The Crisis in the Western Sahara

The Forgotten Refugees of Tindouf

Under the auspices of the United Nations, discussions are underway between Morocco, the Polisario liberation movement, Algeria and neighbouring Mauritania about a conflict that has been ongoing in the Western Sahara for more than 30 years. A report by Hassan Znined

photo: DW
A place of remembrance: in the Military Museum near the refugee camp, the Polisario liberation movement recalls the war with Morocco and proudly displays the booty taken by the fighters up until the ceasefire in 1991, including Moroccan ordnance and Moroccan tanks

​​The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1754 on April 30 calling on the two parties to begin negotiations with no conditions, with the goal of achieving a political solution to the 30-year-old conflict that would be acceptable to both sides. The Western Sahara, a territory rich in natural resources and as big as Western Germany, was annexed by Morocco in 1975. The Polisario rejects the annexation and, with the support of Algeria, demands independence for the Western Sahara.

The crisis in the Western Sahara is one of the world's forgotten conflicts, because it seems it could go on forever, says Hajo Lanz, expert for Northern Africa at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Rabat:

"The world community has learned to live with the situation, and there is no longer a war going on. A cease-fire is in effect, and it seems everyone can live with the situation as it is."

The history of the conflict

But this conflict, which conflates the aftermath of the colonial period, the desire of the Sahrawis to determine their own fate, and regional rivalry between Morocco and Algeria, was not always as bloodless as it is today. Since its independence in 1956, Morocco has laid claim to the Western Sahara, which at the time was still a colony of Spain.

(photo: DW)
The only thing left for war veterans: two former Polisario liberation movement soldiers play draughts. They returned from the war as invalids. They too feel that the Sahrawis should take up arms again. Having waited for a solution for 30 years, the refugees want to wait no longer

​​In 1973 a handful of young Sahrawis nationalists founded the Polisario (Frente popular para la liberación de la Saguia el Hamra y del Río de Oro, Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and the Río de Oro) with the goal of establishing an independent state of their own.

One year later, Morocco appealed to the international court in The Hague, which in its ruling determined that certain bonds existed between Sahrawi tribes and the Moroccan royal family, but issued no judgment regarding territorial sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

October 1975 was a decisive date in the history of the conflict. With Spain's dictator General Franco on his deathbed, King Hassan II organized a peaceful "Green March" of 350,000 "civilians", in order to recapture what official Moroccan terminology calls the "southern province." Spain retreated from the Western Sahara without a fight.

At this point, war broke out in the Western Sahara. The Polisario evacuated tens of thousands of Sahrawis to Tindouf, Algeria, and began a guerilla war against Morocco that claimed many thousands of victims on both sides. Since then, all international initiatives to find a definitive solution to the conflict have failed.

The referendum's bone of contention

To this day, the only success the international community has been able to achieve is the cease-fire that was negotiated by the United Nations in 1991 and which was intended to allow the Sahrawis to determine their own fate by means of a referendum.

But that never happened. The two parties have been unable to come to an agreement about who should be allowed to vote, explained Bachir Eddalchil, founding member of the Polisario, who has since returned to Morocco.

"The UN did not succeed in defining who was eligible to vote. They started the job, but were unable to specify which Sahrawis had the right to participate in the referendum."

In the meantime, Morocco has rejected the referendum itself, and has proposed to the Security Council that the region receive a broad degree of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. But the Polisario rejects this solution, as their foreign minister Ahmed Sidaty confirms.

"It is out of the question for the autonomy plan suggested by Morocco to ever become the basis for negotiations as long as we intend to remain true to the spirit of the Security Council resolution. That means direct negotiations for a political solution that allows for the independence of the Sahrawi people."

No clear position on the part of the EU

The civilian population, above all the Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf, is paying a high price in this eternal conflict. More than 160,000 people are living under the worst possible conditions in refugee camps in the Algerian desert, without the benefit of international humanitarian aid. But the international community prefers to ignore the conflict, since it is split between countries who support the position of the Polisario and Algeria, and advocates of Morocco. Even the EU does not have a unified view, according to Hajo Lanz.

"I believe the EU does not have a specific way of looking at the situation, except of course that they all support the engagement of the UN in pursuing a political solution to the conflict that is acceptable to all parties."

The major powers, due to their strategic interests, are interested in maintaining the balance, and thus contribute to extending the conflict. It is still going on, and is hindering the development of the Maghreb region as a whole. But perhaps the current negotiations will open up a new perspective, even though the positions of the two parties seem irreconcilable.

Hassan Znined

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Mark Rossman

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