By : Allison L McManus

[This is one of seven pieces in Jadaliyya`s electronic roundtable on the Western Sahara. Moderated by Samia Errazzouki and Allison L. McManus, it features contributions from John P. EntelisStephen ZunesAboubakr Jamaï, Ali AnouzlaAllison L. McManusSamia Errazzouki, and Andrew McConnell.]

Immediate steps shall be taken, in Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories or all other territories which have not yet attained independence, to transfer all powers to the peoples of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire, without any distinction as to race, creed or colour, in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.

– Article 5, UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples

In an ideal world, the United Nations would serve as the foremost institution in the preservation of international law and human rights to a dignified life. However, the reality of global governance is that it is more often dominated by the supremacy of geopolitical rule. This supremacy became painfully clear this week as the United States waffled in its support for human rights monitoring in Western Sahara. While the United States initially supported a resolution that would call for UN monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights in the region, it retracted its support following a strong response from Morocco and the unannounced cancellation of joint military operations. The new resolution will extend UN peacekeeping presence, but without the additional human rights monitoring. Despite the implicit commitment to human rights as a member of the UN Security Council, despite myriad allegations of human rights abuses in the region, and despite the recognition of a right of a people to self-determination as protected by international law, US political interests have resulted in the abandonment of proper measures to ensure that a very minimum of human rights standards are upheld in this region.

A Brief History of Decolonization in the Western Sahara

Prior to colonization, the areas now known as Morocco and the Western Sahara were composed of mostly tribal peoples ruled by a sultan. The sultan ruled from the northern part of Morocco and tribes generally swore allegiance as a part of the bled makhzen or bled siba, based not on territorial boundaries but on oaths of allegiance. In 1906 the region was colonized and divided between France and Spain, during which time the sultan’s sovereignty was technically respected in the protectorate. When Morocco won independence from France, the independence of the Western Sahara region under Spanish rule was not recognized, and King Mohammed V proclaimed Morocco’s decolonization incomplete. Upon creation of the United Nations Special Commission on Decolonization in 1963, the Western Sahara was listed as a “non-self-governing territory,” a designation which it retains today.

By the mid-1970s conflict over sovereignty in the region had intensified. Morocco under King Hassan II continued to claim the territory as rightfully part of Morocco based on the pre-colonial tribal allegiances, and Spain maintained its sovereignty based on its claim that the land was terra nullius, or uninhabited territory, prior to colonization. During the time of Spanish colonization, the Sahrawi peoples represented by the liberation movement Frente popular para la Liberación de Saguiat El Hamra y de Rio de Oro (the POLISARIO Front) also emerged, claiming their right to sovereignty in the territory. This group resisted claims by both Spain and Morocco in Western Sahara and engaged in armed conflicts against both nations. A 1974 UN mission found popular support for this movement, pushing Morocco to the brink of war. To avoid a further intensification of conflict all parties agreed to a consultation with the International Court of Justice to help determine claims to the territory.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) was asked to offer an advisory opinion on the status of the territory as terra nulliusprior to the Spanish occupation, and to determine if any ties that Morocco had in the region that would establish its sovereignty. The ICJ findings established that the land was inhabited prior to colonization and thus not terra nullius, but that Morocco’s contiguous sovereignty could not be established, although it did allow that some ties of allegiance could be established. Morocco interpreted these ties as justification for the Green March in November 1975, where three hundred fifty thousand civilians and eighty thousand troops entered the region, declaring it a part of Morocco. Although Spain had not formally transferred sovereignty, Spanish claims to the territory were rescinded and less than a week after the march a treaty was signed between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania that recognized Morocco’s right to rule in Western Sahara. This act was in blatant violation of UN resolution 1514 (XV) on decolonization and has not been recognized by the UN as having changed the status of the Western Sahara. Several months after the Madrid Treaty, the POLISARIO declared independence from Morocco and declared the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Armed conflict continued until a UN brokered ceasefire in 1991, and while Morocco administers some areas of the territory, to date there has been no resolution to the question of internationally recognized governance in the region.

Challenges to “Self-Determination”

The ICJ opinion exposed the insufficiency of the UN resolution on decolonization to adequately reconcile the principles of sovereignty and self-determination. Ultimately, while determining that “some” legal ties existed between Morocco and “some” of the tribes of Western Sahara, these were not substantive enough to conclude that Morocco had a legal claim to sovereignty in the territory based on the requirements of the UN resolution.

Also, this decision revealed the rigid position of the right to self-determination in the resolution. The UN resolution privileges a declaration of independence over a decision to integrate with an existing state. To establish independence requires only the expression of the will of the people. However, to establish integration with another state requires universal adult suffrage and democratic election. This stance initially served as a safeguard to ensure that the colonized population could not be manipulated; however in the instance of Western Sahara it has compounded the complicated process of establishing legitimate authority. Various factors – population displacement during the period of Spanish colonial rule and the subsequent conflicts, the fluid nature of tribal migration, and resistance from Morocco and the POLISARIO in facilitating a UN referendum – have thus far made determining the free will of the people through referendum an impossible task.

Supremacy of Geopolitics

Morocco’s rejection of any plan that allows for even a possibility of independence, even for a portion of the territory, and the broader impasse in negotiations reveal the geopolitical currents that underlie the process of decolonization. International law stipulates the necessity for immediate steps to be taken on a referendum to determine the will of the people of Western Sahara – that much has been established since the original UN declaration on Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, adopted by resolution 1514 (XV). At the present date, over fifty years later, and after multiple resolutions formally stating the need for a solution, it is clear that the authority of these conventions is tenuous at best and that they have most certainly been open to geopolitical interpretation.

Morocco’s political position can best be understood as one of preservation of rule; this has been characteristic of both the current monarch, Mohammed VI and the previous, Hassan II, who both organized their regimes to centralize power in the seat of the monarchy. During the period of colonization a strong sense of nationalism and allegiance to the king developed in the face of a foreign occupation. The king’s stance on Western Sahara adopted a nationalist rhetoric of reunification of the Moroccan state and strong resistance to Algeria’s support for the POLISARIO. Thus, the language of the constitution refers to the king as “the Supreme Representative of the State, Symbol of the unity of the nation, Guarantor of state continuity and sustainability.” Perhaps more importantly, as was highlighted in recent Wikileaks cables from the Kissinger era, the presence of significant phosphate reserves in the Western Sahara make this area especially economically valuable. Morocco is one of the world’s largest exporters of phosphates, and most phosphate mines are owned by Groupe Omnium Nord-Africain—in which the royal family is one of the largest shareholders.

International Involvement

Since the signing of the Madrid Treaty, the European nations have wavered between silence on the status of Western Sahara and outright support for Morocco’s claim. France has historically been the most supportive, providing Morocco with arms used in the conflict, and in 2001 President Jacques Chirac referenced Western Sahara as “the southern provinces of Morocco.” This outright support is undoubtedly linked to the political interests of the European nations, as Morocco has supplied reserves of cheap immigrant labor and mineral resources – primarily the aforementioned phosphates.

The official US position on the conflict has been in support of autonomy for the region under Moroccan sovereignty. Aside from holding modest economic stakes through a free trade agreement, the US support for Morocco’s claim hinges on the role Morocco plays in the US War on Terror. The United States provides Morocco military aid to suppress potentially violent radical Islamist groups in the region, and thus serves as a critical entrée for the United States into the Maghreb and Sahel in combatting Al Qaeda. This role carries even greater significance due to recent increased violence from Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM); recent reports suggest that AQIM may be moving into the Algerian refugee camps. Additionally, Morocco has allowed for US extra-judicial detention centers on its soil. One of these is the Temara detention center, where former prisoner Binyam Mohamed claims he was brutally tortured.

The political ties between the Western powers and Morocco have resulted in a stalemate in a referendum on self-determination, and subsequently a halt in negotiations on a resolution to the conflict. Because the UN resolution on decolonization privileges a desire for independence over integration Morocco has refused to agree to a referendum that would allow for even the option to choose full independence, and because the United States and the EU are hesitant to disrupt ties with Morocco, the stalemate seems to be the solution that is most acceptable to all parties. Despite the continued requests of the United Nations to find a solution that includes the will of the Sahrawi people, the last significant step towards progress came in 1991, when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire and created MINURSO.

Towards a More Humane Solution in Western Sahara?

Despite the lack of attention in most mainstream media, the case of Western Sahara is a very real and deeply troubling situation with high economic costs, and incredibly high costs for human rights. A report from the International Crisis Groupreveals that nearly all Sahrawi families have lost a member or been separated because of the conflict. Untold tens, or perhaps hundreds of thousands have been living in refugee camps for decades in one of the least inhabitable areas on earth; because the UN cannot conduct its own census, aid programs must estimate the number of refugees and there is literally no way to know if enough food and supplies are provided. The nomadic peoples that live outside of the camps are exposed to the presence of landmines used during the conflict. Activists that advocate for the independence of Western Sahara, or even have vague relation to the POLISARIO, and even journalists attempting to raise awareness are met with disproportionate use of force or enter the ranks of the hundreds of “disappeared” peoples held and often tortured in detention centers. After a wave of protests in 2010, Moroccan security forces attacked the Gdeim Izik Sahrawi camp, resulting in eleven deaths (according to the most conservative estimate of the Moroccan government). Ironically, the marginalization may even have negative effects for security in the region, as POLISARIO members could resort to greater violence in their effort for recognition; some factions have recently been reported to have joined forces with AQIM.

Clearly, a new framework is needed to reconcile the common goals of prosperity and security with a political reality that allows for such heinous injustice. This framework might be envisioned in two ways: what professor Richard Falk calls that of necessity, the bare minimum that would need to be accomplished to ensure respect for human rights, or desire, the best-case-scenario for a humane global reality. Either would need to take into account the stumbling blocks of the privileged positions of Western approaches to self-determination and geopolitics. To travel towards a desirable resolution requires a solution that encompasses much greater structural changes. Whether or not this framework might become not a hopeful possibility but a feasible solution will depend largely on both the US commitment as an equal participant in a democratic United Nations, and a tangible commitment to the ensuring the right for all humanity to live in peace, security and prosperity.