9 June 2005 Edition

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Western Sahara's freedom struggle

The people of Western Sahara are still struggling for their right to self-determination and to be able to live in peace in their own land.

After decades of Spanish colonial rule, they had to put up with over 30 years of occupation by Morocco. For 17 years, the Saharawis (people of the Sahara), as they call themselves, fought against Morocco's army. It was international mediation and the promise of a self-determination referendum that brought a ceasefire in 1991. Fourteen years later, the Saharawis are still waiting for the UN to fulfil its commitments.

On Thursday 2 June, Saharawi students confronted Moroccan riot police in the campus of the Souissi II University in Rabat. Many were injured and some were arrested after about 200 students paraded with placards calling for independence for Western Sahara. The demonstrators, who carried the flag of the Democratic Saharawi Arab Republic, shouted slogans against Morocco's occupation of their land.

The demonstration took place the day after it became known that a similar protest in El Aaiun, the capital of Western Sahara, had been savagely repressed by the Moroccan police, with more than 57 demonstrators injured — seven of them seriously — and 12 arrested. More worryingly, 20 people have disappeared, while areas of the city remain closed by security forces.

The Moroccan Government enforced its usual censorship on all news relating to the situation in Western Sahara, continuing its harassment and expulsion policy against independent and foreign media.

On 28 May, Moroccan authorities expelled journalist Abdessalam Razzak from the Arabic channel television Al Jazeera, who had just arrived to cover a report on the situation in Western Sahara. On their arrival at the airport in El Aaiun, two journalists from the Moroccan weekly Assahifa, Lahcen Aouad and Mourad Bourja, were held for more than three hours before being released. Members of the Spanish public television channel TVE, who reached El Aaiun, were prevented from leaving their hotel. However, they were able to give an account of the situation and of their forced confinement by using their cell phones. On 2 June, Moroccan authorities deported the journalist Kristina Berasain, of Basque newspaper Berria.

On Sunday 5 June, the regime ordered its forces to stop and send back a delegation of Spanish politicians, members of NGOs and journalists who had travelled to El Aaiun to report on human rights violations.

The history of occupation of Western Sahara started during the 18th Century, when European states turned their attention to Africa. It was a hundred years later that the Spanish state managed to sign some 'friendship agreements' with the desert tribes. At the time, the Spanish were attracted by the natural resources of the region — oil, gas, fishery and phosphate — and that is what brought neighbouring countries Morocco and Mauritania to the area in the early 1970s.

The neighbouring countries' invasion forced the displacement of thousand of Saharawis, who are still living in refugee camps in Tindouf, Southern Algeria. The conditions in the camps are difficult. As men are in charge of the defence of the liberated territory, women are in charge of everyday life in the camps. The people in the camps are very dependant for their survival on solidarity organisations, a hard life for people who have been thrown out of a very rich land.

While still under Spanish occupation, some of the Saharawis decided to take up arms. The fighters adopted the name Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia El-Hamra y and Golden River — the two regions that form Western Sahara. They became known as Polisario Front.

The organisation's aims were initially to end Spanish occupation, but rapidly, as Morocco took over and their people were forcibly displaced, it became the army of a nation in exile. Algeria and Libya helped with military advisers, and the effort paid off with Mauritania retreating from the invasion. The war continued till 1991, when the UN Security Council adopted a plan to allow for a self-determination referendum.

However, after years of negotiations continuously blocked by Morocco, the situation has not improved for the Saharawis. Morocco counts on the support of the United States, which sees the kingdom as a valuable ally when it comes to the control of Northern Africa. Also, US administrations do not particularly like the socialist ideology of the Polisario Front.

At the end of May, during the celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the creation of the Polisario Front, the president of the Democratic Saharawi Arab Republic and leader of the Front, Mohamed Abdelaziz, warned that his people were ready to go back to war. He also expressed his disappointment with the Spanish government, which abstained during a vote in the UN supporting Morocco's claim on their land.

Right now, the areas of Western Sahara close to the borders with Mauritania and Algeria are liberated territory, to the east of the 2,500-kilometre long sand wall built by the Moroccan army. Morocco controls the coast and what is called the "useful triangle" — this is the land between El Aaiun, Esmara and the phosphate reserves of Bucraa.

Many plans and solutions have been put together to solve this conflict. The most recent is the Baker Plan — which took its name from the plan's broker, the UN special envoy to the region James Baker — presented in January 2003, which established the creation of a devolved government in the area. Elections should have taken place within a year of its implementation and it also allowed for a self-determination vote in the following five years, although only if Morocco considered it necessary.

Clearly, this proposal has not satisfied Saharawis or Moroccans. The latter consider it involves recognising the claim to independence of the former. The Polisario believes it will produce a situation similar to that of Palestine.

On the other hand, the Democratic Saharawi Arab Republic has been recognised by 70 countries, and its president, Mohamed Abdelaziz, will not accept any other option other than the promised self-determination referendum. For this reason there was a decision to prolong the presence of the special UN mission in the area, to allow for more negotiations that may result in an agreement.

A major difficulty is the electoral census. The discussion centres on the question of who is entitled to vote in a possible referendum. There are about 300,000 Saharawis — 120,000 of them in territory controlled by Morocco and the rest in refugee camps in Algeria — of whom 87,000 could vote. To secure victory in the event of a referendum, Morocco has promoted a broad campaign of plantation and it is now claiming that 130,000 of the 200,000 settlers should be allowed to vote.

Agreement also seems difficult because Morocco's King is not ready to accept the right to independence of the Saharawis. The furthest he has accepted is to allow for devolved government. Mohamed VI feels this is an issue that may damage his standing with his people, and that makes him adamant when it comes to the question of Western Sahara. He is ready to continue with the policies of his father, King Hassan II, who justified in this manner the abuses against the Saharawi people in 1993 during a visit to Paris: "I have always said that, in this country, the rights of man stopped at the question of the Sahara. Anyone who said that the Sahara was not Moroccan could not benefit from the rights of man."

To understand the complexity of this conflict, it is necessary to take into account the international interests in the area. The US, France, Britain and Spain support the Baker plan and would like Western Sahara to remain under Morocco's control to "ensure the stability of the area". Once again, these governments put their interests ahead of the rights and entitlements of a whole nation. Why? Well, the French and US corporations Total Fina Elf and Kerr McGee have signed contracts with Morocco to start extracting oil from Western Sahara's coast, ignoring the fact that legally Morocco has no administrative control over the area, as it is still in dispute. In response to that, the Saharawi Republic signed a similar contract with British-Australian Corporation Fusion Oil to evaluate the oil potential of the reserves on the 210,000-kilometre coast.

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