In Oct 2010 - before Tunisia, before Tahrir Square, before Occupy Wall Street and Gezi Park - was the Gdeim Izik protest camp in Western Sahara, the first, now forgotten, spark of the Arab Spring. For 28 days, thousands of Sahrawi men, women and children set up camp in the desert, a few miles outside the capital, Layyoune, in protest against Morocco’s three-decades-long occupation, only to see their camp obliterated by Moroccan police and many of its organisers detained, allegedly tortured and sentenced to life in prison after speedy military court trials.
And yet, in the three years since, despite hundreds of arrests, incarcerations, injuries, deaths, and countless systemic abuses, the international community’s apparent indifference towards the Sahrawi question has remained largely unperturbed. While media headlines this month have been heavily dominated by the deepening tragedy in Syria and the street clashes in Turkey, there has been a virtual silence regarding the demonstrations - possibly the biggest in Western Saharan history - that have shaken the country these past few weeks.
Having been recognised by the UN as under Moroccan occupation since 1975, the Sahrawi people have been, for forty years, waiting for an independence that seems to be forever receding beyond the horizon of possibilities. The international community carries an immense share of the responsibility for this. Even by its notoriously weak-kneed standards, the UN has proved shockingly impotent: having convinced the Polisario Front to lay down arms in 1991 with a promise of holding a self-determination referendum within a year, the UN has since been helplessly overseeing a 20-year long game of delaying tactics and obstructions by Morocco and its western allies.
Even worse, during that period Morocco has been busy consolidating “facts on the ground,” transposing as many of its own citizens - at great cost in financial enticements and subsidies - onto the occupied territories as it could get away with, in the hope of tipping the demographic balance the ‘right’ way before the referendum takes place.
Moreover, despite Western Sahara being on the United Nations’ list of “non-self-governing territories” for decades, the UN’s mission in the country, MINURSO, has so far been the only one of its kind in history not to include a human rights monitoring and reporting component, due to staunch Moroccan opposition. Even more absurdly, Morocco has enjoyed the right to vet and amend the UN mission’s reports before their publication. In April this year, the US floated a proposal for the annual UN Resolution renewing MINURSO’s mandate to include an explicit Human Rights remit. The Moroccan response was swift and loud, marshalling the full extent of its diplomatic and political arsenal, including the cancellation of the ‘African Lion’ military training exercises it holds annually with the US. In the end, the strategy worked and the US relented, dropping its proposal.
Although the resulting resolution, UNSC 2099 – passed by the UN Security Council on April 25 this year, retained significant references to human rights, less than 24 hours later protesters were brutally suppressed by Moroccan police, which was accused of using "excessive force" by the Amnesty International representative. A week later, on May 4, thousands of Sahrawis took to the streets - waving flags and chanting pro-independence slogans - to demonstrate against the occupation as well as the UN’s meek surrender over UNSC 2099.
By most accounts, the protests were peaceful and simply reiterated the call for the right to self-determination, yet they were brutally repressed again. A few days later, on May 9, as another mass protest was being organised on social media, the Moroccan police launched a wave of arrests, detentions and torture, aimed at nipping the growing movement in the bud. Meanwhile, several journalists who had been reporting on the ground were summarily deported. To the frustration of many, the events produced barely a blip on the international media’s radar. Last week, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization started its two week session to discuss the Western Sahara situation (among others) with many observers considering the event a largely irrelevant bit of theatre.
Ultimately, as with so much in international politics, the struggle for Sahrawi independence continues to suffer from being on the ‘wrong’ side of the crude calculus of regional and global realpolitik. Indeed, nothing symbolises the cruelty of this predicament more than the irony of Sahrawis having to endure seeing the “Friends of Western Sahara” group at the UN containing one of the chief architects and enablers of their misfortune, France, which has remained a steadfast Moroccan ally on this question for much of the past three decades.
As many have noted, the geopolitical deck is too stacked against Western Sahara’s independence: the country’s considerable natural resources - notably its phosphate mines and fisheries, but also the potential for oil discoveries - ensure that Morocco will simply not relinquish its prized asset unless it comes under extraordinary pressure.
Moreover, Morocco’s role as one of the west’s most reliable allies has allowed it to position itself as a dependable centre of “stability” in a region of enormous upheavals and uncertainties. This is a framing that has been disseminated with especially renewed vigour in the aftermath of western interventions in Libya and Mali, often featuring absurd warnings that an independent Western Sahara represents a failed Islamist state in-waiting.
Meanwhile, in a further irony, while many have praised the remarkable determination of Sahrawi activists to maintain the peaceful character of their struggle, others have signalled it as a key factor behind their failure to secure a just resolution. As Jenn Abelson recently put it in the Boston Globe, “Western Sahara is emerging as a case study on the limits of the international community’s power to help a people win self-determination when they choose not to be violent, but to follow the rules.”
Indeed, numerous activists, notably Aminatou Haidar, have warned that a new generation is fast running out of patience with this debilitating status-quo. Continuing prevarication and complacency on the part of the international community, they warn, could well see a catastrophic, possibly irrevocable, return to the pre-1991 era.
As the African Union celebrates 50 years since its inception this year, it seems rather perverse that the continent is still afflicted with the most literal manifestation of colonialism. Until this stain is excised, Africa’s Last Colony will remain a damning testament to yet another abject failure of the international community to stand up for principles over interests.