Western Sahara Under Mounting Pressure

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Heightened Security

“We’ve been building a lot of new walls lately,” says Polisario Front commander Ahmed Salem as he drives his 4 X 4 across Tindouf in Western Algeria. But the newly introduced security measures may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Western Sahrawis.

Salem Ahmed drives along the desert sand wall towards the entrance of Rabuni camp near Tindouf (about 700 km southeast of Moroccan capital Rabat). Rabuni is the nodal point for refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawis, as the local Western Sahara people are called.

Just a few yards from where an excavator that works day and night, we are waved in through a checkpoint manned by men in camouflage from the Polisario, which heads the Sahrawi independence movement. At only a few kilometres from the Mauritanian border, this sea of mud houses and corrugated iron roofs is “home” to over 200,000 individuals.

Western Sahara was the victim of a decolonisation process interrupted in 1976, when Spain – its former colonial power since the late 19th century- left that barren land in the hands of Morocco and Mauritania. After a ceasefire agreement in 1991, most of the territory which is greater than the size of Britain -including the entire Atlantic coastline – is under the control of Morocco. A small, largely uninhabited and economically useless desert portion remains under Polisario rule, strongly backed by Algeria.

This is where the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD) declared its independence in 1976. Since then, the Polisario has won formal recognition for the RASD from 82 nations.

“We are totally dependent on international aid, especially from Spain. We cannot let a repeat incident, like the one that happened before, or we’ll die of hunger and thirst in the desert,” says Ahmed Salem. Spanish aid workers Ainhoa Fernandez, Enric Gonyalons and Italian Rosella Urru were abducted from Rabuni’s international camp on Oct. 22, last year.

Many suggest that the first and only kidnapping in the territory, under the Polisario Front’s control, could trigger a conflict that has remained frozen for 37 years.

The abduction was claimed by a hitherto unknown armed group, and through unusual channels. Ahmed Mohamed Ali, a worker at the centre who was handcuffed during the attack told IPS that the attackers “were not from the region and most likely of Touareg origin.” The Touareg are Berber people inhabiting the Saharan interior of North Africa.

Some observers fear that conflict is brewing in the Western Sahara. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Increasing Isolation

The decrease in the number of foreign visitors is evident after the kidnapping. Rabuni camp has a capacity for 200 visitors; usually now there are just half a dozen.

“Any attack on foreigners, whether it’s a kidnapping, a roadside bomb, or any kind of assault can lead, in the short term, to unpredictable consequences for the future of refugees. It is certainly the most vulnerable side of the Saharawi people,” says Andoni Berriotxoa, coordinator of a project to build water wells in Bir-Lehlu, administrative capital of the Sahrawi territories under Polisario control.

The newly introduced security measures may look draconian to many: night curfew for foreigners starting at seven; compulsory military escort for any journey by road, and a network of earth and sand walls in which the Algerian army also joins with watchtowers and radars.

The Moroccan media will soon broadcast that we are restricting visits for foreigners, but this is for their safety,” says Salem. This military engineer who graduated in Cuba adds that it is Morocco that has built the world’s longest military wall: a French-designed project, over 2,500 kilometres in length, crisscrossing Western Sahara.

“It’s true that the number of visitors has dropped dramatically in the last seven months,” Salem Sehir, a Polisario executive member and district governor tells IPS. “There’s a big fear over new attacks, but we cannot forget that the financial crisis in Spain is also behind the fewer numbers. The number of our kids visiting Spain in summer was cut by half. Spanish families simply cannot afford it any longer.”

Political Stalemate

Back in Rabuni, Jatri Aduh, president of the Sahrawi Parliament and the Polisario leader in negotiations with Morocco, speaks of a conflict “that neither side is able to win.” The senior official openly admits his disappointment over the inaction of the former colonial power and of the UN, compounded by the unconditional support that Morocco gets from France.

“As a full member of the African Union, the RASD is committed to the security in the region and we will not spare any effort to implement it,” says the high-ranking official.

Aduh cannot hide his concern over the growing instability in the region, which is the only shelter for his entire people. In the inhospitable Algerian desert and halfway between the borders of Mali, Mauritania and the Western Sahara territory, this cluster of mud and corrugated iron houses lies on a crossroads for drug trafficking, and for Al-Qaeda fighters and Touareg rebels from Azawad – the newly self-proclaimed state in northern Mali.

“The challenges for the near future are so massive that we have even extended our hand to Morocco to liaise on common security issues. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for a response to our initiative.”

Norwegian Council for Africa.

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Western Sahara: a South Sudan Suggestion

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The New York Bar Association has issued a document recommending that a referendum be held in Western Sahara which follows the same lines as the South Sudan referendum on independence, making references to international law and claiming that such a right to independence is covered by its terms.

The document issued by the New York Bar Association is called The Legal Issues Involved in the Western Sahara Dispute*. The document recommends that the UNO supports a process identical to the one in which South Sudan voted for independence (the Machakos Protocol), which would provide the Saharawi people with the right to vote in favour of autonomy within the occupying power, Morocco, or else go for full independence.

The 107-page legal report drawn up by the New York Bar Association, which has sent a copy to the US Congress, states: “After six years of negotiations on a settlement policy conflict, the people of South Sudan won the right to a referendum with the option of independence. A similar approach for Western Sahara would be supported by international law”.

The report goes further, claiming that international law supports the claim to a right for independence made by the Frente Polisario, representing the occupied Sahawari people: “The people of Western Sahara has clearly the right to self determination under international law. International law requires that the Sahrawis have the opportunity to determine their political status and that determination must include the option of independence”.

It continues: “any plan that eliminates the option of independence of the exercise of self-determination is illegal under international law clearly defined,” while calling on the international community to avoid “imposing” the Saharawi measures contrary to that point.

pravda.ru

Also of interest:

UNDRIP is the permanent solution to Western Sahara

extract from a note by rebuilding failed states on FaceBook

The Arab spring revolution and its ‘domino effect’ in North Africa lend urgency in the region to the United Nations’ efforts to resolve the long-festering problem of the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.   Since 1975, Morocco has asserted its sovereignty over Western Sahara, and for over 37 years, the indigenous peoples of Western Sahara have struggled for independence.

In 1991, the United Nations crafted a solution to the Western Saharan problem in the Minurso mandate. The Plan provided for a transitional period during which the Special Representative of the Secretary-General would have sole and exclusive responsibility over all matters relating to a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and integration with Morocco. Furthermore, it is intended for the establishment of a long term comprehensive and a just resolution to the conflict with Morocco over its self-determination and full independence.

Full implementation of this mandate has been blocked in the Security Council by Morocco’s ally, France, thus depriving the indigenous peoples of Western Sahara of their basic human rights. Therefore, in order to achieve the lofty objectives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is fundamentally necessary for the International community to come to a consensus on the question of Western Sahara and find a solution to this thirty seven year old stalemate. Western Sahara is recognized by the U.N and the ICJ as a territory which was inhabited by Indigenous people prior to the Spanish colonization; therefore it is not a terra nullius.  Then, it is necessary for the U.N to adhere the population of Western Sahara under the protection of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, so they too can enjoy the minimum human rights as prescribed by the universal declaration.

A POLISARIO demonstration for the independence...

A POLISARIO demonstration for the independence of Western Sahara, held in Madrid, November 11th 2006 (here: outside the Foreign Office). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The UDHR guarantees “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. Yet, these basic human rights are denied to the indigenous people in the occupied territory of Western Sahara thanks to a succession of events, which involve Morocco’s political scheming in the region, and the influence of France in the Security Council.

While everything else has been tried to find a solution to the conflict to only reach a deadlock, it is imperative to add the population of Western Sahara to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, for the establishment of these rights.

There are three steps to this policy recommendation to prove why it is fundamental to adopt the principles of the UNDRIP in Western Sahara. First, it will be on the history of the territory. Then, it will discuss the argument of the ICJ concerning the status of Western Sahara and the illegal claim of Morocco over it; and thirdly it will find the appropriate definition from the many on indigenous people to be applied on the Sahrawi population, and will show which articles should be the basis to this argument.

When other people enjoy “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as mentioned in the Universal declaration of Human Rights, the said human rights are inexistent in the occupied territory of Western Sahara.

Morocco’s political scheming in the occupied territory and its strong hold on the media, which prevents the world from knowing about the suffering of the indigenous people of the last African colony, should be sanctioned. And the influence of its allies in the UN Security Council that tends to be problematic to the mechanism and the function of the Minurso mandate in the territory should be stopped.

Although Western Sahara is recognized by the U.N and the ICJ as a Non Res nullius territory which gives it a legal status; and recognizing the failure of the U.N mandate in implementing its fundamental goal for a referendum, which is intended for the establishment of a long term comprehensive and a just resolution to the conflict with Morocco over its self-determination and full independence, and which only ended in reaching a deadlock. Therefore, and in order to show a sign of good will attention, the U.N should include the population and the territory of Western Sahara under the protection of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, so they too can enjoy the minimum human rights as prescribed by the universal declaration. This solution should be acted upon, by the international community, as a rightful thing to do to show a sign of good will in finding a permanent resolution to the question of Western Sahara.

#WesternSahara’s Overlooked Arab Spring

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In the wake of the ongoing unrest across the Arab world, voices from the forgotten Western Sahara conflict claim their role in the so-called Arab Spring. DW talked to a Western Sahara independence activist.

Sidi Ahmed Talmidi, Western Sahara independence activist </p><p>

Sidi Ahmed Talmidi

Sidi Ahmed Talmidi was one of the nine-member group responsible for the negotiations with the Moroccan government during the events in Gdeim Izik camp in Western Sahara in October 2010 (Camp established to protest against ongoing discrimination, poverty and human rights abuses, some protesters also demanded independence for Western Sahara. The protests were initially peaceful, but turned violent following clashes between civilians and security forces – the ed.). Seven members of the original group are in prison and have recently started a hunger strike while they await trial. DW spoke to Talmidi, one of those still free, at the Sahrawi refugee camp in Western Algeria.

DW: What is the current situation in Western Sahara under Moroccan control?

Sidi Ahmed Talmidi: Morocco has turned the area into a massive prison. Nobody feels safe, not even inside their houses. People are constantly harassed, dragged out from home in the middle of the night and either taken to prison or even “disappeared.” Their corpses are often found brutally mutilated in the middle of the street. The last case happened four days ago when the body of a man called Hamdi Tarfany was found chopped into pieces in Laayoune, the administrative capital of the region.

It’s been like this since former colonial power Spain pulled out in 1975 and left us in the hands of the Moroccans who invaded our land. Rabat claims that we have the same living standards as in the rest of Morocco, and that we also enjoy a democratic system but that’s far from being true. These violations have been recognized by almost everybody, even the UN recognizes the Polisario Front (Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement – the ed.) as the legitimate representative of the Western Sahara people.

Morocco and the Polisario Front fought a war over the territory for 16 years until a UN-brokered cease-fire took effect in 1991. What have you achieved in those 21 years?

We laid down our weapons because we were promised a referendum. The MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, produced a census but Morocco has managed to block the lists until today. Basically, we have achieved absolutely nothing. Most of our people have turned into refugees in the middle of the Algerian desert – between 200,000 and 275,000 depending on the source – and we are struggling to survive. On the other hand, Rabat has obtained massive benefits in these two decades. They are exploiting our mineral and fishing resources thanks to France’s complicity and the UN inaction. The MINURSO staff are just getting paid by the UN to stay in a comfortable scenario for them. They have no mechanisms to monitor human rights in the area mainly due to the massive hurdle the French UN veto poses.

You were one the members of the negotiation group during the events in Gdeim Izik camp in October 2010. How do you remember those days?

On October 9 we set up a camp around 12 kilometers outside Laayoun because we wanted to conduct a peaceful demonstration and avoid frictions with the Moroccan settlers downtown. There were nine of us in the negotiations group. We wanted to remind the world that we have been a Moroccan colony for over 35 years so people would walk all the way to where we stayed to join us. After a month we were around 30,000 Sahrawis gathering at the camp.

We were asking for our most basic rights and protesting against the Moroccan government and monarchy. We have nothing against the Moroccan people, in fact, many of them are also facing very dire conditions under Rabat’s rule. On November 8, Moroccan police and special forces raided the camp in the most brutal way. There are no words to describe what we all witnessed that day; it’s hard to believe such things can happen in the 21st century. The day before the raid, the government publicly accused eight of us of kidnapping all those gathering at the camp. How could we possibly hold thousands captive?

Morocco claims that 18 policemen died during the event but no Sahrawis whatsoever. The Polisario Front puts the Sahrawi death toll at 38 with hundreds more injured. What’s your stance?

I could give you a lot of names of protesters killed by the Moroccan police. Fourteen-year-old Nagam Gareh was killed inside a car that was carrying supplies for the protesters; Brahimd Daudi and Babi el Gargar were among those killed in the shooting… Nonetheless, it’s impossible to quantify the dead and injured as our people were even denied medical assistance in the hospitals. Besides, I have no clues on the whereabouts of many friends. A lot of people disappeared after the events.

Disinformation on our conflict is endemic so it came as no surprise when the media was denied access to Gdeim Izik. Even Al Jazeera was immediately expelled from Morocco after they started talking about the issue. We could say that the Arab Spring started in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara, and not in Tunisia. If we had achieved just a tiny percentage of the attention Tunisia or Egypt would get two months later, the political scenario might be significantly different today.

How can this conflict be unblocked?

The only hope for the Sahrawis is to get the UN to recognize that Morocco does not want to take any further step toward the peace plan. Time is on Morocco’s side so international pressure is mandatory to force Rabat to sit down and negotiate. However, Morocco’s refusal would mean to go back to war. Today I think that the only solution for Western Sahara is full independence, and not any sort of autonomy as Rabat has suggested. The latter would mean to continue under their occupation, hence being treated like animals. The majority of our people live like refugees in the middle of the desert because they cannot go back home. We are exhausted and we cannot cope with this situation any longer.

via ‘DW.DE | 18.06.2012.

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Interview: Karlos Zurutuza, Rabuni refugee camp, western Algeria. Editor: Rob Mudge