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Dispatch #3: Western Sahara: A Humanitarian Crisis Hidden in the Dust

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

A crisis funded by alliances, money, and weapons, and yet another tendril of U.S. influence

By Seamus Bozeman

Image Credit:TRT World

The Crisis in Western Sahara, like so many others, is purposefully hidden as larger countries further their agendas, grow their profits, and keep alliances in the name of sickening human oppression and politically motivated violence. Morocco has escaped accountability for its genocidal acts, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and grave human rights abuses against the Sahrawi people, without consequences, violating international human rights standards and law. The Sahrawi deserve their independence, rights to self-governance, and religious determination. They have been forced from their lands in a brutal scheme by the Morrocan government to prevent them from legally voting in a referendum on the future of Western Sahara and its independence.

The windswept dunes stretch out for thousands of miles, only separated by a symbol of the stark divide, a berm of sand covered in thousands of landmines, barbed wire, surveillance, and armed checkpoints between Western Sahara and its division with Morocco. At each border crossing, you cannot pass through without encountering incredibly invasive monitoring and CCTV cameras. It is an eyesore of Morrocan occupation and the international community’s covert support, despite the fact the world denounces the colonization as “illegitimate” and “illegal.”

The ambiguity of international laws, human rights charters, and past international court rulings have left Western Sahara and the Sahrawis in a legal grey area of disagreement. This has led to unending tensions and little international wiggle room, leaving the door open for Morocco to continue the unjust exploitation and oppression of the Sahrawi people, which has caused decades of suffering in “Africa’s last colony.”

Since the end of the Spanish occupation in 1975, the Morrocan military has illegally occupied Western Sahara, thieving fundamental rights from the Sahrawi people. This decades-long crisis has found itself the center of multiple conflicts that have left hundreds of thousands in refugee camps, thousands dead, and the Sahrawi people without their freedoms that should have been granted at the end of the Spanish occupation.

The war between the Morrocan military and the Sahrawi aligned Polisario Front, lasted from 1975 to 1991 when a United Nations-led group, The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), was established and a ceasefire was brokered. Under the new ceasefire between the Polisario Front and the Morrocan government, there was a referendum that was to be held for the Sahrawi people's rights to self-determination and their rights as a sovereign state. The vote has yet to be held, as Morocco has continually delayed it despite widespread condemnation from around the world.

During the sixteen-year conflict, which devastated the Sahrawi people, forced them to flee and live in Algerian refugee camps. Morocco paid and incentivized their citizens to move into Western Sahara, so that when a vote for self-determination is held, the outcome will be favorable to incorporating Western Sahara with Morocco. Morocco will be able to re-integrate the territory into their country without any fear of actions from the international community. This is one of the main reasons a vote has not been held, as the argument around voter-eligibility and basic human rights has brought any compromise to a screeching halt, which has bought time for the Morrocan government to change the demographics of the region.

The resources in Western Sahara, which include phosphate rocks, fishing, sand, oil reserves, and energy production, are crucial to supply chains worldwide. Morocco has exploited the region by forcibly claiming phosphate mines, land for wind turbines, and fishing waters as their own through military occupation and heavy surveillance of the Sahrawi people. None of the economic gains from the resources benefit the dwindling Sahrawi population in Western Sahara, and such actions constitute economic genocide and heavy exploitation. Many international companies have direct economic connections through the Morrocan government, supporting their profiteering, making them complicit in human rights abuses.

The Morrocan government in 2013 and 2014 “lobbied” the United Nations-sponsored human rights organization with illicit payments to stay silent and not report on human rights abuses or make the “protection of human rights” a priority in the occupied territory. This raised eyebrows, as Morroco rarely ever contributed to the betterment of human rights, and suspicions proved correct when the U.N. security council intercepted communications detailing the stipulations that were connected to the large sums of money. *

A number of companies that supply the world with items that keep our day-to-day lives going are not facing any accusations of humanitarian abuses, a trend so often seen in poorer nations. Major companies that have been found to source, or have a component in their product that has originated in occupied Western Sahara, should either hold the Morrocan government accountable or find alternate humane sourcing. Though large corporations are notorious for finding ways to get around being held to account for their heinous abuses to obtain cheap labor and lower costs. Morocco has also used its control of the resource-rich region to “forge political alliances'' and build unbreakable ties with foreign entities that allow for exploitation in return for their silence on the endless human rights abuses in Western Sahara.

Many international court cases have ruled against the illegal Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, however, Morocco still occupies it close to half a century later, with no signs of the illegitimate takeover ending any time soon. In an advisory opinion on the legitimacy of Sahrawi independence, the International Court in 1976 ruled that the path of decolonization following the departure of the Spanish in 1975, was to be decided by the United Nations general assembly and that there were three ways that the international community could choose to deal with the crisis, one it could give Western Sahara full autonomy as a free nation, or have “free association with an independent state”, i.e. it could integrate with Morocco, but have its own central government, or a complete integration of Western Sahara into either Morocco or Mauritania. Each route for the future of Western Sahara has international significance, but the one that would abide by international law of a decolonized state, would be a vote to grant the Sahrawi people their rights to self-determination, but as previously mentioned this has yet to take place.

With the unification of Morocco and Western Sahara looking likely, the Sarhrawi’s rights to vote have been systematically taken away, and with that, the erosion of their rights to self-determination and self-governance is rapidly becoming harder and harder as the authoritative grip of Morocco strengthens. The referendum that was supposed to be held has yet to be set into action as tensions have worsened. There is no independent press in Western Sahara, where journalists are only allowed if followed by Morrocan government minders or are under strict surveillance challenging the efforts of international human rights groups and independent journalists to obtain verifiable information to document the atrocities committed by both the police services and Morrocan military.

The people of Western Sahara, and especially those who are continuing to advocate for change, are sought out by the Morrocan Government in targeted attacks, such as inhumane imprisonment for protesting the conditions of ethnic cleansing and dilution of the Sahrawi population. Other basic human rights violations and clear disregard of international law is too common as the Morrocan government is blocking the rights of the free press, rights to privacy, the exclusion of foreign human rights groups, and perpetration of cruel and unjust punishment of Sahrawi activists defending their rights to self-determination. With the known blockade set on human rights groups and international monitors, the situation in Western Sahara is likely much darker than what is portrayed in international media and the reporting of human rights groups. The silence that has been created by the media blockade is concerning, which is likely an indication that the Morrocan government is committing crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. The inaction of the international community has only worsened, and without the condemnation of U.S. and Israel, the situation will continue to deteriorate even further.

The peacekeepers who have been placed in the region to prevent human rights abuses and prevent conflicts between the Polisario Front and the Morrocan army have failed to protect, pointing to the fact that many times peacekeepers hurt their host nations, more than they help. In Western Sahara, the United Nations mission to keep the peace in the region has kept the military situation somewhat stable, but have failed to properly maintain the rule of law and international standards for human rights, often disregarding it and allowing themselves to be pressured by the Morrocan government in order to not truthfully report on the worsening humanitarian crisis and ethnic cleansing in Western Sahara.

In late October 2020, protests broke out following an incident in the buffer zone on the border of Western Sahara and Mauritania where Sahrawi’s were protesting the continued abuses by both Morocco and Mauritania. The Morrocan security forces and army responded by brutally cracking down on protests by harassing, physically abusing, as well as targeted attacks and raids on the houses of the Sahrawi activists who had participated in the peaceful protest. These unprovoked and illegal attacks on protesters were seen as a violation of the 1991 ceasefire, and since then the Polisario and Moroccan army have been engaged in diplomatic gridlock and armed ceasefire violations.

The future of the region is highly dependent on the actions of the United States. The U.S. support for the Abraham Accords, an agreement that has re-engaged Israel and Morocco to full economic and diplomatic ties, highlights the U.S. support of the illegal occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco as legitimate, which has been continually contested by the International Court, the United Nations, and most of the world. The U.S. is also continuing its military support of Morocco, which sets a dangerous precedent that will allow for the Sahrawi people to continue to face human rights abuses, denial of their self-determination, and basic rights to life.

* An earlier version of the article did not include reporting on Morrocan hush money to the United Nation Human Rights Commission.

Written by writer Seamus Bozeman

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