To liberate Africa’s last colony, UN must hold long-overdue vote for self-determination in Western Sahara

By unilaterally ending a 29-year ceasefire, Morocco highlights the urgent need for the UN to make good on its commitments to Western Sahara.

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Following nearly 100 years of colonization by Spain, and 45 years of brutal occupation, settler colonialism, exploitation of natural resources, and ethnic cleansing by Morocco since 1975, the people of the Western Sahara have been pushed to the brink of war. On Nov. 10, Morocco broke through a United Nations buffer zone and launched a military operation in the Sahrawi town of Guergerat on the border with Mauritania. This act of belligerence effectively ended a 29-year ceasefire brokered and monitored by the United Nations, igniting the Indigenous population to resume its armed liberation struggle in self-defense. On Dec. 10, Morocco announced that it was normalizing relations with Israel, to which the United States delivered a tandem quid pro quo: it recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara and announced the sale of $1 billion in drones, Apache helicopters and precision-guided weapons to Morocco.

Previous Coverage
  • US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara is a duplicitous power move
  • Morocco’s most recent act of war is viewed by the POLISARIO Front — the Sahrawi people’s government-in-exile in Rabouni, Algeria — as the last straw in a long list of aggressions and transgressions aimed at annihilating their culture, human rights and struggle for self-determination as recognized and upheld by international law. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO, was established by Security Council Resolution 690 in 1991 to allow the Sahrawi people to choose their fate in accordance with the settlement proposal accepted by both Morocco and the POLISARIO. An additional 24 UNSC resolutions have been predicated on this resolution aimed at implementing a fair and impartial voter registration process, as well as Resolution 380 in 1975 deploring Morocco’s movement into the territory.

    These actions on the part of Morocco and the United States are in contravention to international law and its conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which safeguards the right to freedom and self-determination. In 1965, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 2072 requesting Spain to “take all necessary measures” to decolonize the territory. Following Spain’s announcement that it would withdraw from the territory in 1975, the International Court of Justice affirmed the right of the people of the Western Sahara to self-determination. King Hassan II of Morocco responded to the court’s announcement with a national radio proclamation that a Maseerah or “march to reclaim Moroccan Sahara” would take place, which mobilized 350,000 Moroccans to immediately pack up and move to the territory, with successive waves of relocation occurring ever since.

    In 1984, the Organization of African Unity accepted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or SADR, as a member state. Morocco, a founding member of the OAU, then withdrew in protest for 33 years — rejoining in 2017 as a means to gain political and economic leverage.

    Morocco’s brutal occupation is characterized by violent suppression of dissidence and of the nonviolent protests of Indigenous Sahrawis.

    Core to the MINURSO Mission’s mandate was the establishment of an identification commission led by pairs of Sahrawi Shaykhs (tribal leaders) from each clan, who were approved by both Rabat and Rabouni to determine the authenticity of those applying to register to vote in the referendum.  Unfortunately, the referendum to determine whether Africa’s last colony was to become independent or incorporated into Morocco has never occurred. This is in spite of the fact that the U.N. peacekeeping mission has been in operation for 29 years. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently renewing the MINURSO mandate for another year, with the pledge to send yet another personal envoy to the region after the post had been vacant since May 2019. Initially set for January 1992, the referendum has been repeatedly stalled by Sahrawi objections to persistent and sustained efforts by Morocco to present its nationals as Sahrawi tribal members. In 1995, the voter identification process requisite to the referendum was suspended and has been stalemated ever since.

    In the meantime, Morocco has successfully “Moroccanized” the Western Sahara since 1975, similar to Israel’s 72 years of Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine. For the past 29 years, under feigned compliance with the MINURSO mandate, the Kingdom has continued its settler colonial project effectively changing the demographics of the territory. According to Mulay Ahmed of the Sahrawi Association in the United States, the Western Sahara’s population of nearly 700,000 has been ethnically adulterated to include 400,000 Moroccans incentivized by housing subsidies to move south from Morocco to El-Aioun, Smara, Boujdour, Dakhla and other cities. “These predominantly ethnic Berbers are different from the nomadic Sahrawis,” he said, whose origin traces back to the Arabian Peninsula following two waves of migrations in the 9th and 13th centuries. Apart from sharing the Maliki School of Islam as their religion, Sahrawis and Moroccans differ dramatically in language, culture, food, dress and affinity to the desert and the Western Sahara’s exquisitely beautiful sand dunes. In fact, because of the relative isolation of the Sahrawi people in the western Sahara Desert for centuries, they have maintained a cultural purity and their dialect is regarded as the closet to classical Qur’anic Arabic.

    The United Nations and Security Council have been mute as Morocco has accelerated the breadth and scope of its colonial project.

    In addition to changing the facts on the ground ethnically, Morocco’s brutal occupation is characterized by violent suppression of dissidence and of the nonviolent protests of Indigenous Sahrawis. Arrests, incarceration, torture, disappearances, abuse and economic apartheid have resulted in ethnic cleansing and the exodus of some 200,000 to Algeria, Mauritania, Spain, France, the United States, Canada and Latin America. In this regard, the U.N. presence in the region under the auspices of conducting a referendum is likened to the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine National Authority in 1993, whereby a partial deal was struck which left out the status of Jerusalem and right of return of Palestinians in exile — while illegal settlement-building increased exponentially and Israel began construction of its apartheid border wall.

    In his famous statement on South Africa before the Special Committee Against Apartheid at U.N. headquarters in New York in 1990, the late anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela said: “We also take this opportunity to extend warm greetings to all others who fight for their liberation and their human rights, including the peoples of Palestine and Western Sahara. We commend their struggles to you, convinced that we are all moved by the fact that freedom is indivisible, convinced that the denial of the rights of one diminishes the freedom of others.”

    As is the case with Israel’s appropriation of internationally-recognized Palestinian lands after the Oslo Accords, and in contravention to that historic peace agreement, Morocco has sabotaged the referendum process. At the same time, the United Nations in general, and Security Council in particular, have been mute as Morocco has accelerated the breadth and scope of its colonial project with the assistance and blind eye of two permanent members of the Security Council: the United States and France. Morocco has devoted $20 billion to its strategic objective of securing the Western Sahara, and its primary arms suppliers include the United States, with a 53 percent share, followed by France with 44 percent.

    Successive administrations of both parties have supported the Kingdom, which has since 2019 purchased billions of dollars’ worth of American weapons.

    The United Nations has never taken a firm and clear position around Western Sahara or used all the mechanisms at its disposal to check Moroccan violations, transgressions and belligerence, such as the invocation of Chapters VI and VII of the U.N. Charter to support negotiations between Morocco and the POLISARIO, as if they are two equal parties, or to implement sanctions.

    According to Mohamed Brahim of the Sahrawi Association in the United States, “the U.N. is unable or unwilling to force Morocco to respect the referendum, particularly due to the presence and influence of the United States and France — two allies on the Security Council with vested geopolitical and financial interests in the Western Sahara’s great resources.” 

    The territory is rich in phosphates, fish, uranium, salt, minerals, sand and potential off-shore oil drilling. The world’s longest conveyor belt, which can be seen from space, runs 61 miles (98 kilometers) from the mining town of Bukraa to the port of El-Aioun in occupied Western Sahara.

    This stacking of the decks in favor of Morocco by the United States goes back decades. In 1975 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told President Gerald Ford that he hoped for “a rigged U.N. vote” affirming Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. Successive administrations of both parties have supported the Kingdom, which has since 2019 purchased billions of dollars’ worth of American weapons. The Clinton Foundation has secured $12 million in donations from King Mohammed VI and private Moroccan corporations, after which Secretary of State Hillary

    Clinton encouraged Morocco to abandon the U.N.-sponsored referendum in favor of a negotiated settlement with the POLISARIO. Doing so would have had the effect of relegating Sahrawi leadership to a Moroccan puppet regime, as many Palestinians now view the Palestinian Authority as pandering to Israel post-Oslo.

    “Since the bulk of the Moroccan army is stationed in occupied Western Sahara, it is likely that the weapons will be used in the ongoing war against the civilian population.”

    More recently, in 2018, the Trump administration moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and last month announced that it was opening a consulate in Dakhla in occupied Western Sahara. Both moves were made in flagrant disregard and contravention of international law pertaining to the status of these territories, and taken while claiming to be a neutral arbiter in both regions.

    Regarding the United States’ carte blanche sale of $11.3 billion in weapons to Morocco since 2019, its recent move to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara reframes and relegates the brutal occupation to a situation of civil unrest and insurgency rather than international war — something for which the United States could be held in check by Congress or accountable by the U.N. for aiding and abetting.

    “It is hard to tell where Morocco is going to use these weapons. There is now an open war between the Sahrawi army and the Moroccan army,” said Ambassador Sidi Omar, Representative of the POLISARIO Front at the U.N. in New York, when asked if Morocco would use these weapons against the Sahrawi resistance movement and refugee camps in Algeria. “Since the bulk of the Moroccan army is stationed in occupied Western Sahara, it is likely that the weapons will be used in the ongoing war against the civilian population.”

    Sahrawi civilians, in should be noted, have patiently and in good faith practiced nonviolent civil disobedience for 29 years, while in full cooperation with the U.N. mandate for a referendum. What is certain, Omar added, is that “the continuation of the armed conflict in Western Sahara will have dire consequences on peace and stability in our region.”

    Like Palestine, Western Sahara is confronted with a great power imbalance, although its liberation struggle resonates with civil society across Africa, the Middle East and beyond. The longstanding occupation by Morocco has ongoing local and regional repercussions, which can explode at any time to become an international imbroglio fueled by superpowers, proxy wars and multi-billion-dollar arms sales.

    In such a scenario, it is likely that purveyors of these weapons — including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Atomics and the French weapons consortium MBDA — will continue to profit directly while bolstering the military industrial complex creating American and French jobs. 

    In spite of this bleak scenario, the Western Sahara, Morocco and the region do not need to engage in war. According to Mohamed Brahim of the Sahrawi Association in the United States, the solution is simple. “Hold the U.N. referendum once and for all. Let the Sahrawi people and their legitimate representatives decide their future.” He hopes that the incoming Biden administration will reverse the decision to recognize the Western Sahara as part of Morocco. “However,” he said, “what is more likely is that the military industrial complex and Israeli lobby will convince him otherwise.”

    This story was produced by Fellowship of Reconciliation


    As an interfaith organization, FOR-USA's mission is to organize, train, and grow a diverse movement that welcomes all people of conscience to end structures of violence and war, and create peace through the transformative power of nonviolence.

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