Two months before the event that is often said to mark start of the Arab Spring—Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010 – a few hundred people set up a makeshift protest camp in the desert, 1,500 miles west of Tunis. They constructed the small tent city, known as Gdeim Izik, as a peaceful statement against Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. Within weeks its population swelled to several thousand. On 8th November, the Moroccan authorities destroyed the camp, killing protestors and arresting many more. Images of the tent camp in flames circulated; riots spread to other towns in the region, and a protest in Madrid attracted thousands of people.
You could be forgiven for knowing very little about the Gdeim Izik camp—it emerged from what the International Crisis Group has called “one of the world’s oldest and one of its most neglected” conflicts. Once reasonably well known, by 2010 the dispute had fallen off the radar of all but the specialist press. It might easily have remained that way, but the Sahrawi people began to resort to innovative protest action. To some extent, it worked: the Guardian recently carried a letter from a group that included the director Ken Loach. It drew on a draft resolution that had just been adopted by the United Nations Fourth Committee, which supported the right of Western Sahara’s people to self-determination. But there is a risk that, as before, this attention will prove fleeting.
Why do Sahrawis still find themselves in desert refugee camps, and why is there still little prospect of the situation changing? The answers lie in the history of this region. At about 100,000 square miles the Western Sahara is bigger than the United Kingdom but, with an estimated population of just over half a million people, it is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world. It is overwhelmingly desert—just 0.02 per cent of its land is arable—but it contains high-quality mineral and fishing resources.
In the 19th-century European battle for Africa, Spain made little headway. But it did manage to establish control over Western Sahara (which it called Spanish Sahara), subject to continued resistance from the region’s indigenous peoples. When Morocco became independent in 1956, it immediately laid claim to the region, citing historic links.
Building on their earlier anti-colonial resistance, a group of Sahrawi inhabitants of the region set up their own group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, or the Polisario Front, in 1973. (Polisario is still banned in the region, and raising its flag is illegal.) Algeria, suspicious of Morocco’s claims, supported Polisario. Morocco and Mauritania took their claim to the International Court of Justice in 1974, but the Court refused to accept their sovereignty.
Spain’s promise of a referendum on independence never materialised: as it began to pull out of Western Sahara in 1975, Morocco moved in. Power was transferred to Morocco and Mauritania; Mauritania withdrew five years later, leaving Morocco the sole occupier. A war between Morocco and Polisario continued until 1991, when a ceasefire was brokered. Thousands were killed, and tens of thousands displaced, as the Moroccan air force used napalm and cluster bombs on villages and refugee camps.
The conflict has now lasted for decades, with little sign of a referendum or alternative resolution. Morocco has suggested a compromise that devolves some power to the region while retaining its own sovereignty; it calls Polisario an Algerian puppet group, and rejects most of its claims. Polisario, meanwhile, continues to push for a popular vote on independence.
Most of the world rejects Morocco’s position. 82 countries (including Britain) support the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination; of these, 73 recognise Polisario as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawis. The UN Security Council officially supports a “political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in the context of … the Charter of the United Nations.” Morocco has long been accused of major human rights violations: an Amnesty International report last year noted that Sahrawi activists are harassed and arrested for political reasons. According to the US State department, “hundreds of Saharan and Moroccan families do not have any information about their missing relatives, many of whom disappeared over 20 years ago.” Meanwhile, 90,000 or more Sahrawis live in refugee camps, where there is little access to water or food, and poverty and malnourishment are widespread.
The US has been crucial in maintaining the deadlock. Abdel-Rahim Al-Manar Slimi, a Moroccan professor of political science, writes that larger American considerations —in particular the Cold War and the war on terror—have determined its stance. Morocco occupies an important geostrategic position and gives the US “political access to the Arab World.” Last decade it was the site of a CIA “black site,” where detainees were shipped to be tortured. Despite speculation of a new approach under Obama, in September Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated US support for Morocco’s “autonomy plan.”
The UN could be doing much more. France remains a firm ally of Morocco, and has used its position on the Security Council to block efforts such as letting the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara monitor human rights abuses. Morocco is not subject to political or economic sanctions, and faces little pressure from powerful states.
In a 2007 report, the International Crisis Group wrote that the parties involved in the conflict—Morocco, Algeria, Polisario and western powers—have “deemed the stalemate bearable.” Yet this has come at a price. The Sahrawis in refugee camps and the relatives of the “disappeared” remain the victims of a convenient impasse.