30 years of waiting for liberation

In the forgotten conflict over Western Sahara, there is an anniversary, but no reason to celebrate. Most Sahrawis still live in refugee camps or under Moroccan occupation. The situation is again very critical.

Thirty years ago, it looked like a breakthrough in Western Sahara. In 1991, the conflicting parties Frente Polisario, the Sahrawi liberation movement, and the occupying power Morocco signed a ceasefire agreement brokered by the UN. This ended an armed conflict that had lasted 16 years.

Part of the agreement was that a referendum would be held on self-determination for the Sahrawi people. The Sahrawis were to be able to decide for themselves whether they wanted to have an independent state of Western Sahara in the future or belong to Morocco. The former Spanish colony of Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco in 1975. In its investigation that same year, the International Court of Justice concluded that Morocco's territorial claims to the area were not historically justified.

Political graffiti in a Sahrawi refugee camp in the Tindouf area of the Algerian desert - Photo Annette Mokler

Hope for a return

At the 1991 agreement, the UN peacekeeping mission Minurso was stationed in Western Sahara. Its task was to monitor the cease-fire and organize the referendum. It was expected to be held the following year.

The Sahrawis were in good spirits. They had been living under Moroccan occupation since 1975, had been at war with the occupying power, or had been holding out in refugee camps in the Algerian desert. The people in the Algerian camps were hopeful that they would soon be able to return to Western Sahara.

In the meantime, what was then a negotiating success for the United Nations has turned into a grueling conflict that has remained unresolved for 30 years. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 174,000 Sahrawis live in camps in Algeria under extreme climatic conditions. They are dependent on international aid supplies and condemned to do nothing.

In the occupied territory of Western Sahara, about the same number of people are subjected to human rights violations documented by NGOs and UN agencies. The occupied Western Sahara is considered a "black hole of information," and censorship is rigorous. Tourists are welcome, but human rights observers and media workers are immediately expelled.

Morocco remains uncompromising

Morocco has since made it clear that it no longer intends to abide by the original 1991 agreement. The kingdom will no longer accept a vote in which the independence of Western Sahara is on the ballot. Only autonomous status is said to still be an option. The Frente Polisario, on the other hand, insists on implementing the original 1991 agreement.

Almost like a war

The situation is currently particularly tense again. Last November, the situation escalated when the Moroccan military entered the southern UN buffer zone on the border with Mauritania and shot at people. They wanted to clear a road that Sahrawi activists were blocking.

The Sahrawis were protesting against the transport of illegally exploited resources from Western Sahara via this road across the southern border - such as tomatoes, melons and, more recently, blueberries and fish. Since the military is prohibited in this buffer zone under the cease-fire agreement, the Polisario, for its part, declared the cease-fire to be over. Since last late fall, there has actually been war there, even though hardly any real fighting had taken place by the time of going to press.

On a course of confrontation

In the power play of geopolitical interests, the Sahrawis have the weaker cards, and Morocco is increasingly taking a confrontational course. In March of this year, the kingdom broke off diplomatic contact with Germany. Germany, still a member of the UN Security Council, had convened a meeting on Western Sahara in late 2020. The meeting discussed U.S. recognition of Moroccan ownership of Western Sahara. A breach of the UN position that every country had respected until then - and one of the last bizarre official acts of former U.S. President Trump in December 2020.

Refugees as leverage

This May, an unmistakable threat to European countries followed on another matter: Morocco suspended border controls with the Spanish exclave of Ceuta in North Africa. Thousands then attempted to cross from Morocco onto Spanish soil to Ceuta. With its action, the Moroccan kingdom expressed its anger that the president of the Polisario, Brahim Ghali, sought treatment in a Spanish hospital.

This is not the first time Morocco has used refugees as leverage against Europe. Back in 2017, the kingdom opened the borders to Ceuta and Melilla in response to a ruling by the European Supreme Court (ECJ). The ECJ ruled that the free trade agreement between the EU and Morocco did not apply to Western Sahara because it had a "separate and distinct status."

Perseverance in the refugee camp

On September 29, two rulings of the ECJ on the free trade and fisheries agreement with Morocco are again expected to go in the same direction. Thus, while the occupying power uses one refugee as a pawn, Morocco, on the other hand, ensures that the Sahrawi refugees continue to endure in the camps in the Algerian desert 30 years after the ceasefire agreement.

There were developments at the UN in the middle of this month. After lengthy negotiations, Morocco has now joined the Polisario in accepting Staffan de Mistura, an Italo-Swede, as the new special envoy for Western Sahara. The post had been vacant since Horst Köhler resigned in March 2019. The former German president did bring the conflict parties back to the negotiating table for two rounds in a long time, but without rapprochement or results. Whether de Mistura, an experienced diplomat and mediator, will actually succeed in bringing movement to the deadlocked conflict remains to be seen. Meanwhile, another generation of young Sahrawis is growing up in the refugee camps in the desert.

Sylvia Valentin, Development Policy Campaigns

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