The Western Sahara Sand Trap


The world has changed in many ways in the past 50 years. Global population has doubled, and well over half of the people alive in the world today were born after the United Nations requested, in 1965, that Spain de-colonise the territory of Western Sahara, which it had occupied since the late 19th century. But Spain would not relinquish the last colonial country in Africa so readily, and for the next 7 years the request for Spain to organise a referendum to establish the will of the people with regard to the future of Western Sahara was an annual fixture on the UN agenda.

To break out of this state of political limbo required more than a yearly repetition of the referendum request. The POLISARIO (Frente Para la Liberación de Saguia Al Hamra y Rio de Oro) was established in 1973 to force a change in tempo, by voicing the demands of the Saharawi and confronting the Spanish military. The initial impact seemed promising: the following year the first census was conducted and hopes began to rise that a lasting solution for independence was at hand. Those hopes evaporated as neighbouring Mauritania and Morocco replaced Spain as occupiers in 1976, and began a military pincer movement against the Saharwi. Increasingly, local inhabitants were driven into desert regions or to Algeria as refugees, victims of ambitious geopolitical competition between Morocco, which continues to uphold its territorial claims, and Mauritania, which eventually relinquished and withdrew.

Sand Berm, Western Sahara Photo: AFP

Sand Berm, Western Sahara
Photo: AFP

And that is where we find the Saharwi today. Trapped in the sand behind a gigantic berm 2,700 kilometers long, laced with unknown thousands of landmines, heavily guarded by an estimated 100,000 Moroccan troops, with UN peacekeeping force MINURSO deployed to ensure the 1991 ceasefire agreement is upheld. Despite voting in favour of it, the Kingdom of Morocco has still not acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty and, while both sides have agreed to cooperate with MINURSO to identify and remove mines and other unexploded ordnance, the berm is not included in the agreement. All major settlements, including the capital, are on the side occupied by Morocco, which encourages settlers and enters into trading agreements for Western Saharan resources such as phosphates, oil, fisheries, and even the sand. Goods produced in the occupied territory are regularly discovered being mislabelled “Made in Morocco”. All of these infractions are vigorously denounced by activists, with some notable successes in recent years.


Saharwi Refugees

On the other side of this monstrous wall the Saharwi wait to reclaim their rights, while their resources are plundered. They live on the goodwill of others, humanitarian assistance and charitable donations, while the wealth of their land lines the coffers of Morocco. It is estimated that between 90,000 and 165,000 people are living in the 5 camps they created over thirty years ago, when they fled the fighting. A reliable population census would facilitate the referendum these people were promised, which explains the wide gap between the lower estimate from Morocco and the upper estimate from the Saharwi. They didn’t expect to be living in these camps for so many years, decades even. Some of them have family on the other side of the barrier they have not seen for 30 years. MINURSO tries to arrange reunions, but the list is long and only a few people at a time can be granted this brief respite.

Gdeim Izik camp destroyed by military to crush 2010 protests

Gdeim Izik camp destroyed by military to crush 2010 protests

The record of human rights abuse against the Saharwi is appalling, including aerial bombardment, the use of white phosphorous, arbitrary detention, torture, persecution, and rape.  Although this situation has existed for many years, the UN envoy requested an extension of MINURSO’s mandate after the brutal repression of a mass demonstration and sit-in at Laayoune on 10 November 2010. Some keen-eyed observers have labeled this event as the true beginning of the uprisings that have engulfed the region since then, the so-called “Arab Spring”.  After a two-year delay, Saharwi activists were given sentences ranging between 20 years and life in a military trial, condemned by Amnesty International as “flawed from the outset.” The protests, and the military repression against them, continue. The UN mission is not documenting human rights abuses in Western Sahara, so activists have created their own crowdsource space to gather reports and evidence.

Most fascinating, that  in this desert wilderness against a backdrop of despair, democracy has bloomed. The POLISARIO has a functioning government supported by local committees, and a refreshingly progressive attitude towards equality and discrimination on gender, education, disability, and religion. Communities had no choice but to adapt to develop, improving in stages with each successive generation of these fiercely independent and strong-willed people. As often happens under extreme hardship and oppression, creative pursuits, especially music and community events, play a very important role in Saharwi culture. One of the best-known musical artists, Mariem Hassan, is welcomed around the world. This October, a repeat of the hugely successful FiSahara Film Festival is planned. The project is run by the Spanish Network of Organizations in Solidarity with the Western Sahara (CEAS), a non-profit NGO based in Spain with humanitarian projects in the Saharwi refugee camps. Organisers are currently processing registrations, and making arrangements to house visitors with refugee families from 8 to 13 October in the Tindouf camp. They are looking for volunteers to help with everything from maintaining the website to promoting the event.



How much longer can this situation endure? With the increasing availability of the internet facilitating information sharing, and the development of online social and support networks, the story of the Saharwi is beginning to spread despite these long years of ignorance, and Morocco’s determination to suppress information. Those monitoring the situation in Mali also have a wary eye on Western Sahara, and some analysts probe the possible dynamics of relationships between the POLISARIO rebels, the MNLA, and sundry Islamist groups currently occupying large areas of northern Mali, especially as the 3 aid workers kidnapped from the Tindouf camp in October 2011 were in the hands of such groups.  As Saharwi youth become increasingly frustrated with the status quo, some feel the time is right for a change, even breaking the truce, if the UN can’t get its act together and force a referendum in the very near future. This makes them a choice target for recruitment by the rebel gangs who support their antics by trafficking people, drugs, contraband, and weapons across the Sahel region.

Palestinians celebrate UN victory


The news of the UN General Assembly’s decision to upgrade the Palestinians status was the cue for wild celebrations across the West Bank and Gaza.

In Ramallah, thousands hit the streets for a frenzy of flag-waving and fireworks.

Many in the crowd expressed their delight at the UN’s decision and their pride in President Mahmoud Abbas following his speech to the UN.

“I’m so proud, like a Palestinian, I’m so proud, this President represents me, he reflected our dreams in such a tremendous way,” one woman said.

Adnan Al-damiri, a major general in the Palestinian security service said, “There is a struggle between the Palestinians and the Israeli government. And today we have won a point in this struggle. We will continue to win the points until we get independence.”

In the city of Bethlehem, the bells of the Church of the Nativity rang out in honour of the vote.

Thousands had gathered next to the Israeli separation barrier to watch the live broadcast of President Abbas give his speech.

“Today, thanks to God’s will, we celebrate the victory of Palestine. It is now on the world map. A country like any other country,” one man said.

There was also jubilation on the streets of Gaza.

Image: BBC

Image: BBC

In a rare show of unity, Abbas’ Islamist rivals Hamas, who control the territory, let the President’s Fatah movement hold a victory rally.

”It is a historical moment,” said one man.

“It should be written in history that the Palestinian state was recognised. The 29th November is an historic date. We are so proud of it,” said another man.

During his address to the UN, President Abbas described the vote as a last chance to save the so- called two state solution.

Western Sahara: a South Sudan Suggestion


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.

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.

Ten years and six billion dollars later, Afghanistan’s Opium Blooms Ever Stronger

Mohnkapseln, getrocknet

Mohnkapseln, getrocknet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

KABUL, Afghanistan — For years, American officials have struggled to curb Afghanistan’s opium industry, rewriting strategy every few seasons and pouring in more than $6 billion over the past decade to combat the poppies that help finance the insurgency and fuel corruption.

It is a measure of the problem’s complexity that officials can find little comfort even in the news this month that blight and bad weather are slashing this year’s poppy harvest in the south. They know from past seasons that blight years lead to skyrocketing opium prices and even greater planting efforts to come.

“Now I am desperate, what can I do?” said Mohammed Amin, a poppy farmer in Tirin Kot in Oruzgan Province, who harvested only one kilogram of opium poppy this year compared with 15 last year. “I don’t have any cash now to start another business, and if I grow any other crops, I cannot make a profit.”

The seemingly unbreakable allure of poppy profits — for producers and traffickers, government officials and Taliban commanders alike — has kept fighting opium at the heart of efforts to improve security. It drove Richard C. Holbrooke, later the special envoy to Afghanistan, to write in 2008: “Breaking the narco-state in Afghanistan is essential, or all else will fail.”

That concern is no less serious today, on the eve of the departure of thousands of American troops. But even as American leaders continue to emphasize the importance of the anti-opium effort, some officials are privately conceding that there is little chance for its large-scale success before the end of the NATO military mission in 2014.

The withdrawal is one worry. As the money from the Western military and civilian aid programs dwindles, the relative importance of opium to the economy is likely only to increase, said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan.

“Some money is available through the licit economy, but less than in the past as the Western contracts dry up, and so the importance of the illicit, informal economy will increase: human trafficking, gems, timber and weapons smuggling, and of course narcotics is a huge chunk of it,” he said, adding: “The prognosis post-2014 is not a positive one.”

Opium poppy, much like the coca grown in Colombia and Peru, poses a number of problems because there is so much money to be made that powerful political players, from police chiefs to governors, inevitably want a cut. The Taliban also support the drug trade, directly by protecting opium farmers, and indirectly by shielding traffickers, who pay off everybody in order to move their products quickly to the borders, according to narcotics experts at the United Nations and the Afghan government.

“Drugs are not the only priority issue for Afghanistan,” said William R. Brownfield, the State Department’s assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement, in an interview this month. “But by the same token, if you do not address the drug issue you will not succeed in the other security, stability, democracy, prosperity objectives you are aiming for.”

Despite all the effort, there are many troubling indicators. Nationwide, the number of poppy-free provinces, which reached a high of 20 in 2010, has now dropped to at least 17 and could be found to be still lower once researchers finish surveying remote provinces. Overall acres under poppy cultivation began rising again in 2009 after a significant drop the year before, and the total has grown slowly but steadily since.

Interdiction, while somewhat improved under new Afghan counternarcotics leadership, nets only about 3.5 percent of the 375 tons of heroin that leaves the country every year, according to the United Nations.

Even the success stories are unlikely to be sustainable, officials say. The prime example is the combined American and British counternarcotics campaign in the Helmand River Valley, in the heart of the province that produces nearly half of Afghanistan’s opium. Since its start in 2009, the military mission has coincided with a 33 percent decrease in opium poppy cultivation in the area, and concurrent programs to create alternative jobs and crops have had a significant effect there.

But the troops are leaving — as many as 14,000 American Marines could depart Helmand by the end of the year — and many of the incentive programs are closing down unless Afghanistan’s counternarcotics minister can persuade the West to renew them.

“We have to watch the answer develop over the next 6 to 12 months,” Mr. Brownfield said, speaking of the effects of the military withdrawal. “That’s what transition is all about — we’re changing from a known to an unknown.”

This year’s low opium harvest has thrown another element of unpredictability into the picture. It has already driven a few farmers to commit suicide and others to flee because they feared retribution from creditors, according to the governor’s office in Helmand. But rather than serving as a disincentive, the poor crop is more likely to prompt many to plant even more poppy next year to make up for this year’s losses. That was the pattern in previous blight seasons, like 2010.

Mr. Amin, the poppy farmer in Tirin Kot, says that despite the risks, there is nothing to replace opium: “The poppy is always good, you can sell it at any time. It is like gold, you can sell it whenever and get cash.”

In the meantime, the price for opium at the farm gate has soared — up more than 50 percent from a month ago and now selling for more than $320 per kilogram — another factor likely to spur more planting, Mr. Lemahieu said. Traffickers, who stockpile opium from year to year, are making a killing, he said.

On the Afghan side, the minister for counternarcotics, Zarar Ahmad Muqbel Osmani, has increased poppy eradication efforts in areas where farmers can grow other crops and is lobbying to expand the alternative crop program. But he remains deeply frustrated with the overall lack of law enforcement. Asked what it would take to affect the country’s drug problem, he answered tersely, “Political will.”

Among the continuing problems with corruption: information leaks that scuttle potential drug raids; political pressure that results in the release of major traffickers; and local politicians and police officers who participate in the poppy trade and use eradication programs to attack their rivals.

The deputy interior minister for counternarcotics, Lt. Gen. Baaz Mohammed Ahmadi, said his specialized force must still answer to local police officials.

“Because they are dependent on the regular force for everything, for gas for their vehicles and for the vehicles, even a very junior fuel dispatcher will know about the details of our operations,” he said. “And when we plan an operation, we have to have approval of the local police chief or his deputy or the zone police chief, and if one of those people is corrupt or linked to a big trafficker, it leaks.”

The Americans have taken at least three different tacks to fighting opium poppy cultivation.

In the early days after the 2001 invasion, a little more than half the current acreage was under cultivation, a legacy in part from the Taliban’s ban on opium, which they ignored selectively. The Western emphasis was on driving the remaining Taliban fighters from the country, and with that in mind the Americans made allies of many of the old warlords who were also involved in the drug trade, entrenching a culture of impunity.

In 2005, British forces found nearly 20,000 pounds of opium in the office of the Helmand governor, Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, an ally of President Hamid Karzai. He was forced out at the behest of the British, but was later named to the Senate.

In 2006, as Americans began promoting eradication by specially trained Afghan forces, heroin was found in a car belonging Hajji Zaher Qadir, whom Mr. Karzai had been considering to lead the border police force. That appointment was scrapped, but Mr. Qadir is now one of the leaders in the lower house of Parliament. Many of the northern power brokers are also believed to be involved in the drug trade.

In 2007, as poppy growth reached a record-high 477,000 acres, the new American ambassador, William B. Wood, began to lobby for aerial eradication of the kind that had been undertaken in Colombia.

Mr. Wood became such a vocal proponent that he was known in the British press as “Chemical Bill.” He once even tried to overcome President Karzai’s skepticism about spraying by offering to publicly sit in a vat of pesticide clad only in a Speedo bathing suit to prove the chemicals were safe, said a Western official familiar with the discussions at the time.

Strenuous opposition from Mr. Karzai, European diplomats and some American policy makers stopped the program from getting off the ground. They feared it would backfire by reminding impoverished Afghans of Soviet-era spraying and would push them further into poverty, and into the arms of the Taliban.

In 2009, with the arrival of President Obama’s team, including Mr. Holbrooke, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and later Gen. David H. Petraeus, the focus turned toward a counterinsurgency strategy that hinged on gaining acceptance from local Afghans.

Aware of how eradication deeply alienated rural Afghans who depended on opium for their families’ subsistence, the American military distanced itself as much as possible from destroying poppy crops, instead supporting alternative crops and livelihoods. The State Department paid provincial governors to use Afghan forces to eradicate.

At the same time, officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Justice Department mentored the Afghan police in interdiction and Afghan lawyers and judges in prosecuting narcotics cases.

The efforts have led to two perceived success stories: new drug courts, and the alternative crops and jobs effort in Helmand Province. Both initiatives have taken several years to mature. The drug courts, in particular, are widely viewed as largely insulated from corruption and are efficient, handling 635 cases in 2011. A few of them involved government employees, including police officers who were smuggling heroin. In the vast majority, the prosecutors obtained convictions.

Still, for many Afghans in the poppy belt, the idea of placing a bet on the government’s future by cultivating anything other than poppy seems like one of the longest of shots.

“It is not an easy choice to grow poppies,” said Tahir Khan, a local village leader in Khogyani district in the Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan. “We know the danger and threat from the government and it is difficult, it needs hard work to recoup our investment. But the people are poor, they have no choice.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
First Published May 27, 2012 1:01 pm

#Libya voter registration about 50% UN calls it a success


Are we really supposed to buy this statement from UNSMIL about  Libya voter registrations, in the tiny two week period allowed, of 2.7 million (reported) when the population is almost 7 million? Those age 15 or under are 30% or less of the total, which pus those of voting age considerably more than 2.7 million.