The Long Struggle For Sahrawi National Rights

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Sahrawi women protesting agains the Moroccan occupation, 2005 Photo: Western Sahara / Creative Commons

ON November 13 war resumed in the Western Sahara, though most people will have missed it.

There’s been a news blackout by the occupying power — Morocco — and the media of the previous colonial regime — Spain — also avoided the story.

The trigger point was a Moroccan military incursion into a demilitarised zone between Western Sahara and Mauritania, attacking an encampment of Sahrawi refugees protesting against Morocco laying a highway across the strip of land to facilitate a massive increase in commercial traffic carrying produce plundered from the occupied bulk of the Western Sahara southwards and EU fish catches northwards. The Guerguerat crossing has long been a point of tension.

Four years ago, the UN promised a commission to resolve the issue. It did nothing.

The Rabat regime drew the appropriate conclusion and broke the terms of the 1991 ceasefire agreement with the Sahrawis’ Polisario Front, invading the border strip.

In response, a new generation of Polisario guerillas launched a series of attacks on Morocco’s 1,600-mile defensive wall. Those attacks have continued every day since.

Make no mistake, the invasion at Guerguerat was important in its own right. The crossing enables Moroccan and EU companies to increase their profits through the occupation of the Western Sahara.

It threatens the independence of enfeebled Mauritania, thus further destabilising the whole of the Maghreb and Sahel, already reeling under the impact of war in Libya, Islamist insurgencies across the regions, entrenched poverty and Covid-19.

But the ceasefire breach was just the final straw. After dictator Franco died in 1975, Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara, handing the bulk of the territory to Morocco and a tranche to Mauritania, despite an International Court of Justice ruling that neither had any valid claim to sovereignty.

The UN ruled that the people of the territory should determine their own future. In the meantime, Morocco invaded, triggering resistance by Polisario guerillas.

The bulk of the Sahrawi population ended up in refugee camps in Algeria with the rest suffering a brutal occupation.

The 1991 ceasefire was predicated on a referendum of self-determination to take place within six months. Thirty years later, the Sahrawis are still waiting.

There has been no referendum because the UN security council has consistently bent to Morocco’s obstruction, knowing that its mentor — permanent member France — would always veto any move to further Sahrawi national rights.

Even a revised plan drawn up by former US secretary of state James Baker was rejected by Rabat, having been accepted by Polisario.

It is nearly two years since there has been a special envoy of the UN secretary-general in place to go through the motions of furthering a settlement.

The UN peacekeeping force is the only post-cold war mission not to have a human rights mandate.

For the Sahrawis, the situation is dire. The 165,000 refugees in the camps suffer increasing levels of infant malnutrition, devastating floods in the winter, and temperatures of 50°C in the summer.

Unsurprisingly, many seek a future in neighbouring countries or Europe. Equally unsurprisingly, the clamour for a return to armed conflict has been building for years.

In the occupied territory, a courageous civil rights movement that sprang up in the 1990s has continued its struggle even after the 2010 Gdeim Yzik protest camp — identified by Noam Chomsky as the first iteration of the Arab Spring — was broken up with mass arrests and beatings.

Nineteen activists were sentenced by a military court to 20 years to life in prison. Since the ceasefire broke down, repression has intensified and there are real fears Morocco will unleash pogroms.

Since the invasion, Morocco has colonised the Western Sahara so the indigenous population is now heavily outnumbered by subsidised settlers, often drawn from the troublesome slums of northern Morocco.

Apart from right-wing nationalist visions of a Greater Morocco incorporating Western Sahara, Mauritania, and parts of Algeria and Mali, a key motive for the invasion was seizing the territory’s phosphate reserves in a bid to make Morocco the fertiliser equivalent of Saudi Arabia in the oil market.

Since then, the exploitation of Western Sahara has branched into fisheries, oil and gas exploration, even the sale of its sand to Spanish beach resorts.

More recently, its sunshine has been stolen for solar panel farms, tomato production and tourist destinations. Inevitably, foreign capital is active. The list of culprits is long.

Examples are Mitsui, Enel, General Electric, GDF Suez, Total, Siemens. The Gulf Arab autocracies are now getting in on the act too. In there are British companies Cairn Energy and International Power.

Tesco and Morrisons admit to selling tomatoes produced in Dakhla and mislabelling them as Moroccan.

There are question marks over some British supermarkets’ Morocco-labelled tinned fish, French beans and courgettes.

For much more information on the plunder, see the excellent website of Western Sahara Resources Watch.

The solidarity movement has had some success in combating the theft. A phosphate shipment was even seized by the South African courts in 2017.

Activists in New Zealand last year picketed docks to protest against imports of stolen phosphate and the Norwegian government pension fund has excluded some fertiliser companies from its portfolio because of their purchase of Western Sahara phosphates.

EU member states are determined that their fishing fleets continue to work Saharan waters with no benefit to the Sahrawi people and Polisario is currently challenging them in court.

Boris Johnson has an “oven-ready” deal with Morocco that would mirror the EU deal, giving British companies cover for exploiting the Western Sahara.

This is likely to be challenged in the courts by the Western Sahara Campaign.

After the resumption of armed conflict in November, outgoing president Donald Trump made the last of his acts of transactional diplomacy in a three-way deal between the US, Morocco and Israel.

In return for Moroccan recognition of the zionist state, the US and the Tel Aviv regime recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

That the move was contrary to international law mattered little to the parties.

Israeli companies will soon be piling into the Western Sahara and Moroccan companies into Israel.

Trump pimped a deal between well-matched parties — the similarities between the occupation of the Western Sahara and the Palestinian territories are obvious.

Even if the Biden administration revokes US recognition of Morocco control over Western Sahara, the marriage between Rabat and Tel Aviv will last.

Meanwhile, the Sahrawis are preparing for another long war. They have learnt that rights are only granted when they are won.

They face a formidably armed enemy supplied with the most up-to-date weaponry and surveillance gear by the US, the EU, Israel and some Arab states.

They are outnumbered and outgunned. But they were in the last war, in which they were undefeated.

The morale and desert craft of their fighters saw them land blow after blow on Morocco’s rag-tag army of conscripts, with the peace agreement they won betrayed in the conference chamber of the UN security council.

Toby Shelley is author of Endgame in the Western Sahara (Zed Books) and is on the committee of the Western Sahara Campaign (

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