Western Sahara's Struggle for Freedom

By Zunes, Stephen | National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2006 | Go to article overview

Western Sahara's Struggle for Freedom


Zunes, Stephen, National Catholic Reporter


Most people have never heard of the country of Western Sahara, but its struggle for self-determination is as significant as that of Palestine and East Timor.

It is a sparsely populated territory about the size of Colorado, located on the Atlantic coast in northwestern Africa just south of Morocco. Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Arab tribes, collectively known as Sahrawis and famous for their long history of resistance to outside domination, the territory of Western Sahara was occupied by Spain from the late 1800s through the mid-1970s. The nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed independence struggle against Spain in 1973, and Madrid eventually promised the people of what was then still known as the Spanish Sahara a referendum on the fate of the territory by the end of 1975.

Irredentist claims by Morocco and Mauritania were brought before the International Court of Justice, which ruled in favor of the Sahrawis' right to self-determination. A special Visiting Mission from the United Nations investigated the situation in the territory that same year and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania.

Under pressure from the United States, which did not want to see the leftist Polisario come to power, Spain reneged on its promise for a referendum and instead agreed to partition the territory between the pro-Western countries of Morocco and Mauritania.

As Moroccan forces moved into Western Sahara, most of the population fled into refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Morocco and Mauritania rejected a series of unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and recognition of the Sahrawis' right of self-determination. The United States and France, despite voting in favor of these resolutions, blocked the United Nations from enforcing them. Meanwhile, the Polisario--which had been driven from the more heavily populated northern and western parts of the country--declared independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Thanks in part to the Algerians' providing significant amounts of military equipment and economic support, Polisario guerrillas fought well against both occupying armies. Mauritania was defeated by 1979 and agreed to turn its third of Western Sahara over to the Polisario. However, the Moroccans then annexed that remaining southern part of the country as well.

The Polisario then focused their armed struggle against Morocco and, by 1982, had liberated nearly 85 percent of their country. Over the next four years, however, the tide of the war was reversed in Morocco's favor, thanks to the United States and France dramatically increasing their support for the Moroccan war effort, with U.S. forces providing important training for the Moroccan army in counterinsurgency tactics and helping with the construction of a wall that kept the Polisario out of most of their country.

Meanwhile, the Moroccan government, through generous housing subsidies and other benefits, successfully encouraged thousands of Moroccan settlers to immigrate to Western Sahara. By the early 1990s, these Moroccan settlers outnumbered the remaining Sahrawis indigenous to the territory by a ratio of more than 2:1.

A cease-fire came into effect in 1991 as part of an agreement that would have allowed for the return of Sahrawi refugees to Western Sahara followed by a U. …

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