Un viaggio nel deserto: il Sahara Occidentale

A journey through the desert: Western Sahara

The Desert of Loneliness (pt. II)

🇮🇹 Per la versione in italiano clicca qui.

In the absence of a clear legal answer, politics fills the gap.

Andrew G. Lewis

In the first article of this series about Western Sahara we saw the Green March, incited by King Hassan II, crossing the Rubicon and entering Spanish Sahara, the last act of Rabat’s strategy aimed at drawing the new borders of the “Great Morocco” and of the region in general. The march was followed by the signing, the 14th of November 1975 -a few days before Franco’s death-, of the Madrid Accords between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. The treaty established an interim administration until the definitive withdrawal of the Spanish troops, set for the 28th of February 1976.

Just like this, Spain lost its last colony and the Sahrawi people saw every possibility of obtaining the much coveted freedom fade away, but, in contrast to Britain’s withdrawal from Hong Kong, there was no glorious march to the sound of Auld Lang Syne, no bagpipes to go with the farewell, no ceremony; only tears and shame. As Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a former war correspondent then stationed in Western Sahara, wrote in a 2015 piece, the order came down for Spanish soldiers to disarm the loyal indigenous troops who so valiantly had fought alongside them for many years. Feeling bitterness, shame and desperation, many officers -those who dared- helped their men escape and join the Polisario Front, a national liberation movement born in 1973 with the aim of achieving self-determination.

What followed was a guerrilla war between the Polisario, which, in the meantime, had proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and Morocco that lasted intermittently for fifteen years and caused more than 150,000 refugees, according to an UNICEF official 2010 estimate. Unconfirmed sources maintain that Rabat, backed by France and the United States -after all we find ourselves in the context of the Cold War and the Polisario Front not only was part of the socialist sphere, but also was -and still is today- supported by then “soviet” Algeria-, made use of napalm and white phosphorous to bomb Sahrawi civilian camps.

While Mauritania, worn out by the war of attrition, signed the peace with the Polisario Front in 1979, Morocco kept claiming its sovereignty on Western Sahara, also basing its demands on the Madrid Accords. However, such claim is considered weak by many analysts and scholars, as not only Morocco does not control Western Sahara’s territory in its totality, but also because, as Andrew G. Lewis affirms in “A disappearing right of self-determination: the ongoing impasse in Western Sahara and its consequences“, the Madrid Accords, as stipulated in the UN’s General Assembly Resolution 1514, “did not result in the decolonization of the Western Sahara on the basis of free and informed consent of the Sahrawi people”. Most importantly, the resolution’s focus is to reaffirm “the inalienable right to self-determination […] of all the Saharan populations originating in the Territory”.

There are even doubts surrounding the validity of the Madrid Accords, since they could be the product of the threat or coercive use of force (the Green March), forbidden by Article 52 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Nevertheless, the UN has yet to state unequivocally its position on the issue, simply maintaining that the territory should be decolonized and not recognizing Morocco as its administering power. The Security Council, in particular, despite its initial support for self-determination, “with the passage of Resolution 1429 in 2002 shifted towards the prioritization of a political solution” (-Lewis).

This new pragmatic stance -an evident and, in many ways, logical example of realpolitik– was nothing but the natural consequence of years of failed negotiations between Morocco, the Polisario Front and the United Nations for the organization of a referendum on self-determination. The problem was -and it still is today- the identification of those eligible to vote in a self-determination referendum and the criteria to apply: ethnic, of nationality, of residence or a hybrid? Who was entitled to vote? Only the members of the Sahrawi population, regardless of their location, if in the Territory or in the refugee camps in Tindouf (Algeria)? Moroccan and Sahrawi citizens? Only those residing in Western Sahara without regard to their ethnic group? According to Lewis, “over time Morocco has successfully established itself in the bulk of the territory, applying its own laws, settling its own population, and exploiting the territory’s natural resources”.

In 1991 the Security Council established MINURSO, a peacekeeping mission the objectives of which were to monitor the ceasefire achieved that same year and, more importantly, to organize and ensure a free and fair referendum and to identify and register qualified voters. As we shall see in the next article, in spite of the numerous plans proposed over the years (Settlement Plan, Baker I and II), the United Nations inaction and MINURSO’s failure gave place to a deadlock situation from which only Morocco has taken advantage to advance its own agenda and secure support from its allies. All of it with the impassiveness of the UN and the International Community.

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