Western Sahara: Forty years waiting for decolonization

By Mohamed Cheij Saleh, Saharawi Ambassador to Zimbabwe

The people of Western Sahara are waiting for self-determination and independence since 1963 when the UN General Assembly included this territory in the list of non-self-governing Territories. The inability of the UN to resolve the question is due to the double standards of some of the UN Security Council members who put their interests above anything else. This attitude has encouraged Morocco in its illegal occupation to Western Sahara despite the clear UN resolutions and the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice of 1975, leading to the current stalemate in the process of the referendum on self-determination. In the meantime and in the light of increasing suffering of the Saharawi People, the UN has not yet been able to take firm procedures toward Morocco’s grave violations of human rights and the illegal exploitation of the natural resources of the territory despite of the voices calling for putting the territory under international control.
The rich-phosphate -and-fish Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa, located on the continent’s Atlantic coast to the south of Morocco, to the north of Mauritania and to the east of Algeria. In the late 19th century, this vast territory of 286.000 square kilometers was inhabited by indigenous population known as the Saharawis. Since 1963, the Territory has been inscribed on the list of non-self-governing territories to which UN General Assembly resolution 1514(XV) of 14 December 1960 on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples applies. To this day, the Territory is on the UN list of the remaining 17 dependent territories yet to exercise their right to self-determination, and the only one on the African continent. The case of Western Sahara is thus a relic of Africa’s colonial history, with the Territory having fallen into the hands of Spain during the colonial scramble for Africa, over a century ago.  Spanish domination of the Territory continued until the mid-1970’s by which time the UN General Assembly had been calling on Spain, as the Administering Power, to organize a referendum to enable the people of Western Sahara to exercise their right to self-determination. In violation of the relevant UN resolutions and in contradiction with the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice of 16 October 1975, which rejected Moroccan claims over the territory, Spain signed an illegal agreement on 14 November 1975 to transfer the Territory to temporary tripartite administration of Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. Spain withdrew by the end of February 1976 in a notorious precedent that remains a stain on Spanish government.  Immediately after Spanish withdrawal, The Polisario front proclaimed the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) on 27 February 1976, which was admitted by the Organization of Africa Unity (OAU) as a Member State in 1982 and now is a full founding member of the African Union. It has been recognized by more than 84 UN Member States and has established diplomatic relations with dozens of countries worldwide 
The Polisario Front, the sole and legitimate representative of the Saharawi people which is a result of a long resistance movement, launched the armed struggle on 20 May 1973 against Spanish colonization to be continued against Morocco and Mauritania; the later withdrew after having been defeated by the Saharawi Army in 1979. After sixteen year of unbalanced fierce war, the UN and the OAU managed to broker a ceasefire in the context of the settlement plan of 1991 for a referendum of self-determination for the Saharawi people.
The protracted referendum on self-determination
The OAU engaged in a mediation process, which culminated in the adoption by the 19th Ordinary Session of the Summit of Heads of State and Government, held in Addis Ababa from 6 to 12 June 1983, of an OAU Peace Plan, through resolution AHG/Res.104(XIX). In the resolution, the Summit urged the parties to the conflict, Morocco and the Polisario Front, to undertake direct negotiations with a view to bringing about a ceasefire to create the necessary conditions for a peaceful and fair referendum for self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, without any administrative or military constraints, under the auspices of the OAU and the UN. The Summit requested the UN, in conjunction with the OAU, to provide a peacekeeping force to be stationed in Western Sahara, to ensure peace and security during the organization and conduct of the referendum. In resolution 658 (1990), the Security Council approved the report of the Secretary-General of 18 June 1990, which contained the full text of the Settlement Proposals, as accepted by the two parties as well as an outline of the plan provided by Secretary-General in order to implement these proposals. On 29 April 1991, the Security Council, in resolution 690 (1991), decided to establish the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to supervise a ceasefire between the Moroccan and the Polisario Front Forces and to conduct the referendum on self-determination within six months . To this day, the Settlement Plan remains the only agreement ever accepted by both the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front towards the peaceful resolution of the dispute over Western Sahara. While the ceasefire component of the Plan, agreed to by the two sides on 6 September 1991, still holds, no progress was made regarding the holding of the envisaged referendum of self-determination despite of UN-approved voter list in 1999 which was rejected by Morocco.
The UN inaction
The status of Western Sahara has never constituted a problem. For the UN General Assembly and Security Council it is a clear-cut question of decolonization, but the major obstacle to reaching a solution is the interests of some of the UN Security Council members that consider Morocco an important ally. The double standards of some of the members have often prevented the Council from taking a decisive decision to enable the Saharawi people to exercise their right to self-determination. All attempts initiated by the UN Secretary-General until now have failed due to the intransigence of Morocco and the absence of pressure from the UN Security Council members on it to comply with its obligations towards the implementation of the international legitimacy.  No progress is expected as long as there is no good will within the members of the UN Security Council to empower the UN mission on ground, MINURSO, by expanding its mandate to include monitoring of human rights and the exploitation of natural resources, given that MINURSO is the only UN mission, established since 1978,  which does not have any human right mandate.  The role of France as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has always been negative; it has remained supportive of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara and has objected to all attempts aimed to extending the mandate of MINURSO to protect the Saharawi population and their natural resources.  
Increasing the suffering of Saharawi people
The Territory of Western Sahara is divided into two parts by a 2700 kilometers berm constructed by Moroccan army during the early 1980s to tighten its grip on the occupied territories where the Moroccan authorities have been committing crimes against humanity. Grave violations of human rights have been documented by UN and AU different mechanisms of Human rights, non-government organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a number of international human rights activists and media. The occupied territories of Western Sahara have been under total siege for 40 years. The overwhelming presence of security forces, the violations of the right to life, liberty, and personal integrity, freedom of expression, assembly and association create a situation of fear and intimidation that violates the rule of international law.
In the other part, more than 150.000 Saharawis are forced to live in very insecure humanitarian conditions in refugees camps in the South-west of Algeria. However, the long duration of the conflict and the effects of the global changes are making the situation more unbearable.
There is still hope against all odds; neither the daily oppression by Moroccan security forces nor the extreme humanitarian situation could smother the aspirations of the Saharawi people to achieve their goals in self-determination and independence.
Africa scaling up efforts
Following concerns expressed during successive meetings of the relevant AU policy organs at the lack of progress in the search for a solution to the conflict in Western Sahara, the Executive Council, at its 22nd Ordinary Session held in Addis Ababa from 24 to 25 January 2013, adopted decision EX.CL/Dec.758(XXII) in which it requested that all necessary measures be taken for the organization of a referendum for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, in compliance with the relevant decisions of the Organization of African Unity(OAU) and United Nations(UN) resolutions. To reinforce its implication in the Western Sahara issue, the AU appointed in June 2014 the former President of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, as special envoy for the Chairperson of AU Commission for Western Sahara.

The issue of Western Sahara resurfaced on the agenda of the January AU summit in Addis Ababa. In his first speech as the new AU chairperson, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe stressed that ‘Africa’s failure to decolonize Western Sahara would be a negation of the African ideals and principles’ of the founding fathers of the continental organization. President Mugabe, who was warmly applauded for this statement, further called for the implementation of all relevant UN resolutions requiring that a referendum on self-determination for the Saharawi people be held, and emphasized that Africa would not be completely free ‘as long as our brothers and sisters in Western Sahara remain under Moroccan occupation’. The AU’s Executive Council meeting on 28 January 2015 showed solidarity with the struggle for an independent Saharawi Republic. The chair of the Council, Zimbabwe Minister of Foreign Affairs Honorable Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, also announced that Western Sahara would be one of the top priorities of Zimbabwe’s AU presidency in 2015.

For its part, the AU Peace and Security Council, at its 496th meeting held on 27 March 2015, appealed for an enhanced and coordinated international action towards the early organization of a referendum for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. The PSC also decided to: reactivate the ad hoc Committee of Heads of State and Government on the conflict in Western Sahara, established by the 15th Ordinary Session of the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, held in Khartoum, in July 1978; and to establish an International Contact Group for Western Sahara (ICG-WS).
In the latest 25th Summit held in Johannesburg, South Africa, the AU Assembly, recalling that the AU is a co-guarantor of the 1991 settlement plan for referendum, called on the UN Assembly General to determine a date for the holding of the self-determination referendum for the people of Western Sahara and to protect the integrity of the Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory from any act which may undermine. It also urged the Security Council to fully assume its responsibilities and to effectively address the issues of the respect for human rights and the illegal exploitation of the Territory’s natural resources.
UN settlement efforts regarding Western Sahara have reached a crisis point. The attempts by the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Ambassador Christopher Ross, to pursue ‘talks’ between the Parties or to conduct shuttle diplomacy have been unproductive. The UNSC has failed to provide any direction or purpose for Ross’s efforts, and MINURSO’s core mandate to organize a referendum remains suspended as a result of Morocco’s refusal to countenance a vote that includes independence as an option, despite this being a requirement in the joint OAU-UN Settlement Plan. In the meantime, a generation of Saharawi people has been divided by an illegal Moroccan occupation that brutalizes the Saharawi population in the occupied part of the Territory, and has forced more than 150,000 Saharawi people to live in exile. In the absence of the will of international community to enable the Saharawi people to exercise their right to self-determination and independence, the only option left for the Saharawi people is to take up arms once again.