Western Sahara: The Other Occupation

By Zunes, Stephen | Tikkun, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview

Western Sahara: The Other Occupation


Zunes, Stephen, Tikkun


Imagine an Arab Muslim nation, most of whose people have lived in the squalor of refugee camps for decades in exile from their homeland. Most of the remaining population suffers under foreign military occupation, with a smaller number living as a minority within the legally-recognized territory of the occupier. The occupying power is in violation of a series of UN security Council resolutions, has illegally brought in tens of thousands of settlers into the occupied territory, routinely violates international standards of human rights, has built a heavily-fortified separation barrier deep inside the occupied territory, and continues to defy a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice. Furthermore, and despite all this, the occupying power is considered to be a close ally of the United States and receives substantial American military, economic, and diplomatic support to maintain its occupation and colonization of the territory.

This certainly describes the situation regarding Israel's occupation of the Palestinian West Bank (including greater East Jerusalem) and Syria's Golan region, as well as its quasioccupation of the Gaza Strip. But it also describes the thirtyyear occupation of Western Sahara by the Kingdom of Morocco. Despite all the well-deserved attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the importance of working to end Israel's occupation, the failure of the international community-including progressive movements in the United States and elsewhere-to also address the Western Sahara conflict raises questions as to why Morocco is getting away with its ongoing violation of human rights and international law with far less world attention than Israel receives.

Western Sahara: A Brief History

Western Sahara 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 was occupied by Spain from the late 180Os through the mid-1970s, well over a decade after most African countries had achieved their freedom from European colonialism. 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 October of 1975 that the right of self-determination was paramount, despite pledges of fealty to the Moroccan sultan back in the nineteenth century by some tribal leaders bordering the territory and close ethnic ties between some Sahrawi and Mauritanian tribes. A special Visiting Mission from the United Nations engaged in an investigation of the situation in the territory that same year and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania.

During this same period, Morocco was threatening war with Spain over the territory. Though the Spaniards had a much stronger military, they were at that time dealing with the terminal illness of their longtime dictator General Francisco Franco as well as increasing pressure from the United States, which wanted to back its Moroccan ally King Hassan II and did not want to see the leftist Polisario come to power. As a result, despite its earlier pledge to hold a referendum with the assumption that power would soon thereafter be handed over to the Polisario, Spain instead agreed in November 1975 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 UN security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and recognition of the Sahrawis' right of self-determination.

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