Western Sahara: The So-Called Last Colony in Africa


The colonial era has been rendered largely obsolete.  Western Sahara’s contest for self-determination, therefore, is a stark exception.  Once ruled by the Spanish, the Sahrawi people saw their land annexed by Morocco when the original colonisers withdrew in 1975. Fleeing the occupied territories, tens of thousands have spent the past forty years languishing in refugee camps across the border in Algeria. Parents, children and siblings are split between their conquered homeland and the desert. An extensive wall has been built through the region to prevent Sahrawi fighters, the Polisario Front, from crossing between the two areas populated by their people. The conflict is characterised by a diplomatic stalemate. A U.N.-brokered agreement in 1991 for a referendum on independence has yet to materialise. France, which has historical ties with Morocco, poses another challenge in its use of the Security Council veto to block action against the country. The U.N. provides a peacekeeping force in Western Sahara, but it is the only operation of its kind lacking a mandate to monitor human rights, a direct result of France’s veto power.

The forced dispersal of gatherings and prosecution of Sahrawi protesters is common, while access to Western Sahara is restricted for foreign journalists, activists and human rights defenders. Any questioning of Morocco's claims to Western Sahara is punishable with prison terms. “These trials are the most blatant violations of human rights and end up in people being locked up for years,” says Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director. "Police beating demonstrators, however, is a weekly ritual.” Hunger strikes at prisons have been sparked in the midst of allegations of torture and coerced confessions.

Western Sahara is blighted by its stagnant status in a world of evolving humanitarian disasters. However, this does not detract from the abhorrence of the situation. Stephen Zunes, an international-studies professor at the University of San Francisco, comparing Western Sahara to Iraq under Saddam Hussein, declares that it remains “the worst police state that I’ve ever seen.”

Together, Western Sahara and Morocco hold more than 72 percent of global phosphate-rock reserves, the next closest country, China, can claim just 6 percent. Morocco’s denunciation of Western Saharan statehood finds root in the region’s rich supply of natural resources. Eric Hagen, of the Western Sahara Resource Watch, reports a growing number of companies divesting their funds away from Western Saharan phosphate due to human rights concerns. An independent Western Sahara would stand in the way of Morocco’s monopolisation of phosphate. If predicted offshore oil deposits were to be discovered, the country’s chances for self-government would dwindle further. The world’s ‘forgotten refugees’ have witnessed an intolerable reduction in the international humanitarian aid they depend on, Meryem Benbrahim, the Oxfam Associate Director in Algeria, laments the lack of prospects for the younger generation.  Hans Corell, former legal counsel of the U.N. and the author of its legal opinion on Western Sahara’s resources, deplores the response to the Western Saharan occupation, “It is utterly embarrassing that the international community has been unable to solve this conflict. Since Morocco is able to capitalise in Western Sahara, there will be no incentive at all to change the situation.”

Amnesty International has called on Moroccan authorities to implement the recommendations of the U.N. Human Rights Committee; the Committee illustrated remaining gaps in legislation enabling restriction of the rights integral to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It noted consistent rejection of NGO registration applications and criticised the ‘excessive or disproportionate force’ used to break up protests. Morocco has found its reputation scathed over human rights abuses; the European Union’s Court of Justice last year ruled that the advantageous tariffs Morocco is usually entitled to should not apply to goods from invaded regions while Norway has enacted fines for any of its vessels which trawl in Western Saharan seas.

Supported by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Amnesty International has been unwavering in its call for human rights monitoring by the U.N. in Western Sahara. “Impartial and sustained human rights monitoring by the U.N. would offer some protection to a population that lives with the daily threat of abuses by the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario Front,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

Mohamed Salem, a former Sahrawi soldier, resolves, ‘War brings no good. If there is a way to solve this through politics, it must be pursued.’

Daisy Goodall

Regional Organiser for the South-West