'Not One Grain of Sand': International Law and the Conflict in Western Sahara

By Simanowitz, Stefan | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

'Not One Grain of Sand': International Law and the Conflict in Western Sahara


Simanowitz, Stefan, Contemporary Review


'EMPTY time is a dangerous thing', Jadiya Hamdi tells me over a glass of sweet tea. 'It can kill a human soul'. As an exile herself, she understands how the physical hardships faced by the 165,000 Saharawi people living in refugee camps in the Algerian desert are in some ways easier to bear than the psychological ones. Temperatures of 120 degrees, sandstorms, and dependence on external supplies of food and water are things that the refugees have resigned themselves to enduring. But the despondency that comes of waiting in exile whilst promises are broken and hopes repeatedly dashed is something to which they can never adjust.

The dispute in Western Sahara is one of the longest running and most disregarded conflicts in the world. Known as 'Africa's last colony' Western Sahara is a sparsely populated, arid place with a beautiful seven-hundred-mile coastline. A former Spanish colony--Spanish Sahara--it has been subject to an occupation by neighbouring Morocco for the past thirty-four years. The resultant humanitarian rights crisis is scandalous in itself, but perhaps a greater outrage is the abject failure of the international community to adequately address the ongoing situation. For over three decades international law has been flouted whilst governments around the world are complacent or complicit in permitting the occupation and even profiting from it.

About the size of Britain, Western Sahara lies along Africa's Atlantic coast. Descended from Bedouin Arabs who arrived in the thirteenth century and integrated with the Sanhaja population, the Saharawi have wandered the territory's deserts rearing sheep, goats and camels for centuries. They have their own rich nomadic culture and traditions as well as their own distinct Arabic language, Hassaniya. In 1884 at the height of the 'scramble for Africa', the Spanish colonised the territory but did not settle much of the country, staying largely in port towns along the coast. However, the discovery in the 1960s of large phosphate deposits beneath the desert sands led to the setting up of a large Spanish mining infrastructure.

As decolonisation movements gained momentum across the continent, it became increasingly clear that the Spanish would have to cede control of Western Sahara. In 1973 a Saharawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, began an insurgency against the Spanish colonial rule. As preparations were being made for transition to independence the Moroccans and Mauritanians both asserted territorial claims over the area. These claims were dismissed by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1975. In their ruling the ICJ declared that whilst there had been 'legal ties of allegiance between the Sultan of Morocco and some of the tribes living in the territory of Western Sahara' the facts did 'not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco'. The ICJ also upheld United Nations (UN) resolution 1541 (XV) of 1960 on the decolonisation of Western Sahara and the right of its people to self-determination.

In response to the ICJ ruling the Moroccans organised a mass mobilization known as the Green March where hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians crossed the boarder into Western Sahara. With Franco on his deathbed, the Spanish hurriedly signed the Madrid Accords in which they agreed to divide Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for continued fishing rights and partial ownership of mining interests. In February 1976 the Spanish withdrew from Western Sahara, the Moroccans and Mauritanians occupied much of the territory and the Polisario Front declared the creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). A fifteen-year war ensued, the Mauritanians withdrawing in 1979. The fighting was brutal, with the Moroccans using their well equipped army and air-force to full effect but the Saharawis conducting an effective counter insurgency. In 1991 a ceasefire was declared and under the terms of a UN agreement a referendum for self-determination was promised. …

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