Western Sahara Rises Again
One of the often forgotten and neglected foreign and military occupations in the Middle East/North Africa and Mediterranean regions has been thrust back atop the international agenda in recent months. The occupation of Western Sahara by the Kingdom of Morocco since October 1975 reached a milestone shared in the same period with the 45th anniversary of the 27 February 1975 proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic throughout the former Spanish colony by POLISARIO, the internationally recognized representative of the Sahrawi people.
If those commemorations were not significant enough, the occupied territory was brought into new light with the outgoing U.S. Trump Administration’s scheme to recognize Moroccan ‘sovereignty’ over the Sahrawi people’s self-determination unit on 14 November 2020 as quid pro quo for the Moroccan kingdom’s formal normalization of relations with Israel, the Middle Eastern region’s parallel colonial enterprise. Trump’s double deal freshly exposed the many analogies between the two occupations such that even extreme Arab nationalists, who long have denied Sahrawi self-determination as a case of insurgent “separatism” from Morocco, have had to face their own contradictions.
Under peremptory norms of international law, all states—whether members of the United Nations (UN) or not—are obliged to support the self-determination of non-self-governing and colonized peoples and bring such illegal situations to an end. As of 1963, Western Sahara is considered by the UN General Assembly (GA) as a Non Self-Governing Territory. Accordingly, the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples applies to Western Sahara.
In 1966, the GA requested Spain to determine at the earliest possible datethe procedures for the holding of a referendum under United Nations auspices in conformity with the aspirations of the indigenous people of the former Spanish Sahara.
In its 1975 Advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice unambiguously ruled that “the Court`s conclusion is that the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco… Thus, the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.”
In November 1975, the Kingdom of Morocco invaded Western Sahara, which led to a war that was frozen in 1991 with the agreement between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front for a Settlement Plan and the subsequent creation of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. This Mission remains the only peacekeeping operation mandated to enforce a very fundamental peoples’ right: the right to self-determination.
On 26 February 1976, Spain informed the Secretary-General that it had terminated its presence in the Territory of Western Sahara and considered itself, thenceforth, exempt from any responsibility of any international nature in connection with the administration of the Territory. Since then, Western Sahara is the only Non Self-Governing Territory that has no internationally recognized Administering Power and the only being under illegal foreign military occupation. For the ensuing three decades, Morocco has spared no efforts to impede the organization of a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara.
On 13 November 2020, the day before announcing the Trump deal with Israel, Morocco violated the 30-year cease-fire by intervening militarily to scatter a group of Saharawi civilians after three weeks peaceful demonstrating inside Western Sahara’s southern demilitarized buffer-zone at Guerguerat. The demonstrators were calling for the end of the occupation and protesting Morocco’s illegal plundering of the Sahrawis’ natural resources. In response also, Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces has further extended the occupation’s separation wall (the ‘berm’) to the Mauritanian border, 14 km beyond the cease-fire line and through the buffer zone.
In the following days, the Moroccan security forces increased repressive measures against the occupied Sahrawi population, in particular against human rights defenders and journalists. The members of the “Saharawi Organ against Moroccan Occupation” (ISACOM), including Aminatou Haidar and Djimi El Ghalia, who were already victims of enforced disappearance at the end of the 1980s and who interact with the UN human rights mechanisms, were victim of reprisals and a smear campaign since the creation of the organization in September 2020.
Furthermore, the Moroccan occupying authorities instructed its judicial authority to issue a notice on 29 September 2020 signed by the General Prosecutor in the occupied city of al-`Ayūn. The prosecutor threatened to open a legal investigation against all participants of the founding meeting of ISACOM, claiming that they were undermining the kingdom’s ‘territorial integrity.’ This was followed by several ISACOM members being put under de facto house arrest, their houses being constantly besieged and monitored by both official and plain-clothed Moroccan police. Since breaking the cease-fire, Moroccan occupation forces have detained, beaten, threatened, intimidated and robbed numerous other human rights defenders. (For further details, see A/HRC/46/NGO/83.)
Despite the particularly egregious violations marking the 45th anniversary of Morocco’s illegal occupation, these measures are not new. The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently has issued several observations concerning Saharawi activists, stressing that their detention is directly linked to their political activities in favor of the free exercise of the right of self-determination of the Saharawi people. Therefore, their detentions, like the occupation more generally, violate the most sacrosanct norms of international law and world order.
In the most-recent session of the UN Human Rights Council, the 267 member organizations of the Geneva Support Group for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in Western Sahara call upon the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to:
- Urgently dispatch an observation mission to the Non Self-Governing Territory of Western Sahara occupied by the Kingdom of Morocco and report to the 48th session of the Human Rights Council on the human rights situation; and
- Offer technical cooperation and capacity building to the recognized representative of the Saharawi people, the Polisario Front, in compliance with GA resolution 75/104 (para. 8).
Photo on the front page: A view of the peaceful demonstrations of Sahrawi civilians at Guerguerat. Source: Redio Algérie. Photo on this page: Morocco’s occupation forces have extended its militarized separation wall to the Mauritanian border. Source: middleeasteye.net.
For an introduction to the situation of occupied Western Sahara, see the video Life is Waiting, by Cultures of Resistance Films.