Twenty-nine years after the ceasefire, on November 13, 2020, the Polisario Front and Morocco resumed the fight. The truce established in 1991 ended after the Moroccan army penetrated the buffer zone controlled by the UN mission MINURSO, to break the traffic blockade that had been imposed by Sahrawi protesters in the El Guerguerat crossing. Since that day, the daily war bulletin of the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army speaks of “bombings against enemy forces along the Wall of Shame in Western Sahara”. A fight that Morocco downplays or even denies. In the war zone, as well as in the territories of Western Sahara, is strictly imposed a ban on entry for humanitarian workers and journalists. From the diplomatic perspective, several moves were made, without much effect. In December 2020, outgoing US President Donald Trump proposed to Morocco a new deal: the recognition of the Kingdom’s rights over Western Sahara in exchange for the normalization of relations with Israel. A declaration that has provoked many international reactions, but that has proved to be of little effect. Secretary-General of the United Nations ,Antonio Guterres reiterated that the solution to the Western Sahara conflict does not depend on the recognition by individual States, but on the implementation of UN resolutions. Colin Stewart, head of MINURSO, then confirmed that “everything remains in the framework established in the Agreement signed in 1991, which indicates that territory as occupied and demands for a self-determination referendum, recognizing the will of the Saharawi people to freely decide their own destiny”. Delicate remain the diplomatic relations between Morocco, Germany and Spain, always in relation to the Western Sahara issue. On May 6, 2021, Rabat has recalled its ambassador in Berlin denouncing in an official statement “hostile acts” by Germany. Frictions are also noted between Morocco and Spain, after the Iberian State welcomed the President of the RASD, Brahim Ghali to receive medical treatment when he contracted Covid-19. In the statement released by the Moroccan Foreign Ministry, Rabat warned Spain not to “minimize the serious impact” of this crisis on bilateral relations and warned it that it will “draw all the consequences” from a decision that he claimed to be “premeditated,” taken “behind the back of a partner and a neighbor.”
What is being fought for
The conflict in Western Sahara rotates around the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people. In fact, the Moroccan Government has been illegally occupying the Sharawi territory ever since 1975, when the Spanish left their old colony. Despite several UN resolutions on the subject, the occupation has not yet ended and Western Sahara remains the last African colony still waiting for independence.
Since 1991, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has been active with the task of monitoring the ceasefire and organizing the self-determination referendum, which has however never been carried out until now.
The Sahrawi population is still divided between those who live in refugee camps in the Algerian desert, those who live in the territories of Western Sahara, and the very few residents of the so-called ‘liberated areas’, an almost desert strip consisting of seven cities that can be reached with off-road vehicles in 4-5 hours from the Sahrawi fields.
A long wall is still dividing the Sharawi people. It is 2,700 kilometres long and was built by Morocco in 1980. The fortification is a real military work, consisting of bunkers, fortified posts and minefields. In addition, the conflict in Western Sahara has an economic implication: the territory is rich in phosphates deposits, and the coastal area on the Atlantic Ocean is one of the fishiest of the continent.
After the Spanish retreat, Morocco and Mauritania invaded Western Sahara, a territory composed of the regions of Saquia el Hamra in the North and Rio de Oro in the South, and bordering with Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Atlantic Ocean. On October 6, 1975, the King of Morocco
gave the green light to the “green march”, which was attended by 350,000 Moroccans, with the aim of occupying the Territory. On November 2, 1975, Spain affirmed its support for the self-determination of the Saharawi people. At the end of the year, therefore, the Polisario Front seemed on the verge of gaining independence but, with secret negotiations, Madrid signed a clandestine agreement with Morocco and Mauritania: the three decided that the territory would be divided between the two African countries. The illegal annexation of Western Sahara started the war between Morocco and Mauritania (which withdrew from the conflict in 1978) and tens of thousands of Saharawis fled under napalm bombardments of Rabat’s army.
In 1976, the Polisario Front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SARD), now recognized by 86 countries, but not by the United Nations and the European Union.The Moroccan aggression caused the Sahrawis to flee to the east, to Algeria, where they have been political asylum. Starting in 1980, Morocco began the construction of an electrified and militarized wall to divide the population of the refugee camps from those who remained in Western Sahara. The fortification still separates families, some of whom have been able to meet on rare occasions organized and escorted by the UN. In 1984, the Organization of African States accepted the SARD as a member state, expelling Morocco. The African Union then readmitted the Kingdom in January 2017 but at the same time it decided upon the sending of a Peace delegation to Laayoune and the establishment of a mission to oversee civil and human rights in the territories of Western Sahara. In 1991, after eighteen years of war, the UN Security Council approved the Peace Plan. Since that year, MINURSO has been monitoring the respect of the ceasefire (violated in November 2020) and should organize the referendum for self-determination. However, the consultation has not yet taken place, being constantly blocked and postponed by Morocco, which in the UN Security Council can count on the support of France and its veto power. MINURSO is renewed every year and is an atypical mission: it is the only one that does not extend its powers to monitor violations and respect for human rights. Between December 2018 and March 2019, a number of Peace Talks were held in Geneva, raising hopes for the resumption of dialogue, but this did not show any kind of progress. Morocco continues to support the solution that gives autonomy to a Region that is nevertheless considered an integral and inalienable part of the Kingdom. No concessions have been made with regard to the release of Sahrawi political prisoners and the authorization for independent observers to enter the Occupied Territories to monitor the respect of human rights. On the contrary, for the Polisario Front, the only solution remains the referendum, as it would exercise the inalienable right of the Saharawi people to decide their own destiny in a democratic way.
Meanwhile, human rights violations in Western Sahara are systematic and documented by numerous international organizations. Censorship is in force in the Territory: foreign journalists are not allowed, activists and citizens cannot document what happens without risking imprisonment. The situation is also difficult in the camps in the Algerian desert: Sahrawi refugees depend on international aid and live in one of the most inhospitable areas of the planet. The camps often lack running water and electricity. Both the tents and the more modern houses built with sand bricks are constantly exposed to collapse during the rainy season.Precisely because of such extreme conditions and difficult living conditions, the population constantly suffer from several diseases that impact their quality of life.
Key figure or organization: Sultana Khaya
Sultana Khaya is one of the best-known Sahrawi activists, alongside being the President of the League for the Defense of Human Rights and against the Plundering of Natural Resources in Boujdour, a city in the North of Western Sahara. Over the years, she has organized dozens of demonstrations and documented the abuses of the occupation forces, especially against the Sahrawi women. The activist was invited to participate in the UN Human Rights Council. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have denounced the situation in which she and her family live: Sultana Khaya lives under siege of the security forces, stationed under her home day and night. In 2007, during an attack by the police at the Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech, she lost her right eye. On 11 May 2021, she denounced she had been raped by the police.
Focus 1 – The El Guerguerat route
On what the Sahrawis call the ‘wall of shame’ is a buffer zone, manned by the MINURSO mission. Here can be found the El Guerguerat crossing. It represents a strategic trade route, as it is the only commercial access route between Morocco and Mauritania. On 21 October 2020, the El Guerguerat breach was closed to traffic in both directions by Sahrawi civil society activists as a sign of protest. The idea of opening a crossing in this area dates back to 2001. In his reports to the Security Council, the UN General Secretary recognized the illegal nature of building a paved road through a buffer zone. Over the years, the breach of El Guerguerat has allowed the passage not only of people but also of goods, in particular agricultural ones grown in Western Sahara. The protest, which led to the end of the ceasefire of November 2020, occurred to focus attention on what the Sahrawis define as Morocco’s ‘looting’ of goods and resources from Western Sahara.
Focus 2 – The repression of the activists
With the return to arms, the repression in the Western Sahara territories has worsened considerably. For the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), “harassment, barbaric acts, excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests, torture and kidnappings are part of the daily life of civilians”. These abuses are denounced daily by the local press agency Equipe Media, the Nushatta Foundation and numerous international organizations. It takes very little to be considered an activist: singing songs from the Sahrawi culture, displaying flags or wearing the darrâa, the traditional dress.