It was 1975 when the Saharawi liberation movement, Polisario, renounced its tribal kinship to proclaim national unity and express its desire for independence. The new Saharawi state-in-exile was proclaimed while under Moroccan invasion just before Spain’s withdrawal from the Western Sahara colony. Since the 1976 constitution, SADR has welcomed women in all its ranks of politics. As mothers, teachers, mayors, ministers, political representatives and doctors, Saharawi women have kept their religious and traditional identity, which has enhanced their agency in avoiding illiteracy and promoting political action within the Polisario. They are today represented at all societal levels, both in the refugee camps and overseas. Their participation at international fora is highly regarded and often gives governments and international activists a new angle of discussion on the situation of people in the refugee camps and on possible solutions of the Western Sahara conflict. Despite some allegations against the Polisario’s instrumental use of gender mainstreaming to gain support from the international community (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2009; San Martin, 2009), it is a matter of fact that Saharawi women have a great say within the SADR, and that such policies commenced well before they became norms and benchmarks in foreign policy literature.

    The gender mainstreaming process of SADR has been widely discussed in the literature (Lippert, 1992; Olmi, 1998; Baines, 2001; Fiddian-Mendez, 2002; Armstrong, 2008) but what is certain is that their work has been under international scrutiny for over 30 years. Every five years, in the refugee camps of Tindouf, the National Union of Saharawi Women (NUSW) holds the Saharawi Women’s Congress with hundreds of international observers. In 2008 they were invited to visit the European Parliament (Mujeresaharauis blogspot, 2008), and the Pan African Women’s Organisation (PAWO) chose them to represent African women at the UN (Sahara Press Service, 2008).

    Literature on the role of political representatives abroad from ‘states-in-waiting’ is limited. The job of a political representative abroad is to develop political, economic and solidarity revenues with the hosting country and for a ‘state-in-waiting’ this means foreign aid and political exposure in the international arena. For example, Amanda Wise looking at the East Timorese Diaspora in Sydney, argued that well-established transnational connections cultivated over twenty-five years by East Timorese representative Ramos Horta, helped this ‘state-in-waiting’ gain significant international support from Australia and eventually its independence (2004: 171). Saharawi representatives have been sent abroad for over thirty-six years and have used their informal ‘diplomatic’ alliances to keep their voice heard by international governments and organisations. United Nation’s Security Council Resolution 1325 reminds us that women’s participation in this area of foreign relations is considered vital. What this case study of gender mainstreaming of Saharawi informal representatives abroad in Italy shows is that women’s participation in the area of diplomacy is also uniquely effective.

    Twenty years after Saharawi established a Polisario headquarter in Rome (Rappresentanza) Mariam [2] was posted to Italy as informal representative of the SADR. In an interview conducted in Rome she told how she was recruited in 1994 by the Polisario while she was still studying in Cuba:

    ‘You see, even during University I was already part of young Saharawi’s organizations, with those … university students in Cuba. I was involved then. I really loved being involved in political action, in the work done there at the Youth Association. Something happened though; in 1991 the referendum came, and it came with a call to the youth to be involved, especially in the bureaucratic jobs of organizing the referendum. I ended up working for the Saharawi commission for the referendum, it was called COSAR, something like the Saharawi MINURSO; well, let’s say, it had relations with MINURSO which was obviously organizing the referendum. The determination act. Some of us were involved with the population’s census, others in translations, other in collecting…Well, we were a true commission which was working only on the referendum. I was working down there, at the refugee camps. Afterwards, in 1993, the referendum was not going ahead; there was this group of youth more or less prepared, let’s say, to help increase awareness abroad about the Saharawi problem. I was sent here in Italy first in 1994, to help the representative that was already here […]. [I stayed] In Italy till ’99. Then I went to Switzerland, to help the representative there who was a woman […] then I was appointed to work in Sweden, and then I came back to Italy again’ (Mariam B., 2007).

    Today, Rome’s Rappresentanza has four official [3] foreign representatives, one of whom is a woman. The life of a representative was initially filled with frustrations; often people did not know who the Saharawi were, so it was hard to set up a mission and talk about their role:

    ‘In the past, you had to always explain who the Saharawi are, were they come from, and this was always very difficult […] now they know who we are, even in a parliament like the Italian parliament, resolutions were passed which favor the diplomatic recognition of the Polisario Front’ (Mariam B., 2007).

    Difference in language and culture took their toll, especially when the time spent in one country was never enough to adapt:

    ‘Maybe in the past people were not ready to live in Western countries. There were limitations of language, the limited ability to learn about that place’s culture. I think that that was one of the three most difficult factors for someone who is taken from a refugee camp and has to fill a very difficult role with very limited resources. […] Almost all the Saharawi representatives know about the West and Western culture. They lived together, they have learnt a lot, and almost all of them speak various languages. They have also learnt, you know, to use their time better, you know, to manage priorities and so on. Something that at the beginning we did not have because we were coming from a completely different world; you were coming from a world entering into another where you had to learn everything, absolutely everything and lots of time was wasted in learning. Once it was learnt, it was already time to change and move into another different culture, another place again, totally different’ (Mariam B., 2007).

    Italy is now one of the foremost Saharawi’s supporters in Europe, promoting political debate, humanitarian aid, human rights watch, and containers with any sort of material. Italian NGOs such as the Comitato Internazionale per lo Sviluppo dei Popoli (CISP), Africa ’70, the Cooperazione per lo Sviluppo di Paesi Emergenti (COSPE) and the Centro di Educazione Sanitaria e Tecnologie Appropiate Sanitarie (CESTAS) were the first organizations to set up projects in the Saharawi refugee camps and liaise with Rome’s Rappresentaza:

    ‘Here the job is primarily to lobby, to make people aware, to get contacts […]. This is a very complicated job, very difficult, but it is also very appealing. In the refugee camps the job is, you know, there it is about surviving, because it is a desert’ (Mariam B., 2007)

    The two worlds could not be further apart, but the bridge between them was the work of the political representatives:

    ‘A solidarity network, with the Saharawi, which is spread out, this is what helps the representative, have lots of support, lots of friendships, lots…with lots of political support, and also strength from all different social groups, of different political backgrounds. With regard to the Saharawi problem, here in Italy for example, it is almost unanimous. Solidarity with the Saharawi people it is not restricted to one political ally, or one political group; from Right to Left for the Saharawi.’ (Hasan C., 2008).

    The work done by the Polisario political representatives in Italy made it easier for locals to approach the Saharawi people and support their cause. Mariam B. showed satisfaction in talking about the work done by Italian associations in the camps:

    ‘Satisfaction is when you see the realization of... the projects. The fact that you are able to find people who are willing to help the Saharawi people. The problems in the camps get solved, in part. When you arrive at the camps you see that in ten years the camps have totally changed. The Saharawi people, from ’75 till now, are the most literate people in Africa, with more than 95-93 percent literacy; this is crazy for a refugee camp. It is a great satisfaction when children go to school every morning, anyone can go at the hospital. Every year, there are more than 9,744 children going overseas with escorting adults, to have their problems solved.’ (Mariam B., 2007).

    In 2007, the Italian government discussed the possibility of granting: ‘the Polisario Front’s delegation in Italy a full diplomatic status, as has been done in the past for other liberation’s movements recognized by the UN as official mediators in a peace process’ (Camera dei Deputati, 2007, July 12). After thirty years of lobbying across all political parties, the Polisario had finally obtained from the Italian lower house a motion in support of their political cause. This resolution was bipartisan (Communist parties – PCRC and PRC, Lega Nord - right wing, Italia dei Valori - liberals and Alleanza Nazionale - extreme right wing) and was celebrated as an: ‘important element of foreign policy because it was sympathetic to numerous UN Resolutions, and because it asked for the recognition of a diplomatic status to those [Saharawi] representatives in Italy’ (RaiNews24 - Stampa, 2007).

    Today, the job of Saharawi political representatives in Italy is to liaise with many Italian associations created to support the Saharawi right for independence, denounce Moroccan human rights’ violations, and provide relief and material support for the refugee population. According to the official Saharawi website there are thirteen official associations in Italy (ARSO, 2009). Some started as a small committee and later became registered associations or NGO. A representative of the Emilia-Romagna Regional Coordination of all the Saharawi support associations reports that working together has reduced waste of resources and increased the quality of service, but has maintained the associations’ distinctive aims. Generally, the associations’ goals are shaped by two principal factors: solidarity and political action:

    ‘It is important to try to have a common organization to put our strengths and our ideas together, to plan in a common direction. With regard to Human Rights, in the past we organized seminars and discussion forums, inviting Saharawi activists such as Ali Salem Tamek and Hamineatou Haidar. When we get a hold of such important people we try to organize, as a Regional Coordinative Committee, debates throughout the region. These are just a few days, but very intensive for them, and for us. On our website we constantly update news about occupied territories, refugee camps, and all the other initiatives organized at national level. There is also a mailing-list from which we send out the latest updates. Every day we receive and post news on Saharawi who are arrested. Recently, a member of the CGIL union, who went to the occupied territory with a delegation, was arrested while in a meeting at a Saharawi activist’s house. He was held for twenty-four hours and then released. There have been moments of tension’ (Luca G., 2008).

    Rita L., who represents the Rio de Oro association in Marche region, has worked for more than ten years with disadvantaged Saharawi families in the refugee camps. For her, as for many others [4], it all started when Saharawi children arrived in her home town for the Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace) programme. Rita’s first project for the Saharawi refugee population was drafted after her first visit to the camps:

    ‘[…]especially when […] I realized, what we wanted to do and for whom. Yes, we then started a project for the disabled, the population with disabilities, starting first with the school of Smara. With the school of the differently-able, the disabled, of Smara, which then led to a census of the whole refugee camps’ disabled population. This first project of distance-adoption has linked with other projects, again of disabilities and diseases, and somehow has led by the first project of hospitality. This year in Italy we will host disabled children, and perform surgery in the refugee camps (Rita L., 2008)’.

    Anna M. was involved with the Saharawi National Association based in Rome which works more on the political situation. According to Anna, being headquartered in Rome gave the association more chances to contact local and international institutions and coordinate solidarity projects at a national level (2008). These associations’ representatives stressed the relevance of having direct Saharawi supervision to help draft their projects:

    ‘Our association and the Regional coordinating committee listen to his suggestions [Polisario representative from Rome] on projects, since we know that he is the most accredited in knowing the real needs of the Saharawi people. I believe that it is useless to make decision without consulting him.’ (Luca G., 2008)

    Italian solidarity and political movements which support the Saharawi cause are now so complex that a new form of representation has emerged within the Saharawi delegation abroad: that of direct participation of young Saharawi studying in Italy just as with the first generation of representatives such as Mariam and Hasan, today’s Polisario Rappresentanza is recruiting young Saharawi in loco to help them build their information campaign. Labib is a Saharawi medical student who has helped the Polisario Rappresentanza since his arrival in 2003:

    ‘Every day, for example when students, professors and doctors ask me where do I come from, well, I feel...I have to tell all of them my story, tell my peoples story, well it is then when I feel that in a certain way I am a political representative’ (Labib E., 2008).

    While Labib was confident of his informal role as Saharawi a representative, Jamila who had lived with an Italian family since she was ten years old, was at first resistant but then, despite the uncertainty of being considered a political representative for the Polisario, Jamila showed confidence in explaining her role as ‘lecturer’:

    ‘Technically, I do conference presentations, organized by pro-Saharawi’s associations, pro-Saharawi initiatives organized at a national level, and it is increasing. My role, then, is to spread the word about the cause. To inform those who do not know about Saharawi history, how did we get into this situation. [...] Lately, I talk more with the students, high school students. I am working on a project for the Roma Province; four hour conference for each institute, divided in two parts. Here we screen documentaries, photo exhibitions and we talk about the Saharawi cause’ (Jamila D., 2008).

    Labib and Jamila were not afraid to show disappointment when they encountered ignorance from the Italians from the Italian people:

    ‘I felt some sort of rage, let’s say, when I am there, talking about my cause that’s unknown, no one knows who I am. A living people. Often the indifference, especially at political level, allows people to remain uninformed. Can you define this as a problem? I am not sure, to me it is, this situation makes me feel really uncomfortable because often I get asked “where do you come from?” “I am Saharawi” “and who are those Saharawi”. Frequently I feel like saying that I am Algerian, full stop, but, I don’t know, it also depends on the type of person in front of you’ (Jamila D., 2008).

    On the other hand, they both express satisfaction and participation in any initiative organized by the Polisario or other associations in order to raise awareness. All Saharawi representatives interviewed in Italy, both formal and informal, agreed that the work carried out by Italian associations in the past ten years helped shape today’s Saharawi refugee camps’ profile:

    ‘Projects that work well, like the women’s agricultural cooperatives etc. Solidarity is now much more mature. Some strong ties have formed, even without the need for an intermediary, like us, you know. […] This is what is satisfying. When you go to the camps you see the results of many people’s efforts throughout these years’ (Mariam B., 2007).

    The Polisario strategy to employ men and women, young and experienced Saharawi to promote their cause for independence is a great example of gender mainstreaming put into practice. This type of insight shows that these informal representatives abroad are practicing public diplomacy not only with the Italian Parliament, but also with the local community. This grassroots contact between the Saharawi people and the pro-Saharawi Italian community express a genuine appreciation of gender mainstreaming as an integral part of what work they perform. This inclusive approach to gender encompasses the Italian associations, the Saharawi representatives and the projects themselves. Saharawi’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict is both a product of and the result of independent gender mainstreaming practices. Saharawi refugees have come a long way to constitute a strong, gender conscious, Islamic democracy.
    Thirty-four years after its constitution, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic is today not only a name but it carries on a strong international tradition of global and local networking. Saharawi men and women sent overseas as political representatives have helped local people to understand the origin of the Western Sahara conflict and to establish local support. The work done by the joint effort of SADR’s political representatives and the support associations’ representatives has often been crucial in demonstrating the true strength and diversity of Muslim democratise states. This highlight the opportunity for regional peace achieved in part through long term broad based public diplomacy.

    * Sonia Rossetti is a PhD candidate at The School of Political Science and International Studies, Queensland University, Australia. In 2011 she was conferred a Master of Research in History and Politics at the University of Wollongong looking at the case of Saharawi foreign representatives and gender mainstreaming. Her current research focus is on gender and public diplomacy.

    [1] This article was extracted from a study conducted in 2008-2011 for the completion of a Master Research thesis which can be view in full at
    [2] The name Rappresentanza is the exact translation of ‘delegation’ in Italian.
    [3] The interviews quoted in this paper were conducted in Italy in February-March 2008. The identity of all the interviewees has been hidden and the names in italics correspond to pseudonyms.
    [4] As explained in the introduction, “official representatives” refers to those listed as such by the Saharawi Foreign Department. Informal representatives, on the other hand are those who, while living overseas, were contacted by official Saharawi representatives to help in the Saharawi cause as civil representatives.

    [5] I was also first in contact with the Saharawi children while I was in Italy volunteering for a local charity. I hosted Saharawi children in our premises for two consecutive summers then I want on to visit the refugee camps in Tindouf.


    1. Anna M. (2008), Interview. Bologna, Italy.
    2. Armstrong, K. (2008). A study of social change in Saharawi refugee camps: democracy, education and women's rights. Master Thesis. Social Sciences & International Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences. UNSW, Australia, Unpublished: pp. 134.
    3. ARSO (2009). Sites. URL <>. Consulted 23 November 2009.

    4. Baines, E. K. (2001). A Practical Guide to Empowerment: UNHCR Good Practices on Gender Equality Mainstreaming E. Francisco (ed.), UNHCR Geneva. URL. Consulted 18 April 2007.
    Camera dei Deputati (2007, July 12). Leoni and Fabris motion in favor of taking action for the Saharawi people. Italian lower house of representatives. URL <>. Consulted 23 November 2009.
    4. Farah, R. (2003). 'Western Sahara and Palestine: shared refugee experiences'. Forced Migration Review, 16: pp. 20-23.
    5. Fiddian-Mendez, E. (2002). Promoting sustainable transformations in gender roles during exile: a critical analysis with reference to the Sahrawi refugee camps. MSc dissertation in Gender and Development. London School of Economics, Unpublished.
    6. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2009). 'Representing Sahrawi refugees' 'Educational Displacement' to Cuba: Self-sufficient agents or manipulated victims in conflict?'. Journal of Refugee Studies, 22 (3): pp. 323-350.
    7. Hasan C. (2008), Interview. Rome, Italy.
    8. Jamila D. (2008), Interview. Rome, Italy.
    9. Labib E. (2008), Interview. Bologna, Italy.
    10. Lippert, A. (1992) 'Sahrawi women in the liberation struggle of the Sahrawi people'. Signs 17 (3): pp. 636-651. URL: <>. Consulted 09 April 2008.
    11. Luca G. (2008), Interview. Bologna, Italy.
    12. Mariam B. (2007), Interview. Rome, Italy.
    13 Mujeresaharauis blogspot (2008). Web de la Asociación de Mujeres Saharauis en España. URL <>. Consulted 23 March 2010.
    14. Olmi, G. (ed.) (1998). Sahara Occidentale: appunti di viaggio. (Western Sahara: travel diary) [Italian]. Rome: Edizioni Associate Editrice Internazionale.
    15. RaiNews24 - Stampa (2007). Dal Parlamento italiano un aiuto alla causa del popolo saharawi. URL <>. Consulted 04 May 2010.
    16. Rita L. (2008), Interview. Ancona, Italy.
    17. Sahara Press Service (2008). 'Saharawi women union elected as representative of African women in the UN'. Sahara Press Service. URL <>. Consulted 08 April 08.
    18. San Martin, P. (2009). '‘¡Estos locos cubarauis!’: the Hispanisation of Saharawi society (… after Spain)'. Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 1754-1018, 7 (3): pp. 249-263.
    19. Wise, A. (2004). 'Nation, Transnation, Diaspora: Locating East Timorese Long-distance Nationalism'. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 19 (2): pp. 151-180.
    20. WomenWarPeace website (2010). Gender Profile of the Conflict in Western Sahara. UNIFEM. URL <>. Consulted 23 March 2010.

    Another Moroccan ‘coup de théâtre’

    Konstantina Isidoros


    © Konstantina
    The latest trial has yet again stunned the world with regard to Morocco’s persistent audacity to blatantly defy international law, digging itself deeper into a geo-politically embarrassing legal ditch of its own making.

    Time and time again Morocco has the farcical ability to make extraordinarily maladroit decisions when it comes to its most sensitive issue, its illegal military occupation of Western Sahara. As we publish our second Pambazuka Special Issue on Western Sahara, 24 Sahrāwī human rights activists from the Moroccan Occupied Territory have been convicted by a military court in Rabat. The trial took nine days from the 8 to 17 February with delays and postponements since October 2012. (See video: Members of European Parliament (MEPs) hold 27 February press conference condemning Morocco's military tribunal. Two MEPs were observers at the tribunal.)

    However much Moroccan state media projects the Saharāwī as ‘threatening the state’ or of Algeria ‘destabilising the region’, Morocco is the North African neighbour from hell. There is one very simple and unequivocal fact – Morocco has and continues to contravene our most fundamental international laws, especially with regard to our Western concept of ‘sovereign territory’, and our Geneva Conventions on human rights. It is, to use very simple English, time for Morocco to move back inside its own sovereign borders.

    We featured the prison diary poems of one of the convicted human rights advocates, Enaama Asfari, in our first special issue for [url=ttp://]Pambazuka[/url] in October 2011 . His French wife Claude Mangin kindly passed them to us at the time and expressed her positive hopes for his freedom. Now she is faced with a different outcome – Enaama has been in unlawful detention since our 2011 special issue, and is one member of the group that has been given a 30-year sentence.

    Immediately after the military tribunal’s verdicts on 17 February, international lobby groups began speaking out against the trial outcome with letters and emails, press releases and media articles: from Western Sahara Resource Watch calling these ‘shockingly tough sentences’ to Amnesty International’s call for Morocco to ‘use civilian courts to give fair re-trials’. In the UK, the Guardian newspaper printed the response from Jeremy Corbyn, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Western Sahara and six British Members of Parliament, co-signed by 13 campaign groups as well as film director Ken Loach and journalist John Pilger. [1] Just prior to this trial, Human Rights Watch had released its 2013 report criticising Morocco’s own domestic human rights abuses. [2]

    Arrested because of their involvement in the November-December 2010 Gdeim Izik protest camp, 8 of the defendants have been given life imprisonment, 14 given sentences ranging from 20 to 30 years, and two have been sentenced to two years.

    These human rights activists along with their Sahrāwī peers have been using their human right to freedom of speech to protest against Morocco’s military invasion and occupation, and to openly voice their demands for self-determination for an independent Western Sahara. Gdeim Izik was called a ‘peace camp’ set up by the Sahrāwī and instrumental in communicating to the watching world their continual social discrimination and economic marginalisation by Morocco’s military occupation. What did Morocco do? It engaged in a brutal dawn raid that was filmed on mobile phones and uploaded to the internet for us all to see. Readers can see a short documentary filmed by two Spanish human rights observers from ‘Sahara Thawra’ who secretly lived inside Gdeim Izik, and were later hunted by Moroccan security forces. This first video trailer shows the peace camps, while these next two videos show the brutal dawn raid by Moroccan security forces and

    One of those receiving a life sentence is Sidahmed Lemjiyed, the President of the Saharawi Committee for the Protection of Natural Resources, who appears as the third from the right in the above picture. [3] [see photo Konstantina 1] European observers who regularly attempt to enter the Moroccan Occupied Territory to witness previous Moroccan trials of Sahrāwī have long been communicating their monitoring concerns. In this 2013 military trial, these observers have identified the same anomalies occurring, from the delay of detentions without trial beyond the legal limit of 12 months, that the trial of these civilians has occurred in a military court, indications that confessions were obtained under torture, and that confessional signatures were ‘proven’ with only thumb prints.

    Just prior to the trial, the European Parliament had called for the release of the prisoners. [4] When news broke of the excessive sentencing on the 17 February, Erik Hagen of Western Sahara Resource Watch said: ‘The international community must wake up to the injustice committed to Saharawis who’ve done nothing more than call for their legitimate rights’; while Ann Harrison, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa said: ‘It is disturbing that the authorities have also ignored the Sahrawi defendants’ allegations of torture and coerced confessions’. [5]

    More than 20 of the Sahrawi activists have been illegally detained without bail in Rabat’s Salé prison for the two years since the November 2010 brutal dawn raid on Gdeim Izik by Moroccan security forces. Since the first trial date set in October 2012, independent international observers such as Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network’s (EMHRN) expressed their frustration at Moroccan authorities delaying the court martial three times.

    A December report from Front Line Defenders illuminates what happens inside Morocco’s military tribunals. Mary Lawlor, Executive Director of Front Line, criticised ‘…the inability of the Moroccan authorities to hold a trial in line with international fair trial standards…’. At the second postponed trial in November, Frontline Defenders reported the harassment and intimidation of the defendants, the defence lawyers and international observers, including the representatives of Front Line, the British Bar Association and the International Commission of Jurists. Front Line records that ‘On Friday 05 November as the trial reconvened the Security Services again allowed a large crowd to enter the courtroom so that there was no room for the international observers. As the trial got under way the people in the public gallery began chanting the Moroccan national anthem…and ‘Sahara is Moroccan’ and ‘Traitors Traitors’. When the four defendants who had previously been released on provisional liberty and their defence lawyers arrived the crowd tried to attack them. The judge finally left the court because of the noise from the public gallery at which point the crowd started to attack the Sahrawi human rights defenders beating them and shouting insults. In the resulting melee two Spanish journalists were injured…’ [6] The Collective of Saharawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA), based in Layounne city in the Occupied Territory, confirmed in their statement that there had been ‘an intense presence of different Moroccan security/secret services in the trial room’.

    Readers new to the Western Sahara story will be able to surmise from this special issue that there is an extensive group of observers who have followed the conflict for many years: from international lawyers and political scientists to NGOs and human rights campaigners from around the world. This latest trial has yet again stunned us all with regard to Morocco’s persistent audacity to blatantly defy international law, digging itself deeper into a geo-politically embarrassing legal ditch of its own making.

    Michèle Decaster, a human rights observer at the trial from the French campaign groups AFASPA and BIRDHSO (Bureau International pour le Respect des Droits de l’Homme au Sahara Occidental), and who had been sending us outside observers her updated reports of the delayed trials, communicates of this final trial that, ‘The fifty European observers who took turns during the 9 days’ of the trial are so shocked at the severity of the sentences that they ‘are prepared to offer to publishers their respective observation mission reports they will write individually or collectively’ to expose Morocco’s ‘failure of law, not only in reference to the treaties and conventions ratified by Morocco’. [Konstantina 2 photo – taken by Michele with permission to reprint] Other European observers at the trial have posted their accounts from inside the Moroccan courtroom to the Western Sahara Human Rights Watch website A video compilation of scenes inside the courtroom may be seen here: Readers can see an example of observer’s mission reports of the trial, from another European mission, written by French observers Jean-Pierre Lepri and Brigitte Milan.

    Even in the US, despite its long-time government support of Morocco, American organisations have written to Kim Sook, President of the United Nations Security Council. Suzanne Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation, and Seoul Peace Prize Laureate 2008, has urged him to ‘prevent these continuing atrocities’ and to implement the long delayed Sahrāwī right to self-determination. Don L. Pepper, Chairman of the Strategic Conflict Resolution Group writes: ‘This appears to have been a politically motivated show trial. We call on the United Nations Security Council to pressure Morocco to overturn the sentences’. In its press statement, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights said it was ‘deeply disturbed by the mistreatment and the military trial of 25 Sahrawi in Morocco’.

    While such appeals are made to the United Nations, which never seems to enact its original mandate regarding breaches of international law in the Western Sahara case, its other half responded on the 19 February, within 48 hours of the trial. Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said: ‘We are concerned by the use of a military court…[it is] important that the judicial processes scrupulously abide by international fair trial standards’.

    This is just a small selection of international calls for an end to the ludicrous situation in Western Sahara. What is clear is the extraordinary amount of support worldwide for the Sahrāwī cause and the persistent condemnation of Morocco’s blatant breach of international law in the Western Sahara story.

    Morocco’s unintelligent political tactics leave the Sahrāwī in a very difficult position. The POLISARIO Front has called the trial ‘a provocative and escalatory step’ and the severe sentencing does nothing to contribute to efforts to resolve the conflict within the UN framework. Increasingly, Sahrāwī and many of us observers are left with the question: is a return to war the only solution to force Morocco to abandon its breach of international law on its invasion of a neighbouring sovereign territory? It is certainly the Sahrāwī peoples’ right under international law to use of force against a colonial and foreign occupation.

    I will close with two quotes from the international network that closely watches Morocco’s actions in the Western Sahara story. From his interim report as European legal observer of this latest Rabat trial, France Weyl from the Paris-based Association Internationale des Juristes Démocrates – Droit Solidarité closed with a special message to the families of the convicted 24 Sahrāwī:

    ‘In this regard and as we told the families of the victims with whom we spoke, we can only bow to their suffering. But this suffering can justify the accused whose guilt has not been established, but convicted under conditions that would only add suffering to suffering and injustice on injustice.’

    And in an email conversation with me, international jurist Pedro Pinto Liete conveyed his assessment of the Rabat trial:

    ‘Nelson Mandela was convicted by the racist regime of South Africa in a show trial. Years later he was elected president of a free and multiracial South Africa. Xanana Gusmao was convicted in a show trial by the Indonesian dictatorship which had illegally annexed East Timor. The dictator Suharto did not realize he had a Timorese Mandela in prison. Some years later, Xanana Gusmao was elected president of a free and independent Timor-Leste. The Moroccan satrap also realizes that, after another show trial, it has 22 Saharawi Mandela’s in prison. The problems of East Timor and Western Sahara are like two drops of water. History repeats itself. The liberation of Western Sahara is getting closer...’

    There are many campaign groups around the world who support the Sahrāwī struggle for self-determination. I provide a short selection here:

    Western Sahara Human Rights Watch
    Western Sahara Resource Watch
    APSO (French lobby group)
    Free Western Sahara Campaign
    Students for a Free Western Sahara
    Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara
    Fish Elsewhere! (seeks to stop the controversial fisheries agreement that the EU has negotiated with Morocco)
    The Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH)
    Sahara Press Service
    Sahrawi Journalist and Writers Union


    [1]The Guardian

    [2] Human Rights Watch

    [3] Photograph courtesy of WSRW WSRW

    [4]European Parliament

    [5]Amnesty International

    [6] Frontline Defenders

    * Konstantina Isidoros is a PhD candidate at University of Oxford.

    Letter to UN Security Council

    Suzanne Scholte


    cc J B
    In this letter to the President of the UN Security Council, Seoul Peace Prize Laureate Suzanne Scholte urges the Council to prevail upon the King of Morocco to overturn the draconian sentences recently handed down to 24 Sahrawi activists

    His Excellence Kim Sook, President
    United Nations Security Council
    335 East 45th Street
    New York 10017

    February 19, 2013

    Dear President Kim

    I am writing with an urgent request regarding the recent sentencing by a military court in the Kingdom of Morocco of twenty-four Sahrawi civilians. These Sahrawis have been held and repeatedly tortured for over two years because they had joined in a peaceful protest against their treatment as second class citizens in their homeland, Moroccan Occupied Western Sahara. Now they are facing sentences ranging from several years to life imprisonment in a dubious and politically motivated trial that has alt=ready raised concern from the international community including the UN Commissioner for Human Rights whose office cited the UN Human Rights Committee’s statement that the use ‘of military or special courts to try civilians raises serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned.’

    It is an appalling situation that the United Nations must address because the UN bears responsibility for this latest tragic sitation. The failure of the UN’s MINURSO to resolve this issue through the long promised referendum AND the failure of the UN not to include human rights monitoring as part of MINURSO, the only peacekeeping mission without a human rights component, has prolonged the suffering and made and made it possible for the Moroccan authorities to continue their systematic repression and violence against Sahrawi men, women and children.

    I urge the UN Security Council to call upon the King of Morocco to overturn these draconian sentences and release the Sahrawis, to include human rights monitoring as part of the MINURSO peacekeeping mission to prevent these continuing atrocities and, finally, to fulfil its promise to resolve this longstanding conflict by going forward with the long promised referendum on self-determination.

    Suzzane Scholte
    Seoul Peace Prize Laureate 2008


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    The EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement

    POLISARIO brings an action against EU’s plunder before the European Court of Justice

    Joanna Allan


    Refugee Camps © Joanna Allan
    Morocco is working in cahoots with the European Union to pillage Western Sahara’s fish despite opposition from the European people. The plunder is a crime under international law.

    According to its Charter, the European Union (EU) ‘is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law.’ It is no overstatement, then, to say that the EU’s conduct with respect to the exploitation of natural resources in occupied Western Sahara is in complete contravention of all the organisation’s founding principles as well as constituting the war crime of pillage. Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) is currently in the midst of leading an international campaign to put a stop to one such example of EU plunder in the region: the EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement.

    Whilst campaign groups are in the midst of fighting the Agreement, the POLISARIO is mounting its own pressure. In a landmark development announced in the Official Bulletin of the European Union on 23 February 2013, the POLISARIO have brought an Action to the European Court of Justice against the Council of the European Union, calling for the annulment of wider agricultural agreements, including the liberalization in trade of fisheries products, between the EU and Morocco. This is the first time that the POLISARIO has taken legal steps to tackle the plunder of its people’s natural resources and marks an exciting turn in campaigns against the EU’s actions in the territory. In an interview with Western Sahara Resource Watch on 27th February 2013, POLISARIO Head of Peace Negotiations Emhammed Khadad explained why they have brought the Action before the Court,

    ‘International law is crystal clear on the issue of Non-Self-Governing Territories. The EU has no right to enter into trade agreements with Morocco for resources that belong to the Saharawis. We hope that through this effort, justice will finally prevail’

    Should the POLISARIO’S case be successful, it could set a precedent for all bodies currently exploiting, or in negotiations to begin exploiting, Saharawi natural resources. Perhaps such organisations should be carefully watching the progress of this case and think twice before participating in pillage.

    Western Sahara has been occupied by its neighbour Morocco for almost four decades. Today, 180,000 Saharawis continue to forge out an existence in the refugee camps that they built during the 1975 exodus, whilst similar numbers live under a brutal Moroccan regime in the occupied zone of Western Sahara. Discrimination and human rights abuses against the Saharawi people are common, whilst torture, rape, false imprisonment, forced disappearance and murder of pro-independence activists are common. Indeed, Freedom House's 2013 Annual Survey ( ) of political rights and civil liberties across the world, puts Western Sahara and Tibet in joint first place for the dubious distinction of ‘Worst of the Worst,’ [1] whilst earlier this month the European Union passed a resolution on the 22nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council in which it ‘(e)xpresses its concern at the continued violation of human Rights in Western Sahara.’ (See: )


    Western Sahara suffers from the so-called ‘resource curse’. The territory holds massive phosphate reserves, incredibly rich fisheries, huge potential for solar and wind farms, and possibly crude oil off its coast, which several national governments, private corporations and even the EU are keen to get their hands on. Ever unscrupulous, the latter bodies will pay Morocco to get a share of these resources, which is illegal. And illegal with good reason: it funds the Moroccan occupation; the availability and benefit of the natural resources will have been diminished should the Saharawi people gain their freedom; it undermines UN efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict; and it gives an impression of legitimacy to the Moroccan occupation.

    Morocco occupies Western Sahara illegally, in contravention of over 100 UN Security Council resolutions. Neither the UN, nor any country in the world, recognises Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. Morocco has no right to sell Western Sahara’s resources. The right of non-self-governing peoples such as the Saharawis to sovereignty over their natural resources is well enshrined in international law. There is only one scenario in which the occupier can develop the colonized country’s natural resources: when the peoples of said country are consulted and affirm that such an action is in line with the wishes and interests of the colonized people, and when the development is of benefit to them and promotes their wellbeing. The POLISARIO, the political representatives of the Saharawi people, as well as Saharawi civil society, have repeatedly made it clear that the exploitation of their natural resources by Morocco is not in line with their wishes and certainly do not benefit their interests and wellbeing. Never have they been consulted on the matter by any of the bodies involved in the exploitation. Saharawis in the occupied zone of Western Sahara and in exile regularly protest against the exploitation of natural resources, videos of which can be seen on the Stop the Plunder You Tube Channel (, often facing violent repression as a result.

    In an article discussing the legal framework surrounding the exploitation of Saharawi natural resources, the lawyer J.J.P. Smith outlines the corporate criminal and civil liability that surrounds the plunder of Western Sahara’s resources. The conclusion: ‘the basis to criminalize corporate taking of Saharawi resources is straightforward. What is remarkable is that there has not previously been a discussion of the possibilities for criminal prosecution given the scale and continuity of the appropriation of the resources.’

    Corporations and individuals involved should remind themselves of the international legal definition of the war crime of pillage:

    1. The perpetrator appropriated certain property.
    2. The perpetrator intended to deprive the owner of the property and to appropriate it for private or personal use.
    3. The appropriation was without the consent of the owner.
    4. The conduct took place in the context of and was associated with an international armed conflict.
    5. The perpetrator was aware of factual circumstances that established the existence of an armed conflict.


    In March 2007, a four-year Fisheries Agreement between the EU and the Kingdom of Morocco came into effect. The Agreement was controversial from the outset, given that the southern coordinates of the Agreement were not stipulated, leaving Morocco to interpret where European vessels could fish. As might be expected, Morocco allowed European fishermen access to Western Sahara’s fisheries. The EU could have avoided this by explicitly precluded Western Sahara from the Agreement, just as the United States government did when signing the US-Morocco Free Trade Agreement in 2004. But it chose not to, instead paying €36m of European taxpayers money to practice plunder. Indeed, some EU Member States, such as the Swedish government, which called the Agreement a violation of international law, strongly opposed it from the outset.

    Following the end of the Agreement in 2010, the Council of Ministers controversially prolonged it for a year. However, when it reached the European Parliament on 14 December 2011, following Western Sahara Resource Watch’s international Fish Elsewhere Campaign and an Opinion for the European Parliament’s legal service which deemed the Agreement a violation of international law, it was rejected. In addition to the legal and ethical questions surrounding the Agreement, European parliamentarians were also put off by the ecological and environmental damage caused to ecosystems off Western Sahara’s coast. As various environmental committees found, European vessels over-exploited the fisheries, caused serious degradation to the marine environment through oil wastage, were responsible for several thousands tonnes of bycatches and discards, and heightened the risk of extinction of species such as sharks, turtles and dolphins.


    Last year, the European people, through their representatives in the European Parliament, rejected the EU Fisheries Agreement. They did not want an illegal, morally repugnant, egotistical and ecologically destructive deal brokered in their name. Nevertheless, with flagrant disregard for democracy, transparency, the opinion of its own parliament and international law, the European Commission is currently in negotiations with Morocco to renew the Agreement. The latest talks ended on 11 and 12 February 2013 in Rabat.

    The current stumbling block for sealing the deal is not a legal, moral or ecological question, however, but a financial one: Morocco wants no less than €36m per year, which the EU is reluctant to pay. This shows the true, unscrupulous face of the European Commission. It pays lip service to human rights and democracy, but the EU’s true priorities lie in material and financial gain at any moral cost. More than half a decade after the last European colonial powers left Africa, they are once again actively participating in the plunder of a still-colonized African country. In protest, Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) is spearheading the Fish Elsewhere Campaign, which includes a petition currently signed by more than 250 organisations and over 4000 individuals. WSRW is hopeful that this support for the campaign will send a strong message to European Parliamentarians once again persuading them to reject the ethical black hole that is the proposed EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement.


    In news just breaking as we publish this special issue, readers can see the first media coverage from Western Sahara Resource Watch; and in Spanish online media outlet La Razon:

    * Joanna Allan is a Board Member of Western Sahara Resource Watch:


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    Human rights monitoring in Western Sahara

    Thomas O’Bryan


    cc C L
    There are horrendous human rights violations in Western Sahara perpetrated by agents of the Moroccan authorities. But the UN mission has neither mandate nor capacity to monitor and document the violations.

    The United Nations stands behind its proud record of promoting the universality and indivisibility of human rights, and for many decades the institution has played an incredibly value role in promoting peace and stability around the world. However, in the Western Sahara, the UN has clearly failed in its legal and moral obligations towards the Sahrawi people. MINURSO, first deployed in 1990 with the mandate to promote a referendum on the issue of self-determination in Western Sahara, has categorically failed in this regard. In 2013, with the recent politicised trial of the Gdeim Izik protestors in Rabat, immediate resolution of the conflict seems as unlikely as ever.

    There is, for the moment at least, a ceasefire between the POLISARIO Front and the Moroccan government. Yet, while formal armed conflict may have frozen under the terms of the ceasefire, human rights violations continue unabated.

    The human rights of the Sahrawi people, as defined by conventional international law, are being violated on an intentional and systematic basis by the Moroccan government. The Moroccan authorities have engaged in a campaign of ‘cultural genocide’, seeking to destroy Sahrawi identity and history through a brutal crackdown on Sahrawi musicians, poets, artists. This ‘cultural genocide’ even extends to naming rights, with allegations of Moroccan authorities banning certain Saharawi names in favour of ‘Moroccan’ ones.

    Journalists, activists and bloggers alike operate in a climate of fear. Assertion of the Saharawi right to self-independence, or criticising the violent oppression enforced by the Moroccan authorities, almost inevitably leads to harassment, violence, torture and even murder of the instigators. With reports of plainclothes policemen cutting the shape of the Moroccan star into the chest of one activist, these deplorable actions clearly represent ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

    With the rise of social media, the Moroccan authorities are presented with new powers to enforce the crackdown on the Western Saharan population. A seemingly innocent Facebook status, or ‘Tweet’, can often lead to imprisonment or worse at the hands of the Moroccan government. Leading international human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, have strongly condemned the Moroccan authorities for their flagrant disregard for the basic human rights of the Saharawi population.

    It is remarkable that MINURSO has merely stood a silent witness to these crimes against humanity. MINURSO enjoys neither the resources nor the legal mandate to enforce the human rights monitoring that is so clearly and so desperately needed in Western Sahara.

    Indeed, MINURSO is the sole UN peacekeeping operation in existence to not be charged with human rights monitoring. MINURSO thus represents an extraordinary break from customary international norms, with the UN categorically failing to protect the rights of the vulnerable Saharawi people who so desperately need their help.

    International experts believe that a relatively small human rights monitoring force – perhaps with 50 civilian staff members, or even less – empowered with universal access to the territory, and the ability to disseminate their findings directly to the UN Security Council, would make an enormous difference.

    This difference could be quantified not only in terms of protecting the fundamental and universal human rights of all the world’s people, including the long-forgotten Saharawi, but could help to promote the resolution of the wider conflict for the Western Sahara. The current lack of clear, objective, quantitative data on the nature and scale of the violations being committed would advance the international community’s understanding of the situation beyond mere allegations. The lack of clarity in this regard has served to entrench distrust and fuel anger between the two parties to the dispute. Human rights monitoring is thus a crucial step in re-stabilisation, reconciliation, and resolution.

    In late April 2013, the UN Security Council will vote on MINURSO’s new mandate in Western Sahara. Certain countries, in particular France, have constantly obstructed attempts to empower MINURSO to monitor human rights violations in the country.

    It is clear that the human rights situation in Western Sahara is worsening at a concerning pace. It is essential that this year the United Nations lives up to its moral and legal responsibilities to the Saharawi people, and introduces human rights monitoring into the legal mandate of MINURSO.

    * Thomas O’Bryan is the advocacy coordinator, Western Sahara Campaign (United Kingdom).


    1. Join the Western Sahara Action Forum in demanding action this year. Please visit WSAF’s website at ; or alternatively if you have any questions please email Thomas O’Bryan, Advocacy Coordinator at [email protected]

    2. The original International Court of Justice legal opinion in favour of Saharawi self-determination is available here: here.

    3. This link comes from the Robert F.Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights. Kerry Kennedy (RFK’s relative) is in this video with Spanish actor Javier Bardem to also lobby the UN to add a human rights monitoring element to their peacekeeping force .


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    A lawyer’s testimony to the UN

    Comments of Katlyn Thomas before the Special Political and Decolonization Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, October 2012


    cc AY
    ‘After examining every available legal argument to support Morocco’s presence in the territory we have come to the conclusion that Morocco cannot claim a legal right to the territory on the basis of any historic relationship it had with the territory prior to its colonization by Spain.’

    Mr. Chairman, and Ladies and Gentlemen members of the Committee:

    My name is Katlyn Thomas, and I am the former Chair of the United Nations Committee of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

    The Association is an independent non-governmental organization with more than 23,000 members in over 50 countries. Founded in 1870, the Association has a long history of dedication to the advancement of principles of international law and the adoption of policies to implement the United Nations Charter, notably through its United Nations Committee.

    For the past two years the United Nations Committee has conducted an intensive investigation of legal issues involved in the dispute over Western Sahara. Last year we published a report on issues involving Morocco’s use of the natural resources of the territory pending a determination of sovereignty under law.

    This past May we published our second report, this one dealing with the fundamental issue of Morocco’s right to claim and occupy the territory of Western Sahara, and the right of the indigenous population to self determination under international law.

    After examining every available legal argument to support Morocco’s presence in the territory we have come to the conclusion that Morocco cannot claim a legal right to the territory on the basis of any historic relationship it had with the territory prior to its colonization by Spain. This was clearly established by a decision of the International Court of Justice in 1975 in a case brought at the request of Morocco. Morocco’s action within weeks of that decision to avoid the implications of that ruling by sending its army into the territory against the wishes of its inhabitants arguably violates Article 2, Paragraph 4 and Chapter VII, as well as Artlcle 3(a) of General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX) to refrain from acts of aggression. The agreement Morocco reached in 1975 with Spain under which Spain agreed to withdraw from the territory and permit Morocco and Mauritania to occupy it does not justify any legal claim to the territory. Despite its more than 30 years of occupation of Western Sahara, neither the United Nations, nor the African Union, nor any individual state has recognized Morocco‘s claims to the territory as legitimate. Even the members of the Security Council who have advocated direct talks between Morocco and the Polisario that have taken place since 2007, as opposed to the implementation of the Settlement Plan that would require a referendum, have maintained their support for the right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.

    On the other hand, the right under well established international legal principles of the indigenous population of the territory – the Sahraouis – to exercise self determination in determining the political future of Western Sahara cannot be seriously disputed, and has not been diminished under law despite this long period of foreign occupation. Morocco has attempted to qualify this right by comparing it to the right of self determination of a population which inhabits a part of an established state. Under this argument the right to self determination of the Sahraouis should be considered subordinate to the right of Morocco to maintain its “territorial integrity.” The fallacy of this argument is easily apparent – Western Sahara is not now and has never been recognized under international legal principles to be a territory belonging to Morocco.

    Our Committee concluded that the right to self-determination under international law requires that the Sahraouis have the opportunity to freely determine their political status and that this determination must include the option of independence. Accordingly, the exercise of self-determination, in whatever form it may take, must include the possibility that the final status of Western Sahara will be independence. Turning to the question of how this right can be exercised, the Committee noted that the following three procedures would, in principle, be among the options consistent with the Sahraouis’ right to self-determination under international law:

    First, enforcement of the original U.N.-OAU 1991 Settlement Plan. Under this alternative, the referendum would be conducted by MINURSO in accordance with the provisions of the Settlement Plan agreed to by the parties to the conflict, and the list of eligible voters established by MINURSO, under the supervision of the Security Council and the African Union, and consistent with internationally recognized legal norms. We believe that the United Nations would be within its rights to demand that Morocco adhere to its agreement in 1991 to permit this referendum to take place, if not under its powers under Chapter 6 of the United Nations charter, then at least under its powers under Chapter 7 of the Charter.

    Second, enforcement of a version of the Peace Plan advanced by former United States Secretary of State James Baker III when he was the Personal Envoy of the United Nations Secretary General to Western Sahara, or an alternative plan, which provides for an act of self-determination with an option for independence, and which ensures that the electorate will be those entitled to the right to self-determination under international law. Under this alternative, a referendum would ultimately be held which includes – among other options – a ballot option for independence.

    Third, UN-ordered negotiations on a “political solution” with preconditions, which include (1) the requirement that all options for self-determination be included, including independence, and (2) a timetable for such negotiations, after which, if no agreement is reached, a referendum will be held with all options available. We note that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Sudan included such a provision, so there is some recent precedent for such a procedure.

    Each of these three options may require a mandatory order by the Security Council under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter. Whether to invoke the powers of Chapter 7 to resolve this dispute is a political issue and we are mindful of the political problems such a decision may entail. However, this would be a means – perhaps the only means – of enforcing the self-determination principles that apply to this dispute under international law. Thus far, in the face of the parties’ entrenched and irreconcilable positions on sovereignty over the territory, there has been inconsistency between the principle of self-determination under international law, which has been repeatedly confirmed through General Assembly Resolutions on the matter to include an independence option, and the actions of the Security Council, in merely asking the parties to proceed with discussions on a political solution with no preconditions.

    The international community needs to take steps to see that this dispute is resolved in the near future. The longer it takes to resolve the sovereignty issue, the more complicated will be the task of implementing any solution reached. On behalf of the United Nations Committee of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, I call upon this Committee to adopt a position with regard to the settlement of the dispute over Western Sahara that is consistent with principles of international law.

    The New York City Bar report on the Western Sahara is available here.


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    The desperate fishermen

    Khalil Asmar


    cc D S
    This short narrative of the diminishing optimism of several Saharawi fishermen casting their rods in the seas of the Western Sahara illustrates how the Moroccan authorities and EU fishing agreements have pillaged the seas and denied these fishermen not only hope but a livelihood

    We set off in a late afternoon to the other side of the river opening to the Atlantic sea. We knew that the water had gotten a little warmer and that it was a sign for a good fishing night. We packed up our rods and bags, passing by the nearest shop to get the remaining supplies before we drove away to the ‘Zbeira’ beach - some 38 miles down the other side of the peninsula river. We had to be there just before the sun down.

    From the cliff above and down to the beach, one could see over the other side of the river, the lights just turned on ready to illuminate the city streets and allies. We shared the luggage, I and my friend, so as to be able to go down the cliff amid the big rocks down to the river waters. It had always been an adventure to go down that risky cliff with all that heavy load of rods and bags stuck on our backs and around our arms. A single slip could be too dangerous and definitely regrettable, but we had enough experience to get down safely. Down the beach, I set up a small tent, and started making Saharawi tea; the first thing a Saharawi is supposed to drink before heading to any kind of work, while my friend, and as usual, prepared the rods taping to them some star lights at the top so that when they caught something you would be able to spot them bending down declaring a fish catch even if you were laying down a long distance away.

    Before even drinking the first cup of tea, Swallam had already cast his line, fixed his rod on a rod holder pointed down deep into the beach sand, and walked back to have a cup of tea. It got a little cold and the wind began blowing gently from the North West side of the river. It was almost dark when I cast my line connected to a double hooked line with different baits. At that fishing spot, usually fishermen caught white sea bass and sea bream fish, and that’s what made us choose that particular spot wishing to come back home with some delicious fish to make our families eat what their sea had always been able to offer.

    The coasts of Western Sahara are among the richest coasts on the planet and contain some of the most valuable types and high quality fish. They say that not all fishing days are good days, and that’s probably what seemed to be the case for us during the first hours. We were around midnight and not a single fish got lured by our different baits. My friend said ‘If you want to catch fish, you have to think like fish.’ In fact, we were unsuccessful to get a single fish and that meant for him that we had to diversify our tactics so as to be able to tempt the fish to eat our baits. Nevertheless, another two hours of tempting tactics failed to bring any results, and every time my friend used a new tactic, he had to give it an explanation wishing it’d have immediate results, but in vain. It was already two o’clock in the morning and nothing came out of that river sea. I got somewhat bored and hungry and decided to relax thinking about eating something.

    As I was preparing some food, there up the cliff, some men came out of a car that swerved in slow motion just at the top of the cliff. They put on the lights of their head torches and came down the cliff. It seemed that they were familiar with the secret paths between the rocky passages down to the Zbeira beach where we were fishing. We didn’t panic as it was usual to see fishermen coming in the late night for fishing or searching for a better fishing spot, and that’s what in fact made them come to our place in that late hour; they were, in fact, Sahrawi fishermen looking for a better fishing spot. They said it had been days that they were fishing into different places but they were unable to catch any fish, and that they finally had decided to come to our place wishing to find something. But these men weren't like us, they were professional Sahrawi fishermen and fishing for them was meant as a profession. Fishing was the only source for them to make some money and feed their families. It was their job. As they came down, they quickly set up their heavily baited long rods and scattered in different places; two of them chose to cast from over the rocks while the other two seemed to prefer to cast from the sandy beach. I served them tea and lay down in the small tent to find myself the following morning amid assertive calls to wake up and have breakfast. Unaware, I had suddenly slept.

    I joined them for breakfast, while the sun rays were just sneaking through the cliff rocks to provide us with some warmth. They had been fishing all the night long but still caught nothing.

    ‘They’ve left us with nothing’ one of them said.

    ‘Who are they?’ I asked yawning.

    ‘These bunch of Moroccans’ angrily another replied.

    ‘Not only Moroccans, but also this huge fleet of European and foreign fleets scattered around our seas’ my friend retorted.

    ‘At your age, fish used to come up the water waiting only for someone to catch it, we never had rods. We used to catch it with our bare hands just like the bears do, but that was in the old days when I was as young as you are now before we were invaded by the Moroccans. These were beautiful times’ the old man said and then proceeded, ‘Western Sahara is like the story of the stolen camel.’

    ‘What’s that story about?’ I asked.

    ‘There was a man who stole a camel he said he had found lost in the desert. He brought it up until it became ready to be sold at the market. But at the market, there suddenly appeared its owner who knew the camel from a mark he had engraved at his tail difficult to be spot. He recognized his camel and decided to call the judge. Standing before the court, the camel robber said, ‘Mr judge, this is my camel. I found it a small camel, just a very little one, lost in the desert and I rescued it. This is me who watered it, fed it, and provided it with all the welfare till it became this BIG. It’s my camel and none is allowed to take it
    from me.’

    The judge looked at him and said astonished ‘God has created a camel to live in the desert because it can support thirst and hunger for months till its owner can find it, and usually a camel comes back by itself to its home place. A camel isn’t a cow. It’s a stolen camel and you have to give it back to its owner. Now or tomorrow, the camel can never be yours.’

    We stood silent for a moment.

    ‘The Moroccan occupier has erased all forms of life from our seas and here we are left with nothing, and the remaining is wiped away by these unmerciful Russian and European ships. How are we supposed to live and feed our families now that it is the only source we used to have?’ another retorted.

    ‘Yes man, that's a true’, my companion said ‘this fish is a poor fish and has even lost any logical sense of instinctive reasoning. Moroccan boats on every side together with foreigner ones, and the small boats of the Moroccan settlers erase all what is left. Here in Western Sahara, whatever direction the fish take, there is someone following it. The poor fish has gone mad. But here we are, the indigenous Saharawis waiting for any remaining fish to feed ourselves and our families but left to our own destinies with nothing. I’ve been trying all kinds of tactics all the night long and I couldn’t get anything.’

    ‘We’ve been doing our best to get anything a whole month.’ One of the fishermen said with a bitter smile, and proceeded, ‘and up to now, we still can’t get anything. The meagre amount of fish we were able to get seems as if it has finished and all what we should do guys is either to speak out or die trying.’

    ‘Well, for me personally, speaking out means prison and torture, horrible and
    Unbelievable torture’ another retorted.

    ‘The only looser from all this fishing game are we, the Saharawis. Look, Moroccans get a huge profit from the fish agreement with the EU and all the rest is taken away by the Moroccan king and his high civil and army officials, and anything left it is erased unmercifully by these Moroccan settlers scattered all along our shores.’

    The fishermen suddenly stood silent musing over the blue waters as if they were trying to fathom out an alternative solution to their miserable life. Desperate, and without the last farewell, they quietly packed up their luggage, went up the cliff and then disappeared. But over the remote blue waters, a monster ship was swaying.

    [extra fishing links :

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    The valiant fisherman

    Khalil Asmar


    © Mohammed
    In this interview with Mohammed El Baykam, a fisherman and the spokesman of the fisheries association in Dakhla, Western Sahara, his uncompromising determination to expose the plunder of European Union trawlers and those of the Moroccan authorities shows how his resistance has denied him gainful employment

    In recent years Mohammed El Baykam has been helping his people to fight for their economic and political rights, mainly in the fishing sector that is controlled by the occupying state of Morocco. Dakhla city is considered to produce 64 percent of Morocco’s fishing output. El Baykam lobbies in the protection of the fishing resources that are being plundered by foreign owned fishing vessels and controlled by Moroccan businessmen and military generals in the monarchy’s circles. Because of his activities, he has been expelled and banned from accessing the fishing sector and local Moroccan administrators have put pressure on any company that attempts to employ him. Nevertheless, he continues to look for any means to communicate with international organizations to expose and document this plundering and illegal theft of Western Sahara’s fishing resources.

    Mohammed El Baykam stresses the fact that the indigenous Western Sahara people have been divided into two parts for 38 years by the Moroccan invasion in 1975, and those like him who live in the Moroccan controlled zone are systematically impoverished by the monarchy’s authorities in an effort to politically control the Sahrawi and hamper them from exercising their rights to free speech. El Baykam, together with other Sahrawi activists, have been sending letters to the European Union for the annual Morocco and European Union fishing contracts, to demand the prevention of such agreements because it does not benefit the people of Western Sahara.

    His lobbying activism calls on the world to help the Saharawi people to stop the illegal robbery of their natural resources as well as to stop the human rights abuses that are being committed on a regular basis inside the Occupied Territory. ‘We do not benefit from the resources that our country possesses’ he says. El Baykam is now 32 years old and still the Moroccan authorities refuse to employ him.

    He says ‘we do not have many options here. You must shut up and pretend that you neither hear nor see what is happening, and you are supposed to accept living with the remaining bits of your country’s resources, or you give in to the politics of the occupier and you become the enemy of your own people. Here you cannot live a normal life for yourself or for your family because simply it is like living within a big prison. Your breath is watched and your steps are counted. Morocco runs our country like dealing with an animal farm – the Saharawi human beings are like an undesired species. The Saharawi element is targeted in its existence because the Moroccan occupation is based on settling the Moroccan people here, which means of course displacing us Saharawis. All the incentives that exist here are only to encourage these Moroccan settlers to move here and settle down while engaging with the authorities’ racist politics towards the Saharawis to push us to leave or disappear.’ Moroccans now constitute 60 percent of the population. The game is quite clear: change the demographic status and exterminate the people of occupied Western Sahara.

    Extra links: ]

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    Waiting for ‘istiftah’

    Self-determination and independence of our homeland



    cc Q V
    Reflecting on her life as a refugee in the Tindouf camps Fatimetu contemplates how the Saharawi people are wholly dependent on humanitarian aid whilst Morocco exploits the wealth of the Western Sahara. For all Saharawis it is an independent homeland that they seek.

    I have a friend who tells me there is a website that focuses on problems in Africa and that this organisation wants to publish about the Sahara situation. She asked me to write something for this publication.

    I am confused about what to write, whether I should write about the politics. Everybody knows what our problem is – half of us Sahrawi live under colonisation in what everyone calls the Moroccan Occupied Territory, and the other half of our peoples live in these refugee camps where I live. It has been thirty-eight years now, and we all feel that the world sees what has happened to us but says nothing. We have thousands of foreign visitors who come to our refugee camps. They try to help us, with projects such as for us women, for children’s schools, and for our small hospitals. We hear from them that in the western world, everyone describes our political problem as ‘the forgotten conflict’, or they call us ‘the last African colony.’

    Or should I talk about the economic problem we face? All our natural resources, like fish and phosphates, are being stolen from us by Morocco, but also by many of your governments who sign commercial contracts with Morocco to extract these resources. But is this not illegal, to take our resources when the United Nations has laws that say this is wrong? No one is asking how Morocco is allowed to do this, or maybe they are just ignoring it.

    Or should I speak about our traditions? Now many of our traditions have gone because the Moroccan traditions are invading ours. Most of us in the refugee camps have relatives in the Occupied Territory, and we hear how traditional Sahrawi culture is being changed by the Moroccan presence in our land.

    Or I could write about our life as refugees here in the Tindouf camps. So let me choose this. I was born in October 1986 and have lived all my life in these refugee camps. Morocco invaded my country, Western Sahara in 1975. This means that I was born during the height of the war between our leadership, the Polisario, and the Moroccan invasion forces. I have grown up knowing every day that I am living in another land than my homeland. And I also know that the Algerians got their independence after 130 years of French colonisation.

    But I cannot understand how one Arab Muslim country can invade and colonise another Arab and Muslim country – us, the Sahrawi people. From the beginning I have never been able to believe that this could happen. We are all from the same ‘ummah,’ which is an important word for Muslims and means ‘community’.

    So I grew up playing in the rocks and sand of the Algerian desert because there are no parks for children to play in. And when we are children we have to study hard to get good grades because it is how we get the chance to spend the hot desert summer months in Europe with host families, offered by charities to refugee children. When we went as children to these countries, then we really began to understand we were refugees, because they had things that we did not have, that all we had was that we were just alive. And we would wish we could be like them, because these European families we stayed with live in their own countries and can be with their whole families, not divided by an invading army like we are.

    When we read the history of other countries getting their independence, we feel jealous. And when we returned each summer back to these refugee camps, we tried to do things that helped us forget that we are refugees.

    When we finish our schooling, there are no jobs, no future, for us here, because a refugee camp cannot offer economic opportunities. So there is no other choice but for some to try to migrate overseas or to join our small army.

    And the women stay in the camps to raise their families, to stay near their fathers and husbands. We women have a slightly better chance to find jobs here in the camps than the men. The NGOs give a few of us jobs as nurses, secretaries, and teachers, but otherwise we depend upon humanitarian aid.

    This is how we spend our life here. We wait for ‘istiftah’, which means self-determination in Arabic. This was supposed to have been given to us during decolonisation. I think we will wait a long time for this, because everyone is ignoring that international law is being broken by Morocco.


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    *Fatimetu is a young Saharawi woman studying English in the refugee camps.

    Three stories

    Senia Bachir Abderahman


    cc Q V
    In this personal account refugee Senia Bachir Abderahman reflects on her own educational sojourn in Algeria and Norway, the cultural beauty of the El-melhfa fabric as well as those Cubaraui who left their homeland to study in Cuba and returned with considerable skills to help the Saharawis in their struggle for freedom


    It was nearly ten years ago that I was sitting in my family’s tent trying to figure out how to get the highest grade for my last year of high school. Achieving the highest grade would help me to go to an Algerian medical school, and become the first Saharawi woman to get an Algerian degree in that field. Now, here I am, a Master’s student getting accustomed to the cultural and intellectual diversity of the University of Oslo, and not even certain about my post-Master’s plans. It is interesting to sit and think of my status now and what I occupied just less than a decade ago. I always compare myself now to what I used to be then. At times, I think that I got all of these opportunities because I worked hard, but now when I think about it, I realize that there are macro-factors that were crucial in this journey as well. My cultural, religious, economic and political backgrounds were particularly important in shaping my present status as a Saharawi student abroad.

    I was born and grew up in one of the biggest refugee camps in the world near the western corner of the Algerian desert. I lived my whole life as a refugee, and I was very dependent on the outside world. I got my food, health care and shelter from humanitarian aid organizations. Nevertheless, I never saw or thought of my life as a strange way of living. It was simply because I got used to that way of life and was never exposed to any other lifestyles. My parents fled to Algeria thirty-eight years ago along with tens of thousands of people. They belong to the Saharawi people, the natives of Western Sahara. Western Sahara was a Spanish colony for more than a century. A few months after Western Sahara was about to get its independence from Spain in 1974, the neighboring country, Morocco, saw it as its own. Since then Morocco still occupies a large portion of my homeland. More than 200,000 people are still waiting in the western corner of the Algerian desert for the United Nations to determine their future. This is basically why I had to live as a refugee for my entire life. Now after experiencing many cultures and seeing other parts of the world, if I had to choose, I would not have chosen to live as a refugee. Nevertheless, I do not think I would have been as strong and responsible a person as I am today.

    In the refugee camps where I grew up, primary education and higher education are provided for free. Most of the scholarships are given by the host country Algeria, but some students go to Libya and Cuba. When I was eight, I had to leave my family to attend boarding school in northern Algeria, thousands of kilometers away. I went for the whole academic year and came back to see my family only in the summer. I was lucky that I did not have to worry about any school fees. My mother is a teacher; therefore, she would have been able to pay for my school fees if she was able to work in another country. However, in the refugee camps she and others work voluntarily for no pay. If I was not a refugee and did not get the opportunity to study for free, I cannot imagine where I would be at this moment. In the summer of 2003, after a very hot day, I was sitting in the shade of my tent when suddenly two women, who did not look like Saharawis, came and asked whether this was Senia’s family’s tent. They told me that I was one of the thirty best students in the camps and that they were offering a scholarship to finish high school with the United World Colleges. It sounded challenging, and I was certain that I would not be the one selected. But I decided to give it a shot and see what happens. A week later, they came back and told me that I was the only one selected to attend the United World College in Norway for two years under a full scholarship.

    The United World College was my transition point. Being chosen as a woman made such opportunity even more significant in my life. In my society, many girls want to get an education, but because of the social expectations and lack of educational facilities, they have to drop out at certain stage. Traditionally, the women in the Saharawi culture are to stay at home and be homemakers. While, men are the head of the family and they are the financially responsible ones. Although the refugee camps are practically in the hands of women, traditional ideologies still prevail among some of the families. During the war, the women had to set-up and organize the camps, and be the responsible ones because men were fighting the enemy in the frontlines. For this, the Saharawi women have gained important status in the camps, unlike women in many other Arab and Muslim societies. I know of many girls who were hard-working and could have had a bright future, but they dropped out because their families decided not to send them to school. This is mostly because families are worried about the safety of their daughters, when they go to boarding schools for nine months and have no contact with their families. I remember how hard it was to leave my family at such a young age.

    I was lucky in the sense that education has always been given priority in my household, and the fact that both my parents are well-educated encouraged me to learn. For instance, when I had to leave to go to boarding school at the age of eight, my grandmother refused to let me go because I was too young. However, I am happy that my mother insisted in sending me despite the disagreement with her mother. I was constantly encouraged to go further in my studies, and the Master’s degree was just one step higher especially at a university abroad. I am the only daughter in a family of five boys; this made me more unique and different from the boys in the family. Hence, my mother paid more attention to my studies. I have studied only in co-ed schools and I know how it feels when you are in a male-dominant environment. I was privileged to attend an all-women’s college for my undergraduate studies. It made me learn more about my skills as a woman and that my social destiny can also be decided by myself.

    Before coming here to Oslo, my name and tribe were my introduction, but now I somehow seem to present myself first with my nationality – it is I guess what everyone is more interested in here. I mean, my status at this university is that of an international student, so it is natural for people to ask about my nation and background. But, it also gave me the opportunity to share my people’s story and plight for freedom and independence. Essentially, every new person I meet would ask me ‘so, is Western Sahara a country?’ Being an international student has served as one of the gateways to teaching people about my homeland and the oppression my people experience under the Moroccan occupation.

    Would I have had all these experiences fifty years ago? I certainly doubt it. I would probably have been married to a man of my tribe at the age of fourteen or fifteen, and I would not even finish high school. I would have given birth to a couple of daughters and a couple of sons, with hopefully more sons than daughters i.e. a good woman would give birth to more sons than daughters because boys are preferred to girls. It would have been during the Spanish colonialism, when our people were nomads and had no access to education. Therefore, my chances of getting educated would have been very slim. (However, I do have to point out that my grandmother, who was my age about fifty years ago, did get the opportunity to go to an Islamic institute but could not finish because of the war. That was only because she had a visionary father and an understanding husband. Otherwise, her intellectual facility would have remained illiterate).

    Under Spanish rule educational opportunities were better. I would have probably lived in the countryside and sent my sons and daughters to school in the city. However, they would not have been able to finish their studies because of the war with Morocco. Their chances and destinies would have been similar to that of my mother, and my status the same as that of my grandmother. Of course, I would then have been a homemaker and I would have involved myself in some sort of vocational work such as taking care of the livestock, cooking and sewing with my sisters-in-law, as I would naturally be living in a joint family. I would thus have been a devoted wife and doting mother, but I would not have been able to educate myself. However, if I had an understanding husband I would have been able to learn the Qur’an and hence able to at least read and write.

    It is to rewind to what life could have been years ago and how life has turned out to be. This clearly demonstrates that my life to come is yet to be determined but will certainly be shaped by many personal, social, external and political circumstances. My hope and ideal view for the window of my future would be to work and make a difference in a free and independent Western Sahara. My dream is to live without having to always feel the obligation and the pressure to tell the world about my story and the story of my people. My image for my future is to experience a world that doesn’t accept colonialism and oppression of peoples and nations.


    El-melhfa is a four-meter long by one-meter wide piece of fabric. It is not any ordinary piece of cloth; it is the symbol of the Saharawi heritage, beauty and resistance. El-melhfa has existed with the existence of the Saharawi culture. Many people may view it as a religious, specifically Muslim symbol. But El-melhfa, above all, is cultural and unique to the Saharawi people. It comes in variety of colors, patterns and materials. It can be one color, three or ten. It may be simple or with artistic shapes and patterns or even with the flag of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. El-melhfa has different names depending on the colors and the material is made of. Sometimes, it gets its name from the age group of women.

    El-melhfa – when you think about it – is very practical in the life of people like the Saharawis. A country like Western Sahara is mostly desert with a weather that is mostly dry, hot and characterized with sand-storms. And so, El-melhfa can serve as a means of protection from the harsh environmental and natural conditions of the desert. Not only that, but also El-melhfa makes the Saharawi women exceptional and different from the rest of women elsewhere in the world. For decades, El-melhfa has served as a symbol of national identity and struggle against colonial oppression. It is the mirror for strong, determined and revolutionary women who have combated the oppressive Moroccan regime to gain freedom and independence.

    Usually, Lemlahef (the plural of El-melhfa) comes in light colors such as white, light green and blue are for young women. Whereas, the darker colors such as black, brown and dark navy are for older women. The thickness of the material can vary as well. ‘Etalab,’ which literarily means youth, is a thin and more transparent fabric. Etalab is mostly worn by young girls when they first start wearing El-melhfa. On the contrary, there is ‘el-galith’, which literarily means thick, which is for the elder women. In between etalab and e-galith, there is the ‘esheegaa.’ In addition, there is ‘swesra’ and ‘sarou,’ which are somewhat similar in material to that of the Indian Sari. The most important type is called ‘nilla’, and is the most traditional type of Lemlahef. It is made of a very thick material, and it releases a navy-blue paint also called ‘enilla.’ This paint is believed to be very good for the skin and helps against the sun radiation.

    The most traditional way of wearing El-melhfa is called ‘etaglidee’; or ‘traditional’ in our language Hassaniya. It is basically part nilla and part white melhfa worn together. The woman would wear the nilla part on the upper body and the white piece, which is called ‘le-zaar,’ around the waist. Etaglidee is usually worn in special occasions and celebrations, but nowadays it is mostly worn for weddings. The bride would wear etaglidee on the first day of the wedding.

    This special and unique display of culture has made the Saharawi woman both a source of beauty, admiration and a target of oppression. Today, many Saharawis still live under the repressive Moroccan regime in the occupied territories of our homeland. Since women are visibly distinguished as Saharawis, they are picked on during peaceful demonstrations. They experience daily and systematic discrimination for being proud and outspoken defenders of freedom for their homeland. It is not only Saharawi women living in the occupied territories who use El-melhfa as a method of resistance. Saharawis living abroad are always proud to share that symbol. Personally, I always wear my melhfa when I am giving a talk or a lecture about Western Sahara. A good example of such use abroad is that of one of our famous female human rights activists, Aminatou Haidar, who is sometimes called by the media ‘Saharawi Gandhi’. She always wears her melhfa in her efforts to share the peaceful voice of her people around the globe.

    I would say if there is anything that Saharawi women should be proud of, it is the El-melhfa. I must admit that it is not very easy to learn how to wear it and even more difficult to do certain daily activities while wearing it for those who are not used to it. However, this beautiful fabric and cultural creation is a great symbol of the Saharawi identity, and most importantly a testament to our struggle for independence.


    Due to unavailability of educational facilities and opportunities in the refugee camps, Saharawi children go to school in foreign countries, such as Libya and Cuba but the majority attend Algerian schools. When I was nine years old, I had to leave my family to attend a boarding school in northern Algeria, thousands of kilometers away from the camps. I would come back only for the summer break to see my family. I was luckier than my father, however. Bachir left to study in Cuba at the age of eight in 1977; just a few months after fleeing his homeland and arriving at the refugee camps in southwest Algeria. He returned as a twenty-four-year old doctor. Cuba used to offer more than 600 scholarships every second year to Saharawi students, both males and females. The travel and accommodation is covered by the UNHCR, whereas the Cuban government provides academic assistance for free. Students get degrees in different fields, however, health professions are particularly popular. This is explained by the fact that Cuba has one of the best medical professionals in the world.

    As a young boy, my father Bachir and his family had to cross the desert to a safe haven in the form of refugee camps in Algeria. The Moroccan planes were dropping bombs, so they had to hide behind rocks and trees. In his journey, Bachir saw the victims of military invasion; people injured and others dying because there was no medical care. There were few nurses, and nearly no doctors. When he made it to the Algerian desert, he decided to study medicine and become a doctor. He saw it as his calling since there was a great need for doctors in the refugee camps. It was his destiny to be selected to study in Cuba together with hundreds of young boys and girls. This meant that he would spend his full adult life away from home and family; a foreigner in a different universe. The Saharawi students at that time would stay in Cuba until they finish their full education. This is to say that most of them would spend ten or fifteen years living and studying in Cuba.

    While living in Cuba, Bachir, like the other Saharawi students, had to adapt to many things. He had to learn a new language, figure out the weather and most importantly understand the culture. However, experiencing a new culture proved to be not as hard for an eight-year old as it was for a twenty-four-year-old to readapt to his culture of origin. When he came back, Bachir had to learn Hassaniya, which is our native dialect of the Saharawi people and which we all speak. Obviously, the Saharawi costumes and beliefs are very different from that of the Cuban. So, he had to adjust to the costumes fairly quickly. He had to re-accustom himself to the heat and the desert life style. After many years of sending female students, most of the families decided to stop sending their daughters to attend Cuban schools a few years ago. There were many reasons but evidently, the main reason was a fear that women would ‘lose’ their cultural rooting. Still, there are Saharawi women who continue to graduate from Cuban schools, and are now mostly doctors and nurses.

    When my father came back, his family immediately wanted him to get married. I remember very well as a child how my father would constantly switch to speaking Spanish in certain settings and circumstances. It seemed like it was his safe zone when he couldn’t communicate his feelings in Hassaniya to my mother or even his own family. He spent weekdays at the hospital and we would only see him during the weekends. As a small girl, I visited his work several times and I could see that he had his own niche at the hospital with his fellow ‘Cubarauis’ and Cuban medical doctors. The term ‘Cubaraui’ is used to refer to Saharawi students who have studied in Cuba. It is a very charged term. It means that these boys and girls, now women and men, are different from the rest of the Saharawis. It means that their understanding and experience of Saharawi culture has been somewhat tainted by a foreign world.

    Yes, the life of current Saharawi students in Cuba has improved compared to that of my father’s generation. They can visit home a few times during their studies there. Now, they have phone contact with their families throughout the year. During my father’s time, his only contact with his family was a recorded tape sent to him every few years. But, it doesn’t mean that the life of Saharawi students returning from Cuba has become any better perceived at home. They are still alienated and are expected to fully readapt to the Saharawi culture.

    The truth of the matter is that Cubarauis are the lifeline of our society. They are the doctors, the nurses and the medical personal in the refugee camps. They brought diversity and new perspectives to what it means to be an exiled Saharawi. People like my father have transformed aspects of our society that we have long taken for granted. They also served as crucial voices in part of the world that now fully supports our plight and just cause. I only hope that sooner rather than later, my society will acknowledge this influence on our continued struggle for freedom and independence. But, most importantly, I hope my father and other Cubarauis never lose that part of their identity and embrace it to be so.

    Extra links: forthcoming documentary on Saharawi women

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    * Senia Bachir Abderahman is a young female Saharawi Master’s student in International Community Health at the University of Oslo, Norway

    Do you have any idea what is ‘homeland’ for a refugee?

    Asria Mohamed Taleb


    cc M G
    Many people may take for granted being the citizen of a free, sovereign nation. But for someone who was born in a refugee camp and has only heard about her occupied homeland, the question of citizenship stirs up very strong feelings.

    Some people find it rude to be asked about their age, or how much they earn, while others find it offending to be asked about their religion. As a refugee, nothing makes me angrier, sadder and filled with hatred than someone asking me, ‘What is home for you?’ I find it to be a very mean question, the same as asking someone in a wheelchair, ‘Why can´t you walk?’. Due to the interaction with new people every day, I have had to face the challenge of answering this question ever since coming here, or at least provide a simple explanation to help others understand our complicated situation. Despite this, the difficulties I am dealing with are more about how to describe something I never had.

    I often get asked, ‘Are you from India?’ I must admit that I feel a special connection with this country although I wish that people would see Western Sahara in the features of my face instead of India. Almost every other person I have met whether in Algeria, Spain or here in Norway have asked me this question. I mention this example because I feel so jealous, and wonder how other countries have their own distinct characteristics and identity. Meanwhile, the questions still playing back and forth in my mind are, ‘Why don’t people know about the characteristics of my people, the language we speak, what we believe in and where the Western Sahara is?’

    However, I believe that what makes me more angry is knowing that these thoughts are stupid because how could people know the answers to all these questions, if I am unable to answer them myself? It does make me sad and angry every time people do not understand where I live or where I originally come from. I want to try answer this for those who wonder what home is for us and specifically for myself as a refugee. ‘Sahara zaina’, (Sahara the beautiful) my grandmother, once said while we were sat having tea listening to our national radio. ‘Soon you will experience that’, my grandmother added. She died years ago, and I grew up and worked in that same radio station while other grandmothers were probably telling the same things to their grandchildren. I hope we will not stay until I become a grandmother telling the same stories to my children. The difference between my grandmother and I is that she knew what our homeland looked like and I do not because I have only seen these refugee camps.

    I was born in these camps, I lived here my whole life and in a way, it is home for me because it is the only home that I know!! I went to school in Algeria, a wonderful country which provided us some land to make a home out of after Morocco raped our homeland. As young refugees, we suffered from many things. This makes me laugh now and cry at the same time. When we were young, it did affect us when others made fun of us that we did not have a country and that we had come from refugee camps living in tents. Some of us started to lie, that we lived in the liberated area of Western Sahara, where there were a few houses and life could be yours.

    In my third year in university, we studied Algerian history. I had the best grades and sometimes I wish I did not. One of my classmates found it unfair and said to the teacher, ‘Should she not know the history of her country first?’. I could not argue because my tears always failed me. Everyone felt sorry for me. I too felt sorry and angry because of our situation. That face of sympathy my classmates gave me is the same face that people give me when I say that I am a refugee. That is the face I hate the most. It makes me feel like I do not belong anywhere.

    However, inside me, I know Western Sahara is my home. I have never seen it but I know it does exist, may be it does not exist in other peoples minds or library books and school maps, but it does exist inside me, inside all the Saharawi and inside all those who believe in justice. Home for me is where I belong, home is a place that will open its arms to me, no matter how good or bad I am. Home is stabilization, security and identity. Home for many people is something tangible; home for us is a dream. Home for you is a reality; home for me is a wish. Home for you is existence; home for me is a struggle. You live in your home; my home lives inside me.

    ‘Where do you want to spend your life, Asria?’, my friend asked this question when we were traveling. Before I answered him, I had to explain that I do not really agree that we should have borders; I wish that all people could be able to live together. But first I want to experience that feeling. The feeling of belonging. The feeling that people get when they see me wearing my traditional Melhfa and say to me that I am from Western Sahara not India. I want to witness my family and all Saharawi return to our country; I want to know that all Saharawi in the occupied area live in security. I want to make sure that our next generation will live in peace and stability. I might move to a place where I feel is me, maybe Western Sahara or any other place in the world, because what is important is to live amongst people who you love, and the people who I love live in the refugee camps for that is our home until we get our independence.

    * Asria Mohamed Taleb is a young Saharawi woman living in Norway. She has written a book 'A Norwegian Hope Journey: Between the strong sand and the white snow lives my hope for a free Sahara’


    Michael Palin’s visit Part One:
    Part Two:


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    The life of a Saharawi student

    Mohamed Brahim


    cc BBN
    The Moroccan regime goes into appalling lengths to dehumanize Saharawi school children, even promoting drug use among them to break their resistance. But many of the children are increasingly politically conscious

    Ismail Hamdi, a Saharawi student, is from Elaaiun where he was born and raised. When he first opened his eyes to this world he saw oppression, abuses and plundering of natural resources. He has been witnessing occupation at work in his homeland: Western Sahara. Throughout the years, Ismail has not been able to understand why Saharawis, who never invaded any other nations or any other neighboring territories, were invaded in 1975 by Morocco, and thus the never-ending journey of suffering and terror begun. Ismail kept asking himself questions repeatedly all the time as he saw himself growing up and then going to school. He could not help but to realize Western Sahara was never and could never be Moroccan or Moroccanized.

    At school, Ismail was always aware of the forged history they have all been taught at the hands of Moroccan teachers. He could sense bitterness and resentment amongst his Saharawi classmates building up each day. During Moroccan national holidays, they were all forced to learn by heart the Moroccan national anthem, and to sing it loudly in the main halls of school while saluting the Moroccan flag. They were even forced to go on day-long festive parades wearing the Moroccan flag colors chanting slogans praising the king and his dynasty.

    As years went by, Ismail became a bright student, highly admired and was very distinguished amongst his peers. He even excelled in the foreign language French which most Saharawis despised and disliked. Most Saharawis believe that France is Morocco’s legal guardian and protector. They think that France is the ultimate accomplice of the Moroccan regime and is behind the continuity of their ongoing misery. Saharawis prefer Spanish and English language.

    Ismail is a bright, cultured and a well-disciplined Saharawi who is always getting good grades and is regarded as an icon in his small Saharawi community. Most Saharawis are bright students. Therefore, they are an easy target for the Moroccan regime through the appointed teachers who all dislike this fact. The Moroccan-run schools have, unofficially, a secret instructions agenda to keep the Saharawis underrated and below the education’s average ‘national guidelines’. Unfortunately, most Moroccans have been brainwashed to go against whatever is Saharawi. The settlers rejoice when they see their children get good grades; and they would hate themselves when they see a Saharawi student score high! Moroccan teachers in Western Sahara are just another arm for the regime to misinform the Saharawis. Some teachers would even ignore Saharawi students raising their hands high to speak when in the classroom. Most often, Saharawis are not given the chance to take part in workshops and educational training while Moroccan students enjoy that benefit.

    Ismail would always laugh when seeing the Moroccan secret service agents trying to blend in with the students in and outside the schools. Even a small kid can tell. Very often, Ismail and other Saharawis were chased by police officers in vans and by some ‘ghoulish looking’ undercover cops whenever there is a peaceful demonstration calling out for the right of self-determination for Saharawis. Usually, Ismail and his friends would use graffiti on the walls of the schools to express their refusal of the oppression and their condemnation of the plundering and abuses taking place in the Western Sahara. In the peaceful demonstrations, Saharawi students would raise the Saharawi flag as an indication of their ultimate demand: Independence for Western Sahara.

    These kinds of brave acts have proven to be very effective in irritating the Moroccan regime and the local authorities. This same regime is always plotting against the Sahrawis, including the kids. They want to break the will of the Saharawis at any price. They started building strategies and mobilizing their institutions towards achieving their plans. The local authorities, under the supervision of the police and the intelligence services agents, introduced drugs into schools and encouraged drug dealers to sell at lower prices to Saharawis. Cocaine has become popular. For them, it is just another tool to exterminate the Saharawis. Selling drugs at lower prices was a bait to lure young Saharawis into moving to the ‘wasteland’. Ismail, wittingly, noticed this new phenomenon and alerted his people. He and his friends watched for days and weeks. Their suspicions were confirmed. The authorities were behind this drug trafficking at schools. The secret government agents supplied and facilitated the access to the merchandise and encouraged addiction among teenagers. The aim was to make Saharawis drug addicted in order to lure them away from politics and to subdue them. The motto is, ‘Get away from politics and do whatever you want’. The demand for the right of self-determination is a no-no for the Moroccan regime. Saharawis, upon this blatant discovery, engaged themselves in fighting the drugs that became widespread in their environment. These efforts paid back. The risks have been minimized. Saharawi students have become aware of the dangers around them.

    Ismail is a dignified Saharawi. He always thinks of himself as a member of a very distinguished authentic society that has special characteristics of its own. Wearing a Saharawi dar’a, a traditional male costume, is always a privilege for him and for his peers. It is considered an act of cultural resistance. It is about self-assertion. Dar’a for males and melhfa for females. These traditional clothes are symbols of national identity. Far more than that, it is now, in these special circumstances, to preserve the national Saharawi heritage. To Ismail’s dismay, the Moroccan administration placed a ban on wearing such clothes: no male Saharawi dress is allowed in schools. This unofficial statement is brutally enforced especially on Saharawi national holidays that are prohibited in the occupied territory. Clear enough, wearing the dar’a on the school premises was considered a plot against the regime. This was another war against anything that makes Saharawis look different from the Moroccans. It is just another tactic of assimilation conducted and run by any occupation force throughout known history.

    Ismail is about to get his baccalaureate. He wants to go to university to pursue his undergraduate studies since he has big plans for the future. Needless to say, there are no universities in Western Sahara. It is a sad thing, but the Moroccan regime never wanted to build colleges or universities there. Ismail shares his frustration and worries with his friends: How would Moroccan students in Morocco treat a young ambitious patriotic Sahrawi? With fear? Contempt? Loathing? Or- perhaps worse - violence and total aggressiveness? Disregard? He thinks most of them would say: ‘He is trouble, stay away from him!’


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    My struggle to get a good education

    Agaila Abba Hemieda


    cc A M A R
    Education is every child’s right. But for Saharawi children, getting an education may require making tremendous sacrifices, including prolonged separation from family and loss of culture and language.

    One day I asked myself, what had impacted me the most as a person. The answer is both simple and heartbreaking. The answer is my journey to get a good education. This journey has made me sacrifice the most precious things in my life; my family, friends and culture. However, it has made me a young woman of dignity. Education has given me a purpose in life by opening the doors of unexpected opportunities.

    I was born in one of the largest refugee camps in the world. It is located in the Southwestern Algerian desert, where the temperature can reach up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It was there where my family and I, as victims of a three-decade-long dispute between Western Sahara and Morocco, took shelter. It was there where knowledge about the outside world was lacking, but where there was hunger for learning and the determination to improve the rate of literacy. Growing up, all I knew were the hardships of the desert, mud-brick houses, and the UNHCR tents made of thick, green canvas. Nevertheless, my life took a turn in a new direction when I was selected for a special program that takes children who lost their fathers in the war to spend the summer with a Spanish host-family away from the hardship and the heat of the refugee camps.

    It was at the age of ten when I made the decision to stay in Spain to begin my education. It was not an easy decision to make after leaving behind my most beloved ones for the next twelve years. This decision made me miss the births and the most important stages in the life of my four younger sisters. Not only has this decision made me sacrifice my family, but also my culture, language and values. However, this sacrifice has taught me the most important principles that have helped me to learn how to live in different cultures and to respect their peoples. In addition to that, I built my character and strengthened my beliefs as an independent young woman.

    These principles have helped me to be the young woman of dignity that I am today by giving me a purpose and a hunger to know more. This hunger is the root of my passion and dream of being one of the first female ambassadors of my nation to help my people in their fight for freedom. This purpose has given me a sense of belonging that makes me appreciate my own ethnicity, culture and language despite the fact that I have not lived with my people for a long time. It has also helped me maintain my language and culture throughout these years.

    My determination has opened the doors to unexpected opportunities, making the impossible a reality: first, going to Spain to study and later, being one of the first Saharawi to ever come to the USA and graduate from an American high school. This summer, I had the opportunity to read one of my poems in the presence of dozens of congressmen and senators in a reception on Capitol Hill. Similarly, in October of this year, I spoke as a petitioner before the UN’s Fourth Committee as an advocate for my people, making me one of the first Saharawi women to do such a thing. Not only have these opportunities allowed me to meet many ambassadors and representatives from around the world, but also allowed me to have a Saharawi diplomatic-traditional tea and make connections with the Saharawi ambassador to the UN. Moreover, I attended talks given by the Saharawi Minister of Foreign Affairs. In fact, when I asked him at the end: ‘What advice would you give to a young woman like me?’ he simply said: ‘Study, study and study very hard, and be a good diplomat for our nation.’

    Having analyzed the impact of education on my journey in life, I ask myself yet again: ‘Do I regret the sacrifice of being away from my beloved ones?’ The answer is simply, No. No, I do not regret the sacrifice of being away from my family, or any other sacrifices because they are what have given me a purpose to pursue my dreams and the opportunity to live an extraordinary life with a unique story to tell. Moreover, my journey and the determination to get a good education will have a positive impact on my people in the refugee camps as well as others of different nations.



    Saharawi child, take hold of a paper and pencil
    and learn literature, math and science.
    Saharawi child, sit closely by your elders
    and listen carefully to the wisdom; this is what will come to your rescue.
    Saharawi child, open your mind to understanding.
    Let wisdom be your best friend.
    Let wisdom be your professor.
    Let wisdom be your Father your Mother and your Brother.
    Let wisdom embrace you; its path will never let you down.
    Saharawi child, open your eyes to the world around you;
    choose your friends wisely, let every choice be guided
    by a good counselor.
    Saharawi child, take advantage of every opportunity
    wherever you go, but don’t forgot your principles, language or
    culture, or that you are “Saharawi!”
    Saharawi child, accept every nation, every race and
    every language and the door of blessing will be opened to your
    house and to your nation. (Western Sahara)
    Saharawi child, don’t fear mistakes or
    correction because that is where the lesson is and that is when
    you will learn who you are, because you are valuable.
    Saharawi child, share your seat with justice and reconciliation that
    you may become the turban of peace.
    Saharawi child, let truth be the foundation of your dignity.
    Truth will let your light shine and will build the walls of your generation and your nation.
    Saharawi child, be independent!
    Be strong
    Be humble
    Be kind
    Be patient
    Be honest
    Be joyful
    Be just
    Be trustworthy
    Be righteous
    Be generous
    Be diligent
    Be faithful
    and the favor of life will always be yours!
    Saharawi child, listen, learn, grow, laugh, teach, forgive, love, share, trust, heal, hope,
    dream, sing and dance; do this and you will never lose your smile.
    This Poem is dedicated to all the Saharawi children, especially the children who lost their fathers in the war for the freedom of Western Sahara. Our nation depends on all of you.


    Who is this woman?
    Her presence is like the light of the sun
    Her beauty is like the Queen of Sheba
    Her eyes are so deep like the desert.
    Her look is the vision and admiration she carries for each nation.
    Her words are the lyrics of a song, are phrases of a poem.
    Her arms are a refuge for the orphans and a help to the widows.
    Her hands build the homes that the flood destroyed.
    Her heart is an Honorable one.
    Her heart is a patient one
    Her heart is a joyful one
    Her heart is a faithful one
    Her heart is a kind one
    Her heart is a one you can trust.
    Her heart is a blanket of comfort in times of need.
    Her character is her strongest weapon against any storm.
    They call her the Saharawi Queen not because of her beauty
    But because of her love and passion for her people and her nation

    * Agaila Abba Hemieda is Saharawi woman from the refugee camps studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, USA.

    Extra link: (this has many short videos)


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    Hoping for a UN spring

    Salah Mohamed


    cc IDS
    Blatant violence against peacefully protesting Saharawis, official propaganda that misrepresents the situation in the occupied territory and blockage of independent external observers are just a few of the many dirty tactics employed by Morocco in Western Sahara. How long will this be allowed to go on?

    November 8, 2012 marked the second anniversary of the brutal dismantling of Gdaim Izik camp. More than 40,000 Saharawis internally displaced themselves out of the city of Elaaiun, in the Moroccan Occupied Territory of Western Sahara, to protest against Morocco’s military occupation of their land and systematic plundering of their natural resources. It was a peaceful form of protesting against marginalization and discrimination, violence and assassinations. The tent city camp, later called ‘Independence Camp’, was democratically organized, and symbolically meant a lot for the Saharawis themselves: for the first time in their lives, since Morocco’s 1975 invasion, they were able to voice their rightful demands without fear. It was the first uprising against terror and marginalization. This protest camp inspired other nations from the New Occupy movement through Madrid’s civil protests to the Arab world’s spring. Many Arab populations in Arab countries rose against dictatorship, authoritarian regimes, and against impoverishment and confiscation of liberties.

    The brutal dismantling of the camp took place on November 8, 2010, early in the morning. Raids, arbitrary arrests, murder were the common features of the horrible day. Twenty three Saharawi civilians, among whom were human rights activists and camp organizers, were incarcerated and later transferred to Zaki prison in Sale city in Morocco. Other hundreds of Saharawis including women and elders were incarcerated in Elaaiun’s local Carcel negra prison. Reports of torture and ill treatment were documented by international lawyers and the local and international human rights organizations. The UN peacekeeping forces were present there before, during and after the Gdaim Izik camp attack. But they did nothing as they stayed there acting like paid tourists. This UN mission to Western Sahara (MINURSO) is the only UN mission that does not have the component of the human rights in its mandate. This is all thanks to the veto of Morocco’s legal guardian and powerful protector, France.

    Christopher Ross, the UN special envoy, came for the first time in Elaaiun early November 2012 to conduct a visit to the territory and to interact with the local Saharawis. He has been leading five years of negotiations between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government without success in an attempt to find a mutually accepted political solution that would meet the Saharawis expectations in ensuring their right of self determination.

    While Mr. Ross was meeting with Saharawi leaders or activists from the civil society in Elaaiun, the police was performing its regular duty on Saharawis: a brutal, horrible crackdown on peaceful protesters including women, the elderly and children.

    Peaceful protests, in Elaaiun and other cities of Western Sahara, were organized calling for the right of self determination for the Saharawis. A massive brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters led to the wounding of hundreds of Saharawis in most cities.

    The violent intervention by the Moroccan occupation forces was trying to silence the Sahrawi citizens from peaceful protesting and from demanding their right to freedom and independence. This whole ordeal and violence against the Saharawis was exposed worldwide and denounced. Minatou Haidar, a Nobel Prize candidate and an RFK Foundation Award winner, was attacked, her car vandalized and her home raided, along with the attack on other activists who were severely injured and harassed on the scene.

    Ironically, Morocco is still hard at work enhancing its brain-washing propaganda. The Moroccan regime tries to set the fait-accompli on Saharawis, on the ordinary Moroccan population, and on the international community. The monarchy in Morocco is doing its best to make Saharawis appear as the monster and the victimizer. This propaganda serves well the agenda of the monarch in Morocco as it is another way of creating general consensus whereby Moroccans would forget their own internal problems and only focus on the Western Sahara issue backing up the absolute monarchy towards the legitimization of the occupation.

    On 5 November, across the Western Saharan cities of Elaaiun , Guelmim Smara, Boujdour and Dakhla, the Saharawis demonstrated peacefully to commemorate the dismantling of the Gdaim Izik peace camp but the Moroccan police just attacked them aggressively as Saharawi civilians have always been an easy prey for them to practice their sadistic ways of violence. Once again, among the victims were there many women, elders, children who were injured and ill-treated.

    European delegations came to visit the occupied territory and were soon evicted from Elaaiun, while some of them were expelled even before they reached the city of Elaaiun. Four young Norwegian politicians wanted to hear the Saharawis on the issue of fishing, while the other fifteen Spanish wanted to be present on site for the second anniversary of the Gdaim Izik brutal dismantling.

    The Norwegian group members comprised Kristine Halling (former Central Executive Member, AUF,) Henriksen, Pål represents who Spjelkavik (international leader AUF Sør-Trøndelag), Gunnar Kaus (member of the International Committee, the Youth Centre) , and Vegard Tjørhom (Oslo County Board Member, Youth Center). The group arrived on November 5 in Elaaiun coming from Marrakech with the purpose of conducting a four-day visit. They were trying to meet and talk to Saharawis in Elaaiun. Interacting with the Saharawi population was seen as an attempt to investigate the current situation. When the group, they noticed that the police officers at the checkpoint looked very angry and aggressive. After the initial introductory paperwork formalities, they ordered them in an angry voice to keep to Nagjir hotel and not to leave their rooms. The group was also ordered not to meet with any ‘Saharawi friends’. Thus, the group was confined to their rooms with no contact with the outside world afterwards.

    The following day, the Moroccan authorities brought a taxi and ordered the group to get in with their luggage and to leave the Western Sahara towards Agadir which is located south Morocco. According to the group, there were 15 policemen waiting for them at the lobby along with the Pasha of Elaaiun and an English interpreter. The Moroccan authorities told the group members that they would be deported to Agadir and that they could go to any place in Morocco but not Western Sahara. They were basically banned from visiting or staying in Western Sahara. Police escorts of uniformed and plain-cloth police agents were following them to make sure they would leave the territory.

    Meanwhile, Morocco is still plundering the natural resources of Western Sahara. The international community still keeps a closed eye on this terrible violation. International law is very clear on this issue as Hans Corell once stated when he was the legal advisor to the UN. Even the New York Bar association recently issued a wonderful legal report in this regard. All agreements and treaties with Morocco should not include the territory of Western Sahara, and all goods and resources such as fisheries and phosphate from Western Sahara should not be part of any agreement. This can not be done at the expense of the Saharawis and their own natural resources from which they do not benefit. Morocco earned more than $ 200 million from stolen Saharawi phosphate in a period of six months. This is with other millions of dollars from revenues from Western Sahara’s natural resources of fisheries, desert sand, salt, fruit and vegetables which go straight to the pockets of the king and his inner circle, his generals and some foreign accomplices worldwide.

    Supporting and establishing the right of self-determination can be a first step towards recognizing the many other forgotten rights of the Western Saharan people who have long been forgotten by other civil societies and governments. As they have been abandoned by the international community for many decades, it high time that the UN and all people from around the world reacted and straightened the path towards freedom for Saharawis.

    * Salah Mohamed, an underground Sahrawi activist in the Moroccan occupied territory of Western Sahara.


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    Saharawi music and its role in the independence struggle

    Violeta Ruano


    © Violeta Ruano
    Music and poetry have been key elements in Saharawi culture since nomadic times, when they were efficient ways of transmitting news and stories, providing entertainment and establishing links among the tribes. After Spain abandoned Western Sahara and Morocco and Mauritania invaded the territory in 1975, music became the voice of the revolution. It played an essential role in the formation and establishment of the new Saharawi Republic and the reshaping of the society. Music, thus, was used by the Saharawis to foster social change.

    Figure 1. Session of traditional spiritual Medeh music in the camps

    © Violeta Ruano

    The Saharawis belong to a wider area known as Trab El-Beidan (Western Sahara, Mauritania and parts of Mali, Algeria and Morocco), traditionally inhabited by the Hassani tribes. A blend of Sanhaya Berbers, West African slaves and Yemenite Arab from the Beni Hassan tribes, the Hassani share the same oral culture, language, the Hassaniya, and musical traditions. The professional hereditary musicians, the iggawen, would travel from tribe to tribe, offering their services to perform at weddings and other social gatherings with their tidinits (4-string stroked lutes played by men), ardins (calabash harps played by women) and tbals (drums normally played by women) accompanying their voices, clapping and female ululations or zagarits. These musicians were important figures in the process of cultural transmission. However, Saharawi society did not have a high opinion of them because they would only perform for money. Also, the iggawen as a caste never really existed among the northern Saharawi tribes, who would hire them from the southern tribes of the Mauritanian region.

    © Violeta Ruano

    By 1973, with the foundation of the Polisario Front in the, at the time, Spanish Sahara, music started to be crucial for the transmission of something else: the nascent Saharawi anti-colonial, revolutionary spirit. Using the radio and cassettes for the circulation of new songs, members of the independent movement transferred their ideas and intentions to the rest of the population, gaining more and more supporters of the cause. When Morocco and Mauritania invaded the territory in 1975, attacking the population with napalm bombs and white phosphorus and forcing them to get exiled in SW Algeria, the Saharawi struggle was strengthened further with the appearance of symbolic songs such as Sahara Ma Timba (Sahara is not for sale), first sung by famous revolutionary singer Um Reghia when she was only 15 years old.

    Um Reghia singing Sahara Ma Timba in Vitoria, Jan 19, 2013: Video

    Then with the creation of the Saharawi Republic in 1976 and the project of a new and strong national Saharawi state in exile, music became the perfect way to promote and intensify the national identity, encourage the freedom fighters and ask for international support. A national band, Shaheid El Uali, was created and named after Polisario founder, and the production of revolutionary songs was highly encouraged by the government.

    © Violeta Ruano

    Musicians and poets were inspired by the war and the new nationalistic spirit, and figures such as guitarists Ali-Salem Kaziza, Brahim Ehmeyada and Najm Alal and singers Mahfud Aliyen ‘Drebaba’, Um Dleila, Um Reghiya and Mariem Hassan became as motivational figures, or more so than any of the political leaders. At that time, anybody could contribute to the building of the nation and musicians were seen as an essential part of the process. This helped the society overcome the stigma against music-makers since they were no longer performing for money, but for the revolution.

    © Violeta Ruano

    Since the cease-fire of 1991 and the promise of the referendum that has yet to take place, the Saharawis have been initiating projects that promote and protect their oral heritage and their music from getting lost due to the invisibility of their protracted fight. One of these projects is, for example, the creation of the Saharawi National Music School (Enamus) in 2011. Reinforcing these efforts and others, Studio-Live aims to engage with local musicians, cultural figures, independent artists, cultural authorities and a wide range of partners, collaborators and supporters around the world to work towards promoting the struggle of the Saharawis through music, just as they have always done.

    © Violeta Ruano

    * Violeta Ruano is a PhD Music Research Candidate, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.


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    Studio-Live: Empowering Saharawi voices through music

    Danielle Smith


    cc Studio-Live
    Setting up a music project in the Saharawi refugee camps in south-west Algeria may not seem to some an obvious priority for a population that relies largely on humanitarian aid for its survival. Yet that is precisely what London-based arts and human rights charity Sandblast has been hard at work doing since early 2010.

    Figure 1. Shueta, lead singer of Tiris in a Studio-Live session in the camps

    cc Danielle Smith

    Setting up a music project in the Saharawi refugee camps in south-west Algeria may not seem to some an obvious priority for a population that relies largely on humanitarian aid for its survival. Yet that is precisely what London-based arts and human rights charity Sandblast has been hard at work doing since early 2010.

    cc Danielle Smith

    The project, known as Studio-Live (, aims to empower the Saharawis to reach global platforms through music to express their culture and their struggle for self-determination. The idea is to equip the refugees with the resources, training, and knowledge to be able to build their own professional music-making scene in the camps that can gain international recognition and be a creative hub. The project involves working closely on the ground with Saharawi cultural authorities, artists and mass organizations for women and youth. In the UK, Sandblast has been linking up with organizations such as Fairtunes (, music industry professionals, artists, music teachers and technicians to implement it.

    cc Danielle Smith

    Studio-Live is responding to local demands and initiatives to enhance the musical skills of the refugees, but to a real degree the project has evolved organically out of Sandblast’s mission to raise awareness through the arts. The seeds were sown when founding director Danielle Smith organized the first Saharawi arts and cultural festival in London in 2007 ( The multi-arts event brought over more than 20 artists from the refugee camps and took three years to prepare, involving endless fundraising and many trials and tribulations to obtain the documents and visas for the refugees to travel to the UK. In the end, the experience proved unprecedented in its success to engage a mostly uninformed British audience with the Saharawi story.

    cc Danielle Smith

    It was the music, however, that showed the greatest potential to get the Saharawi on the map culturally. Tiris (, the music band that had come over, and Sandtracks ( their debut album – which Sandblast also produced – got huge critical acclaim and galvanized the media’s attention. Tiris looked set to pave the way for the Saharawis much in the same way as the Tinariwen had done for the Tuareg. But the road to prepare Tiris for their UK tour and produce their album had required investing in considerable resources and training. The process revealed the widespread obstacles musicians faced in the camps to flourish and reach global stages. In a sense you could say that Studio-Live had already been born even before the idea formally took shape. The festival experience had triggered the realization that Sandblast could not really succeed in its mission unless steps were taken to strengthen the artistic voices of the Saharawis.

    cc Danielle Smith

    Despite the significant number of musicians living in Spain and elsewhere, Studio-Live is primarily concentrating its efforts in the refugee camps, where there is an abundance of talent but where opportunities and resources for it to develop and flourish are at their scarcest. The emigration of many of the most accomplished musicians over the years has left a vacuum. The newer generations of musicians are bereft of mentors and good sources to learn from about their own music traditions. Equally significant, however, the camps are symbolically important as the temporary home of the self-proclaimed Saharawi government-in-exile. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic represents the collective aspirations of the Saharawi people for statehood and ironically, in the current state of the conflict, the camps offer the only space where the Saharawis have a real measure of freedom to express themselves and their culture. Added to this, with 38 years of existence now, the camps, sadly, have acquired an air of semi-permanence and with that the development of the basic infrastructure needed to make setting up Studio-Live feasible.

    cc Danielle Smith

    Today, the urgency for a project like Studio-Live goes beyond enhancing musical skills. The effects of four decades of conflict in Western Sahara have had a real impact on eroding the culture of the Saharawi. This is particularly alarming, as gaining recognition for their unique nomadic, cross-roads desert culture lies at the heart of their struggle. The Moroccan occupying regime in Western Sahara has been denying the existence of the Saharawi as a separate people for decades. It has sought to repress the expression of their culture in different ways and in doing so has violated their fundamental human rights. In recent times, Morocco has even gone as far as to try to appropriate Saharawi culture as its own. This latest assault aims to strip the Saharawi of their own identity and history and to complete the process of their dispossession, having already appropriated most of their territory and its natural resources.

    The truth is that the Saharawi voices are simply not being heard. Some people suggest this has to do with their non-violent approach to resistance and the fact that they have rejected all forms of terrorism to draw attention to their situation. In this regard, Studio-Live is reinforcing this peaceful tradition. It is also honing into and hoping to revive the central role music has historically played, in the Saharawi freedom struggle, to mobilize, build a sense of nationhood and tell the world what is happening to them. (See separate article to learn more). This role peaked during the sixteen-year war period. But then it declined from the mid-nineties on after the Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, agreed to a cease-fire with Morocco, in 1991, and diverted its energy to the implementation of the UN Settlement Plan. Holding the promise of a self-determination referendum for the Saharawi, it has yet to take place.

    Without a doubt Studio-Live is ambitious and faces many challenges and ethical issues it must tackle. But Sandblast believes that the project has the potential to succeed if it manages to fully engage the Saharawi musicians and becomes a vehicle for building strong support links around the world and with the UK. Studio-Live is counting on being able to tap into the UK’s well-known love for the musics of Africa and to draw on its enormous pool of skills, expertise and knowledge of the music industry, to ensure the Saharawi voices and their peacefully-conveyed resistance message can no longer be ignored.

    If anyone is interested in supporting Studio-Live with their skills, time, ideas or would like to donate ( please contact us at [email protected]


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    * Danielle Smith is Sandblast Founding Director. [email protected]

    Morrocan theft of Saharawi culture

    Said Zeroual and RuGaibi Abdullah Mohammed Sheikh


    cc A A N
    Morocco, which militarily controls Western Sahara since its occupation in 1975, is trying to present a false image of the situation in Western Sahara, taking advantage of the military siege and the media blockade imposed on the region.

    After having been plundered the natural resources of the Saharawi people and having invested them to support the military presence at the expense of the rights of the Saharawis, Morocco is trying to rob the Saharawi of their identity and culture in an attempt to present the world with a false image, especially in Europe. In this context, it was announced that a seminar on Saharawi culture will be held at the museum of Sundsvall city in Sweden early next March.

    Talking from firsthand experience, any organized event – whether cultural or otherwise – related to Western Sahara in any European country is always supervised , regulated and must be approved by the Moroccan embassy. Moroccan Embassies act upon higher instruction and have under-the- table budgets to buy international support for the country’s position on Western Sahara. This money comes straight from the revenues of the plundered natural resources of the occupied territory.

    Recently, a Moroccan newspaper revealed that Morocco had announced that it invested in the tourism sector in the Dominican Republic a sum of $ 33 million as soon as that country spoke of revoking its recognition of the Saharawi Republic. The embassies of Morocco have been working hard to fund a lot of cultural and political activities so as to give a false image of the situation in Western Sahara; an image quite different from that shown by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Robert Kennedy Foundation, all these which talk about the deteriorating situation in the areas occupied by Morocco. These same reports described at length the horrible living condition. The occupied Western Sahara is the only region in the world, other that North Korea, which prevents journalists’ access. Limited access is given only under conditions set by Morocco in order to give a false image of the real situation.

    After international resolutions condemning violations of human rights in Western Sahara, the recent sentencing of 24 Saharawi civilians by a military court, and the strangling of Morocco economically after the European Union’s refusal to renew the Fisheries Agreement , Morocco is trying to twist the international law and to use culture as a cover-up.

    As Saharawis, we regret that the Museum of the Swedish city of Sundsvall will turn into a platform for appropriating Saharawi culture. Undoubtedly, this will only add to the suffering of the Saharawi people.

    * Said Zeroual, a journalist, and Rugaibi Abdullah Mohammed Sheikh, a Saharawi citizen.



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    Book Review of ‘Western Sahara: The Refugee Nation’

    By Pablo San Martín. Iberian and Latin American Studies. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010.

    Anthony G. Pazzanita


    cc E E
    The book gives a credible history and analysis of the ways in which the Sahrawis, from Spanish colonial times to the present, have come to see themselves and have coped with the often-wrenching changes to their environment

    The history of the Western Sahara conflict, having lasted over thirty-five years, is well known. The territory’s independence movement, the Polisario Front, is unable to exert sufficient influence to tilt the political process in its favor and lacks the kinds of state and non-state allies that might help make this possible. The occupying power, Morocco, together with its allies France and the United States, sees little incentive to compromise except to attempt to sell an internal “autonomy” plan for the former Spanish colony; a plan that would amount to little more than full permanent Morocco control under a slightly different name. The United Nations lacks the will to compel an up-or-down independence referendum or to compel Morocco to treat Polisario as an equal and legitimate negotiating partner. The UN has also had problems in the last several years maintaining a semblance of impartiality. This is evidenced by the omission of the words “self-determination” (i.e., the possibility of an independent Western Sahara) in a draft report by the UN secretary-general in April 2012. Moreover, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the territory, extant since 1991, glaringly lacks a human rights monitoring component, a situation that does not exist with any other mission undertaken by the world body.

    With all the commentary on political questions, there has been comparatively little coverage in recent years of the social and economic conditions and development in the territory, focusing on the Sahrawi refugee camps located in the vicinity of Tindouf in the far southwest of Algeria, Polisario’s safe haven since late 1975. But Pablo San Martín, a writer and consultant on security and development issues, succeeds—despite some shortcomings—in giving the interested reader a credible history and analysis of the ways in which the Sahrawis, from Spanish colonial times to the present, have come to see themselves and have coped with the often-wrenching changes to their environment.

    San Martín begins with a historical survey of Spain’s history in Western Sahara (which it nominally acquired in the 1880s but did not fully administer until the mid-1930s) in Chapter 1, and then moves to the early 1970s in Chapter 2. He establishes that Madrid discovered that many Sahrawis had ceased to identify themselves by tribe or clan group. This was because their traditional tribal elders had been discredited by their association with the Francoist colonial government. In other words, the drift away from tribalism in the colony began in advance of Polisario’s later resolutely anti-tribal attitudes, although it was very much in harmony with the thinking of early Sahrawi nationalist activists and thinkers, including Mohamed Sidi Ibrahim Bassiri, who was presumed murdered by the Spanish authorities after he organized an anti-colonial demonstration in the Western Saharan capital of El-Ayoun. At the same time, economic factors came into play. Primary among these was the establishment of a major phosphate mining operation at about the same time the inhabitants of the territory were becoming less nomadic and more urbanized owing to the destructive droughts that beset the region starting in the late 1960s. This section of Chapter 2 is one of the most useful in the volume, as it is based on a series of moving interviews with Sahrawis who vividly recalled those peaceful and relatively prosperous times. In some fascinating passages (pp. 54–55) San Martín describes how the Sahrawis’ formative years were also positively influenced by the infusion of Western popular culture and dress into Western Sahara. Later, the Polisario Front would reject “westernization” in principle, albeit on strictly nationalistic and not religious grounds. The rest of this chapter (and Chapter 3 as well) is largely a straight historical discussion of Western Sahara in the early and middle 1970s, one that does not enlarge upon the work of other scholars, and which blurs historical, political, sociological, and anthropological matters, making the narrative sometimes difficult to follow.

    Chapter 4 is by far the most important part of the volume for those with an interest in more recent social and economic changes within the Polisario refugee camp system since the 1988–1991 period of instability known as the “revolution within a revolution.” Hoping to instill a sense of “normal living” in the camps after the 1991 UN ceasefire, Polisario, in addition to introducing a much greater degree of democracy to the Sahrawi population, made the still-controversial decision to open the camps to a market economy. Money would freely circulate and salaries would be paid, unlike what had been the case since 1976. This move brought certain benefits, but also a greater degree of inequality, often to the point where marriage and childrearing became unaffordable for many residents. The author rather clearly indicates that he is not generally a supporter of this policy, and neither, for that matter, are those Sahrawi interviewees whose comments he chose to include in the book. The primary complaints seem to be that their society has become “too consumerist,” that the state sector is placed at a disadvantage with respect to salaries, and educated professionals simply have no ability to practice their skills, though education, by all accounts, continues to be taken seriously.

    Those Sahrawis educated in foreign countries, particularly in Cuba, faced special challenges after their return to the camps after a stay often extending a decade or more. Coming of age in the more open and less traditional Cuban society, these returning “Cubarawis” often were viewed warily by their relatives and fellow citizens, as they not only spoke an odd blend of Spanish and Hassaniyya Arabic, but were sometimes considered too extroverted and too readily discussed sexual matters for the more strait-laced Sahrawis. What is more, the Cubarawis are most likely to admit their lack of religious faith and refer to themselves as Muslim in only a purely cultural sense. The Polisario Front’s headquarters area, known as Rabbouni, serves as an essential social safety valve for these and other more liberal-minded Sahrawis, as it is located many kilometers from the refugee camps and supports an administrative population that often returns to the camps only on weekends, leaving plenty of time for socializing.

    Far from remaining a helplessly dependent people living in a harsh desert exile, Sahrawi society has undergone notable and momentous shifts, mostly without substantial internecine conflict. This condition is sure to be tested in the years ahead, the author believes, by the economic and other problems of younger Sahrawis, and with the precedent of the revolts and protests of the “Arab Spring.” Although the book does not include a discussion of internal politics in the camps after 1991 and does not discuss the specific situations encountered by various Sahrawi professionals (including doctors and nurses), those already conversant with Western Sahara will find this book a useful addition to their collections, as it contains material of many types not readily accessible elsewhere in English.

    * Reprinted with kind permission from the: International Journal of African Historical Studies.



    1. Javier Bardem’s Sons of Clouds:
    2. Wilāya
    3. The Runner
    4. El Problema
    5. La Badil (documentary)
    6. Al-Jazeera’s “Inside Story” section on Western Sahara
    7. L'autre côté du mur (French film made by APSO)


    1. Zunes, S. & Mundy, J. (2010) Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution. Syracuse University Press.
    2. San Martín, P. (2010) Western Sahara: The Refugee Nation. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.


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