In a decade where regimes come to an end and new governments rise regularly, today’s world sees human rights being violated and political conflicts are daily occurrences. However, in the northwest of Africa, the oldest dispute – with economic, political and human costs – has been ongoing for more than 37 years: the Western Sahara conflict. The need to find a solution has mobilized people and NGOs from different nationalities that share the same concern as the Sahrawi people.
The Western Saharan conflict as we know it today started with Morocco’s invasion of the region in 1975. The Sahrawi people had to escape to the Argelian dessert and there they built up refugee camps that still exist today in Tindouf. Peace was reached in 1991 under the auspice of the UN and the African Union Organization with agreement to convene a referendum in 1992 for the Sahrawi people – the referendum is still yet to take place.
The UN, the International Court of Justice and the majority of nations all recognize the right of Sahrawi for the referendum and do not acknowledge the sovereignty of Morocco over the Western Sahara, but there are conflicting parties that cannot come to any agreement. On the one hand, Morocco defends its interests in Western Sahara with the support of the US and France. On the other hand, we have Algeria, which has long been in a border dispute with Morocco and sees the Sahrawis as victims of colonization who have the right of self-determination, and the Polisario, who fight from the liberated territories for the rights of Sahrawis.
The Polisario Front is a rebel national liberation movement established in 1973 as the unique representatives of the Sahara people. The Polisario think that behind the Moroccan intentions of claiming its historical territories there is a desire of making Morocco’s power in the region stronger. The natural resources that Western Sahara offers (fish, phosphate, oil and gas) are extremely important for Morocco and other countries which import the products.
The Western Sahara Resource Watch organization has denounced the extraction and export of these resources by Morocco, arguing the Moroccans sell them illegally to the rest of the world. Ten percent of Morocco’s national phosphate production comes from the territory of Western Sahara, production which would provide strong competition to Morocco if the Sahrawis were independent and could lower their own prices. When it comes to fishing, Isabella Lövin, a member of the Swedish Green Party, complained to the European Parliament in 2010 that “74% of the EU fleet capacity operates in the waters of Western Sahara and the people of this region have not been consulted on the matter.” Morocco’s agreements with the EU are thought to be a way of legitimizing the control it has over Western Sahara.
Although these claims have been made, the Moroccan government maintains that they are trying to promote development in the region. Moroccan officials have claimed that “the area benefited from more investment than the rest of Morocco.” While pro-Moroccan Sahrawis believe that Morocco has implemented several programmes that have created employment for their people, Sahrawi activists complain of social and economic discrimination while Moroccan people live in luxury. But the International Crisis group revealed in 2007 that the Moroccan government spends half its military budget in the region, and what are claimed to be investments are actually defence costs which have hindered the development of Morocco.
Besides economic costs, there have been human costs as well. In 1980, Morocco constructed a 1,500 km defensive wall, called “The Wall of Shame” by the Sahrawi, dividing Western Sahara in two. It is the second largest wall after the Great Wall in Beijing, and its consequences have been enormous. One site, the “liberated territories”, is occupied by the Polisario, and here the Sahrawi live in refugee camps –a lot of them far away from their families. Landmines are a constant risk in these territories, with more than ten million of them planted around the wall. In addition, general living conditions here are also very hard. Those who live under Moroccan supervision are not better off, as reflected in the protests from NGOs and other organizations against the human rights abuses in the region. For Morocco, the greatest human cost is the loss of soldiers and those captured by the Polisario.
When it comes to political costs, there is a clear concentration of power in the hands of the Polisario, making the Sahrawi not trust them completely since there is little room for a new political party and a lack of political transparency. Other frictions have emerged from those in the occupied territories; who accuse the liberated territories’ leaders of not doing enough. Morocco also has its costs: it has damaged its image internationally and has worsened its troubled relationship with Algeria. Morocco even had to leave the Organisation of African Unity in 1984, isolating itself from the rest of the continent.
It is clear that a solution must be reached to stop the high costs for both regions and the international community (the UN devotes a lot of resources trying to find a solution for the conflict). What the solution will be is still unknown, but several alternatives are being discussed, such as the Autonomy Plan of King Mohammed VI. However, the Sahrawi are determined to be independent and to form the Free Sahara, and for them no other solution is worth considering. Only time and an increase of international awareness to put pressure in finding a viable solution can tell how it will end.