Western Sahara: The Other Occupation

Imagine an Arab Muslim nation, most of whose people have lived in the squalor of refugee camps for decades in exile from their homeland. Most of the remaining population suffers under foreign military occupation, with a smaller number living as a minority within the legally-recognized territory of the occupier. The occupying power is in violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, has illegally brought in tens of thousands of settlers into the occupied territory, routinely violates international standards of human rights, has built a heavily-fortified separation barrier deep inside the occupied territory, and continues to defy a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice. Furthermore, and despite all this, the occupying power is considered to be a close ally of the United States and receives substantial American military, economic, and diplomatic support to maintain its occupation and colonization of the territory.

This certainly describes the situation regarding Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank (including greater East Jerusalem) and Syria’s Golan region, as well as its quasi-occupation of the Gaza Strip. But it also describes the thirty-year occupation of Western Sahara by the Kingdom of Morocco. Despite all the well-deserved attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the importance of working to end Israel’s occupation, the failure of the international community—including progressive movements in the United States and elsewhere—to also address the Western Sahara conflict raises questions as to why Morocco is getting away with its ongoing violation of human rights and international law with far less world attention than Israel receives.

Western Sahara: A Brief History

Western Sahara is a sparsely-populated territory about the size of Colorado, located on the Atlantic coast in northwestern Africa, just south of Morocco. Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Arab tribes, collectively known as Sahrawis and famous for their long history of resistance to outside domination, the territory was occupied by Spain from the late 1800s through the mid-1970s, well over a decade after most African countries had achieved their freedom from European colonialism. The nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed independence struggle against Spain in 1973, and Madrid eventually promised the people of what was then still known as the Spanish Sahara a referendum on the fate of the territory by the end of 1975. Irredentist claims by Morocco and Mauritania were brought before the International Court of Justice, which ruled in October of 1975 that the right of self-determination was paramount, despite pledges of fealty to the Moroccan sultan back in the nineteenth century by some tribal leaders bordering the territory and close ethnic ties between some Sahrawi and Mauritanian tribes. A special Visiting Mission from the United Nations engaged in an investigation of the situation in the territory that same year and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania.

During this same period, Morocco was threatening war with Spain over the territory. Though the Spaniards had a much stronger military, they were at that time dealing with the terminal illness of their longtime dictator General Francisco Franco as well as increasing pressure from the United States, which wanted to back its Moroccan ally King Hassan II and did not want to see the leftist Polisario come to power. As a result, despite its earlier pledge to hold a referendum with the assumption that power would soon thereafter be handed over to the Polisario, Spain instead agreed in November 1975 to partition the territory between the pro-Western countries of Morocco and Mauritania.

As Moroccan forces moved into Western Sahara, most of the population fled into refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Morocco and Mauritania rejected a series of unanimous UN Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and recognition of the Sahrawis’ right of self-determination. The United States and France, meanwhile, despite voting in favor of these resolutions, blocked the United Nations from enforcing them. At the same time, the Polisario—which had been driven from the more heavily populated northern and western parts of the country—declared independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

Thanks in part to the Algerians providing significant amounts of military equipment and economic support, Polisario guerrillas fought well against both occupying armies. Mauritania was defeated by 1979, agreeing to turn their third of Western Sahara over to the Polisario. However, the Moroccans then annexed that remaining southern part of the country as well.

The Polisario then focused their armed struggle against Morocco and by 1982 had liberated nearly 85 percent of their country. Over the next four years, however, the tide of the war was reversed in Morocco’s favor thanks to the United States and France dramatically increasing their support for the Moroccan war effort, with U.S. forces providing important training for the Moroccan army in counter-insurgency tactics. In addition, the Americans and French helped Morocco construct an 800-mile “wall,” primarily consisting of two heavily fortified parallel sand berms, which eventually shut off more than three-quarters of Western Sahara—including virtually all of the territory’s major towns and natural resources—from the Polisario.

Meanwhile, the Moroccan government, through generous housing subsidies and other benefits, successfully encouraged thousands of Moroccan settlers—some of whom were from southern Morocco and of ethnic Sabrawi background—to immigrate to Western Sahara. By the early 1990s, these Moroccan settlers outnumbered the remaining indigenous Sahrawis by a ratio of more than two to one.

While rarely able to penetrate into Moroccan-controlled territory, the Polisario continued regular assaults against Moroccan occupation forces stationed along the wall until 1991, when the United Nations ordered a cease-fire to be monitored by a UN peacekeeping force known as MINURSO. The agreement included provisions for the return of Sahrawi refugees to Western Sahara followed by a UN-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory, which would allow Sahrawis native to Western Sahara to vote either for independence or for integration with Morocco. Neither the repatriation nor the referendum took place, however, due to the Moroccan insistence on stacking the voter rolls with Moroccan settlers and other Moroccan citizens whom it claimed had tribal links to the Western Sahara. Perhaps in part to help solicit American cooperation with United Nations efforts to resolve the conflict, Secretary General Kofi Annan enlisted former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker as his special representative to help resolve the impasse. (Baker’s principal deputy was none other than John Bolton, now the infamous interim U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.) Morocco, however, continued to ignore repeated demands from the United Nations that it cooperate with the referendum process, and French and American threats of a veto prevented the Security Council from enforcing its mandate.

The Stalled Peace Process

In 2000, the Clinton administration successfully convinced Baker and Annan to give up on efforts to proceed with the referendum as originally agreed by the United Nations ten years earlier and instead to accept Moroccan demands that settlers be allowed to vote on the fate of the territory along with the indigenous Sahrawis. This proposal was incorporated in the first Baker Plan presented in early 2001, which would have held the plebiscite under Moroccan rule after a four- to five-year period of very limited autonomy with no guarantee that independence would be one of the options on the ballot. The Baker Plan received the enthusiastic backing of the new Bush administration, which had come to office in part through Baker’s role as lead counsel for the Bush campaign regarding the disputed Florida vote the previous November. This connection led some analysts to note that it was only appropriate that Baker would put forth a plan that would give legitimacy to a rigged election. Most of the international community roundly rejected the proposal, however, since it would have effectively abrogated previous UN resolutions granting the right of self-determination with the option of independence and would have led to the unprecedented action of the United Nations placing the fate of a non-self-governing territory in the hands of the occupying colonial power.

As a result, Baker then proposed a second plan in which, as with his earlier proposal, both the Sahrawis and the Moroccan settlers would be able to vote in the referendum, but the plebiscite would take place only after Western Sahara experienced far more significant autonomy for the four-to-five years prior to the vote. Independence would be an option on the ballot, and the United Nations would oversee the vote and guarantee that advocates of integration and independence would both have the freedom to campaign openly. The UN Security Council approved the second Baker plan in the summer of 2003.

Under considerable pressure, Algeria and eventually the Polisario reluctantly accepted the new plan, but the Moroccans—unwilling to allow the territory to enjoy even a brief period of autonomy and risk the possibility that they would lose the plebiscite—rejected it. Once again, the United States and France blocked the United Nations from pressuring Morocco to comply with its international legal obligations.

In what has been widely interpreted as rewarding Morocco for its intransigence, the Bush administration subsequently designated Morocco as a “major non-NATO ally,” a coveted status currently granted to only fifteen key nations, such as Japan, Israel, and Australia. The following month, the Senate ratified a free trade agreement with Morocco by an 85 to 13 margin, making the kingdom one of only a half dozen countries outside of the Western hemisphere to enjoy such a close economic relationship with the United States, though—in a potentially significant precedent—Congress insisted that it not include products from the Western Sahara.

U.S. aid to Morocco has gone up five-fold since the Bush administration came to office, ostensibly as a reward for the kingdom undertaking a series of neoliberal “economic reforms” and to assist the Moroccan government in “combating terrorism.” While there has been some political liberalization within Morocco in recent years under the young King Mohammed VI, who succeeded to the throne following the death of his father in 1999, gross and systematic human rights violations in the occupied Western Sahara continue unabated, with public expressions of nationalist aspirations and organized protests against the occupation and human rights abuses routinely met with severe repression.

The Significance of the Struggle for Self-Determination

The Sahrawis have fought for their national rights primarily by legal and diplomatic means, not through violence. Unlike the Palestinians and a number of other peoples engaged in national liberation struggles, the Sahrawis have never committed acts of terrorism. Even during their armed struggle against the occupation, a conflict that ended fifteen years ago, Polisario forces restricted their attacks exclusively to the Moroccan armed forces, never towards civilians.

The lack of resolution to the Western Sahara conflict has important regional implications. It has encouraged an arms race between Morocco and Algeria and, on several occasions over the past three decades, has brought the two countries close to war. Perhaps even more significantly, it has been the single biggest obstacle to a fuller implementation of the goals of the Arab Maghreb Union—consisting of Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Mauritania—to pursue economic integration and other initiatives that would increase the standard of living and political stability in the region. The lack of unity and greater coordination between these nations and their struggling economies has contributed to a dramatic upsurge in illegal immigration to Europe and the rise of radical Islamist movements.

The majority of the Sahrawi population lives in exile in the desert of western Algeria in refugee camps under Polisario administration. The 150,000 Sahrawis living in these desert camps have developed a remarkably progressive political and social system governed by participatory democracy and collective economic enterprises within a limited market economy. Though devoutly Muslim, Sahrawi women are unveiled; enjoy equal rights with men regarding divorce, inheritance, and other legal matters; and hold major leadership positions in the Polisario and the SADR, including posts as cabinet ministers. While the Bush administration claims it seeks to establish such democratic governance throughout the Arab and Islamic world, in reality the U.S. government is actively preventing the Sahrawis from establishing such a democratic system outside these refugee camps by supporting the occupation of their country by an autocratic monarchy.

Over the past three decades, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has been recognized as an independent country by more than eighty governments, with Kenya and South Africa becoming the latest to extend full diplomatic relations. The SADR has been a full member state of the African Union (formerly known as the Organization for African Unity) since 1984 and the international community recognizes Western Sahara as Africa’s last colony. By contrast, with only a few exceptions, the Arab states—despite their outspoken opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Syrian land—have supported Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara.

With Morocco’s rejection of the second Baker Plan and the threat of a French and American veto of any Security Council resolution that would push Morocco to compromise, a diplomatic settlement of the conflict looks highly unlikely. With Morocco’s powerful armed forces protected behind the separation wall and Algeria unwilling to support a resumption of guerrilla war, the Polisario appears to lack a military option as well.

As happened during the 1980s in both South Africa and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, the locus of the Western Sahara freedom struggle has recently shifted from the military and diplomatic initiatives of an exiled armed movement to a largely unarmed popular resistance from within. In recent months, young activists in the occupied territory and even in Sahrawi-populated parts of southern Morocco have confronted Moroccan troops in street demonstrations, despite the risk of shootings, mass arrests, and torture. Yet, here in the United States, a country that has played such a significant role over the past three decades in perpetuating Morocco’s illegal occupation, this revolution is not being televised. Even within the progressive community and among those well-versed in foreign affairs, very few people are aware of the Western Sahara struggle or could even find Western Sahara on a map. However, despite the lack of media coverage, the Sahrawi intifada will likely intensify as a result of the international community’s failure to resolve the conflict.

Building an Anti-Occupation Movement

Israel and Morocco are unique among the world’s occupying powers. While Turkey and Armenia have also violated a series of UN Security Council resolutions regarding their illegal conquests of territories belonging to other sovereign states and should be similarly obliged to withdraw, the vast majority of the peoples native to those territories are of the same ethnicity as, and largely supportive of, their conqueror. Likewise, there are other occupied nations whose peoples deserve statehood, such as Tibet and Chechnya, but these nations are legally recognized by the United Nations and the international community as part of the sovereign territory of their occupier.

Western Sahara is the only land—outside of the remaining territories still held by Israel since the June 1967 war—that is recognized by the United Nations as being illegitimately under the rule of a foreign power against the will of the subjected population. (The only other cases in recent years have been East Timor, which finally won independence four years ago following a quarter century of brutal Indonesian occupation; Namibia, which became free from occupation by the then-white minority government of South Africa in 1990; and Kuwait, which was liberated from six months under Iraqi occupation by a massive American-led military operation in February 1991.)

The moral and legal arguments in support for Western Sahara’s freedom from Moroccan rule and the culpability of the U.S. government in maintaining Morocco’s illegal occupation and colonization of the territory are reason enough to make this a priority for the peace and human rights community in the United States. There is a particularly strong imperative, however, for those of us supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace to address the Western Saharan conflict as well.

One of the major accusations leveled against those of us working to end Israel’s policies of occupation and colonization is that we are somehow “anti-Israel.” While such attacks in most cases are unfair and inaccurate, it is unfortunately true that a significant minority of those active in solidarity efforts with the Palestinians are not simply anti-occupation but are also ideologically opposed to Zionism and to Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state. To counter such suspicions, it would help those involved in the various campaigns to end Israel’s occupation and to stop unconditional U.S. support for the Israeli government to also address Morocco’s occupation and unconditional U.S. support for the Moroccan government.

Imagine, for example, if a divestment campaign included not just Caterpillar, Motorola, and other American companies backing the Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank, but also Kerr-McGee, the U.S. energy conglomerate prospecting for oil in the Western Sahara on behalf of the Moroccan occupiers, or Westinghouse, which provides the electronic surveillance equipment along Morocco’s separation barrier? Or a campaign for conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel on the Israeli government ending its occupation that also demanded the same conditions regarding U.S. military aid to Morocco?

Rather than provoking divisive and polarizing arguments along the false dichotomy of “pro-Israel” versus “pro-Palestine,” the debate on college campuses and within labor unions, Christian denominations, and other institutions could instead center on the real issues: the right of self-determination, the repressive nature of foreign military occupation and colonization, and the illegitimacy of invading and annexing neighboring lands. With such an anti-occupation movement also targeting an Arab Muslim country, it would be less likely to provoke the backlash that has occurred against a movement that solely targets the world’s only Jewish state.

There is a sizable movement in Europe supporting the Sahrawis’ right to national self-determination, often working in conjunction with those supporting the Palestinians. By contrast, there is relatively little activism on Western Sahara here in the United States. Yet this can change: just ten years ago there was relatively little activism in this country regarding East Timor either. Working in conjunction with fellow peace and human rights activists in Canada. Great Britain, and Australia, however, supporters of East Timorese self-determination eventually forced the United States and these other governments to end their support for the Indonesian occupation. As a result, East Timor is now free.

A similar campaign may be the best hope for the people of Western Sahara and the best hope we have to save the vitally important post-World War II principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter—currently being challenged most seriously by Israel and Morocco—which forbids any country from expanding its territory through military force. Increased activism in support of the Sahrawis’ right of self-determination will also enhance the struggle for Israeli-Palestinian peace by helping to redirect the debate from bitter ideological disputes unique to that conflict to the defense of universal moral and legal principles. Focusing on the U.S. role in maintaining the Moroccan occupation will also further expose the Bush administration’s false claims that its Middle East policy is based upon supporting freedom and democracy and upholding the rule of law.

In short, supporting the campaign to free Western Sahara from the Moroccan occupation is both an important moral imperative and a smart strategic move for all those who care about peace and human rights.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and a member of the advisory board for the Tikkun Community. He is the Middle East/North Africa editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project (www.fpif.org) and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003.) His forthcoming book on Western Sahara, co-authored with Jacob Mundy, will be published by Syracuse University Press in 2006.

Source Citation: Zunes, Stephen. 2006. Western Sahara: The other occupation. Tikkun 21(1):49.