by Sara Bundtzen

Today, a 2700-kilometre-long berm, built by Morocco in the 1980s, divides the territory of Western Sahara and isolates its people. For more than 40 years, Morocco has occupied and exploited roughly 85 percent of the territory west of the berm, which is rich in natural resources, including large deposits of phosphate and well-stocked fisheries.

The Polisario Front, the Sahrawi political organisation, which formed as an independence movement to fight colonial Spain in 1973, administers the much smaller, less prosperous eastern strip.

The berm is surrounded by electronic surveillance, thousands of deployed soldiers and police, and one of the world’s largest minefields — visible signs of Morocco’s forceful occupation of the territory. Yet, the violation of international law hardly gains the full attention of the international community as ongoing (bloodier) conflicts in other parts of the world have more critical interests at stake.

One of the most protracted refugee situations globally

No other than the Sahrawi people, once nomads living in the territory, pay the price of the diplomatic and political stalemate. Their native language is Hassaniya, a distinct dialect of Arabic, but most Sahrawis also speak Spanish and to varying degrees French and English. The practice of Sunni Islam is pragmatic and presents a cultural rather than political component of the community. The planning figure for the most vulnerable refugees in the Tindouf camps in Southern Algeria remains 90,000; but the camps are home to an estimated 173,000 refugees. Many Sahrawis born in the camps know nothing else other than a life in exile and the status of being a refugee without a homeland.

This area is known as the “Devil’s Garden,” where temperatures rise beyond 50 degrees Celsius and sandstorms choke the air. Precarious nutrition situations and limited access to markets or livelihoods challenge daily life in the camps. The European Commission recognizes the Sahrawi refugee situation as a “forgotten crisis” and remains the largest donor of humanitarian aid, although international donor support has been rapidly declining following the 2008 financial crisis.

The Polisario Front maintains political control of the land to the east of the berm (in red). [Wikimedia Commons]

Perspective of an activist

Fatma, a 21-year-old Sahrawi activist and student, was born in the camps and knows these harsh conditions very well. I first met her in Brussels when she sat together with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), on behalf of the Sahrawi people, to raise awareness among policymakers.

Fatma tells me about the Sahrawi people and her thoughts. When talking about the Sahrawis, she is very proud. She is proud of their long resistance, but also their modernity. “Unlike many other countries of the Islamic world, Western Sahara promotes secularism and protects women’s rights,” Fatma tells me. It was women who built the camps and who now actively participate in the struggle for Sahrawi independence. During her childhood summers, Fatma was fortunate to participate in the Vacaciones en Paz (“Holidays in Peace”), a program jointly organised by the Unión de Juventud de Saguia el Hamra y Río de Oro, the youth organisation of the Polisario; and Spanish solidarity associations. Every year, she and hundreds of other Sahrawi children visited Spain to live with host families, a chance to receive medical treatment and meet nutritional needs — and to experience another culture and way of life.

Later, the United World College (UWC) National Committee of Refugees from Western Sahara selected Fatma to attend the UWC Robert Bosch College in Freiburg, Germany, where she obtained her International Baccalaureate diploma. To date, she pursues a degree in law and business, while continuing her advocacy for the Sahrawi cause. She works with Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW), an international network of activists focusing on the preservation of natural resources in the occupied territory for use by its people.

With the support of international humanitarian aid, the Polisario administers daily life in the camps. Yet, the Moroccan government uses every occasion to undermine the Polisario’s political leadership and representation of the Sahrawi people. Many European policymakers have equally questioned the Polisario’s role. Fatma says, “Of course, there are problems in the day-to-day administration of camp affairs…because sometimes the Polisario is more concerned about the external rather than the internal issues.” However, she emphasizes that Sahrawis are unanimous on the Polisario’s fundamental goal: a referendum on self-determination. Ultimately, as the key arbiter of international conflict resolution, the UN has recognized the Polisario as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. Debates on the Polisario’s legitimacy often root in the Moroccan intention to distract from the real issues.

In the camps, Fatma formed a youth organisation that aims to empower Sahrawi youth by creating a domestic market and new job opportunities. She regrets that although many young Sahrawis are well-educated, thanks to obligatory and secular education in the camps and opportunities to study in Algeria or abroad, they are confronted with a narrow job market due to the harsh climate and remoteness of the camps. Sahrawis fighting for an independent Western Sahara likewise do not often see the point of investing in an economy that is not supposed to be their future home. Employment in international NGOs, the civil service of the Polisario, the Sahrawi army, the black market, or traditional activities, such as agriculture and rearing livestock, remain the main sources of income.

With the prolonged isolation, “more Sahrawis think about leaving the camps,” Fatma asserts. “The camps are not the same as 40 years ago. With the introduction of the Internet, people now see the outside world. A sense of unfairness is growing.” She is part of a generation that is highly aware of global developments and increasingly tired of prolonged diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute. Nonetheless, Fatma keeps advocating for self-empowerment by engaging the Sahrawis in building a domestic economy and looking for partners around the world, notwithstanding the political stalemate.

Children hold up the flag of Western Sahara in December 2016. [waldignaz/Flickr]

A European responsibility

To date, not a single EU Member State recognizes Morocco’s sovereignty claims over the territory. And still, the EU’s political stance tells an ambiguous narrative. For decades, European officials mostly ignored the unresolved question of Western Sahara — despite intertwined colonial legacies and trade relations with Morocco. Europe’s behavior has become a burden to the Sahrawi cause and the peace process.

During the late 1960s, when colonial Spain faced international pressure to decolonize what was then called Spanish Sahara, it announced it would organize a referendum on self-determination to let the people decide. Simultaneously, the Moroccan government requested that the UN referred the question of territorial sovereignty to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The King had the intention to obtain a decision that would assert that the territory had been Moroccan prior to colonization. The ICJ, however, did not find any legal ties between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco “of such a nature as might affect the application of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the territory.” Hence, “[t]he purpose of a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara is not to decide between competing sovereigns…but to poll the Sahrawis as to whether or not they wish to retain, modify, or divest their sovereignty.”

In defiance of the ICJ and Spanish plans to hold a referendum, King Hassan II called for 350,000 Moroccans to march into Western Sahara, known as the “Green March.” Spain subsequently ended its presence in the territory and unilaterally ceded the land to Morocco and Mauritania (who later withdrew) in the Madrid Agreement of 1975 without holding a referendum. Although the agreement never transferred any sovereignty in accordance with international law, Morocco still attaches complete validity to it and uses it as a legitimate argument to defend its position.

Morocco’s annexation triggered a Polisario-led guerrilla war against the Moroccan military, forcing thousands of Sahrawis to flee into Algeria. In 1976, the Polisario formally proclaimed a government-in-exile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). After 16 years of a war that killed thousands, the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991. The peace agreement was based upon certain arrangements made in a settlement plan. Notably, the mandated UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) would monitor the ceasefire, identify eligible voters, and organize a referendum for the Sahrawis in early 1992. For the referendum to truly provide self-determination, at least the two options – integration with Morocco and independence – were to be on the ballot.

The fight continues…

25 years later, no effective progress towards respecting the freely expressed will of the Sahrawis has been made. The initial provisions of the peace agreement disappeared, while protracted efforts at conflict resolution decayed into never-ending rounds of lobbying the UN to mediate in either sides’ favor. The UN Security Council has been extending the mandate of MINURSO on an annual basis, with the latest extension until 30 April 2018. In September 2017, Horst Köhler, former President of Germany, was appointed as the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara. He seeks to re-launch the process in a new spirit and dynamic. But will he succeed where his predecessors have failed and mend the deep divisions that exist between the parties?

Morocco has relied heavily on its historically important and strategic ally France to delay progress. Every time the case of Western Sahara is on the table of the Security Council, France has voted in favour of Morocco and as such has vetoed the inclusion of human rights monitoring into the mandate of the MINURSO. It is also the French heavyweight in the EU that established a relationship with Morocco that repeatedly turns a blind eye to legal uncertainties. The EU has demonstrated itself to be incapable of using political pressure on Morocco and has failed to establish a coherent policy of condemning its occupation. In a similar manner, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger justified the American policy towards Morocco in 1975 when he argued that preventing “the Green March would have meant hurting our relations completely with Morocco.”

To date, the EU remains mostly reluctant to genuinely engage with the applicable legal regime because it is prejudiced by its political and geostrategic interests. Morocco, situated on the doorstep of Europe, seeks to exploit any potential leverage as a partner to the EU in critical areas  such as counter-terrorism, illegal migration, and drug trafficking. Without legal arguments, the Moroccan government holds tight to the perception that its “southern provinces” are already part of its territory. From the Moroccan perspective, the sole basis for negotiations remains its 2007 initiative for the autonomy option. In this way, mutually exclusive realities continue to be promoted at regional and international levels, where Morocco’s narrative and propaganda often succeeds.

Fatma stands with the author in front of the Altiero Spinelli Building of the European Parliament in Brussels. [Sara Bundtzen]

Lobbying on a European level

Fatma and other Sahrawi activists together with WSRW continue to lobby in the European Parliament to raise awareness among its members in hope of sparking a debate and influencing upcoming votes on trade deals with Morocco. And they do not come without strong arguments.

In December 2016, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that the people of Western Sahara ought to be viewed as a third party to the EU’s relations with Morocco and that the bilateral agreements concluded between the EU and Morocco must receive the consent of such a third party, if it is affected. The ruling was a major victory for the Polisario. MEPs of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (S&D), the Confederal Group of the European United Left — Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) and Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance (Verts/ALE) have long expressed sympathy for the Sahrawi cause (excluding French MEPs). However, thus far the problem has been rooted in the policymaking of the Council, providing the mandate, and notably the Commission, which represents the EU at the negotiation table. Brussels has continuously decided to pursue a position which circumvents the legal imperative to obtain the Polisario’s consent when negotiating with Morocco on agreements that are applied de facto to the territory of Western Sahara.

On 10 January 2018,  the Court of Justice of the EU published the Advocate General’s Opinion in a pending case on the Fisheries Agreement concluded between the EU and Morocco. He found that the EU had failed to fulfill its obligation to not recognize the illegal situation resulting from disrespect of the right to self-determination. With its financial aid and assistance to Morocco, the EU has further contributed to maintaining that situation. Notably, the Advocate General identified Morocco “the occupying power in Western Sahara,” setting aside the taboo of the word “occupation.”

In late February, the Court followed the Advocate General’s opinion by ruling that, considering the fact that the territory of Western Sahara does not form part of the territory of the Kingdom of Morocco, the waters adjacent to Western Sahara are not part of the Moroccan fishing zone referred to in the Fisheries Agreement.

In light of the court ruling, the flawed notion of a “de facto administration” frequently used by EU officials to legitimize Morocco’s actions on behalf of the Sahrawis, is clearly exhausted. The Court yet again confirms the lack of any factual evidence relating to Moroccan claims.

A Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria’s Tindouf Province, not far from the border with Western Sahara. [waldignaz/Flickr]

“Sahrawis have been very optimistic from the beginning — otherwise, we would not live more than 40 years in exile, isolated in a desert.”

Many Sahrawis maintain high hopes despite no progress being made. For Fatma, the coming years will be crucial. Legal uncertainties, the diplomatic burden, and economic risks challenge national governments and multinational companies that are engaged in sustaining Morocco’s power by either providing development aid or making investments.

The dispute will not be solved by the sole existence of international law but rather through the gradual increase in consistent judicial rulings and persons who act according to the general principles that have been established by international treaties. Illegality has long disrupted diplomatic and political relations between Morocco and its partners in the EU. Companies have decided to withdraw from the territory. Recently, Chuck Magro, President and CEO of the Canadian company Nutrien, announced his company’s intention to no longer source phosphate rock from Western Sahara. According to the WSRW, Nutrien is the largest financier of Morocco’s occupation, purchasing several hundreds of millions of dollars in phosphate. In fact, exports are worth more than all the humanitarian aid given to the Sahrawi refugees.

Fatma is aware of the fact that commercial interests and traditional realpolitik are likely to continue to undermine conflict resolution. Nonetheless, she continues to urge the EU and its Member States to stand up to their self-proclaimed image of a diplomatic soft power that promotes democracy and the rule of law.

In the prolonged absence of a political solution, risks of returning to violent conflict become more likely by the day. “Enough is enough” many Sahrawis are thinking, and this worries Fatma. Already surrounded by destabilized countries that foster transnational criminal and terrorist networks, another crisis would have dramatic consequences for the entire Maghreb region. Considering that European governments seek to identify and reduce the root causes of growing migration, a more engaged stance on conflict resolution and a clear commitment to applying international law in the dispute over Western Sahara is in the EU’s fundamental interest. ♦

Sara Bundtzen is currently pursuing her master’s degree in International Security at PSIA.

Feature Photo: Original illustration by Rosa Hofgärtner for The Paris Globalist.