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Morocco – Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony?

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Occupation of the Western Sahara continues as international bodies urge for the self determination of Saharawi peoples

The resource-rich Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since the withdrawal of Spanish colonisers in 1975; an autonomy movement,  the People’s Liberation Front of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front), has expressed long-standing claims to an independent territory.

In 1976, after the Spanish exit, the Polisario Front declared the region as the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). However following negotiations with Spain, Morocco controversially decided to occupy the Western Sahara even though it contradicted recommendations from the International Court of Justice and United Nations (UN) Declarations on the Independence of Colonial Countries and Peoples. A fifteen-year guerilla war followed, until a UN-brokered peace deal in 1991 and the establishment of the UN Mission for the Referendum of the Western Sahara (MINURSO).

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Currently up to 165,000 Saharawis, an ethnic grouping populating the Western Sahara and parts of Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania, live in refugee camps in the Algerian border region of Tindouf. Within the liberated zone of the Western Sahara, an area claimed by the Polisario Front, around 30,000 live in a stretch of land divided from the western Moroccan controlled region by the Berm, a 2,700km wall twelve times the length of the Berlin Wall, behind which is one of the world’s largest minefields and thousands of Moroccan soldiers.

Morocco has exploited the phosphate rich land, some of the world’s best fishing and has also exported sand from Western Sahara  to build up beaches on the Canary Islands.  Algerian Prime-minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, described the Western Sahara as a region that continues to suffer from the “horrors of colonialism from another age”, adding that “Africa’s decolonisation remains unfinished”, reported the official news agency of the SADR, the Sahara Press Service.

The UN recognises  the right to self determination for the Saharawi people, Morocco however only  offers the status of an autonomous region within its sovereignty; this has been rejected by Polisario who insist on the right to determine their own future in a UN-monitored referendum.

The Moroccan government has been accused of “unethical tactics” in a recent leaked UN report documenting how Moroccan authorities intercepted internal UN communications and made large donations to the UN Office for the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), lobbying to cancel fact-finding missions, reported UK-based the Guardian.

Earlier in 2015, despite comments from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the African Union (AU) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the UN Security Council voted to renew the MINURSO mission without a human rights mandate, the only UN mission to do so, prompting widespread dismay. In response to allegations of human rights violations and cover ups, the Moroccan government has repeatedly reiterated its “long-standing commitment to human rights”, cited the Guardian

A statement by the President of the SADR and Secretary General of the Polisario Front, Mohamed Abdelaziz, called for the release of Saharawi prisoner Salah Lebsir, other political prisoners held in Moroccan prisons and accountability for at least 600 Saharawis missing since the beginning of the occupation; “we call on the UN to assume its full responsibility to ensure the safety and protection of the rights of Saharawi citizens in the occupied territories, and create an effective UN mechanism to monitor and report violations of human rights in Western Sahara”, reported the Sahara Press Service.

According to Issandr el-Amrani, North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), cited by Al-Jazeera, “the risk of losing Western Sahara, let’s say by accepting a referendum for self-determination, is too great for the monarchy to take”. However no country in the world recognises Morocco’s territorial claim, and a significant number of countries now officially recognise the SADR.

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin

Western Sahara: Renewed Violence
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.47, Issue.11, Pp.18603A-18605C

Algeria-Morocco: War of Words
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.50, Issue.11, Pp.19911B-19912C

Algeria-Morocco: Bone of Contention
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.51, Issue.11, Pp.20342A
Subscribe to the Africa Research Bulletin today.

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