In the vast expanse of the Algerian desert, a hundred thousand refugees from the Western Sahara languish because of Moroccan imperialism. Exiled from their homeland 31 years ago, they wait while the international community averts its eyes from their travesty. As human rights abuses increase inside occupied Western Sahara and a food shortage in the Algerian camps becomes critical, the Western Saharan people need self-determination more than ever before.
The Sahrawis, indigenous to the Western Sahara as well as parts of Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, began fighting against the Spanish colonial authorities in the 1950s. When decolonization began in 1975, they expected independence, but Spain gave the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritania withdrew a few years later, but today Morocco continues to block the referendum on independence it promised to hold in 1991.
“What it really comes down to is a matter of international law,” said Mikael Simble, the U.S. representative of the Norwegian Support Committee for the Western Sahara, an organization that promotes human rights in the territory. “It’s considered a territory pending decolonization, and not a single country has officially recognized Moroccan sovereignty over it,” he said.
Robert Holley, the executive director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy, a Moroccan lobbying group, disagrees. He thinks the Sahrawis are not distinct enough from Moroccans to deserve self-determination. “Are they a people? Doesn’t much look like it,” he said.
It’s true that there are links between Morocco and the Western Sahara, but they don’t constitute sovereignty or negate the Sahrawi right to self-determination. Contrary to Holley’s claim, the International Court of Justice ruled in 1975 that there were no “legal ties of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and the Moroccan State.” Morocco went on to use a misinterpretation of that ruling to justify its invasion, but the court’s point remains: the Sahrawis are distinct from Moroccans, and deserve the right of self-determination.
Sahrawis demonstrate their cohesiveness in more tangible ways than ethnographers or international jurists acknowledge. When pro-independence protests were crushed in 1999, Sahrawi students at Moroccan universities staged protests in solidarity. Even Moroccan-born Sahrawis, moved to the Western Sahara by Morocco to tilt any prospective referendum in its favor, have begun to see the wisdom of independence and participate in pro-independence demonstrations.
The need for self-determination is more urgent because human rights abuses in the territory are increasing. According to a leaked United Nations report, Moroccan police beat a Sahrawi protester to death with batons in 2005. Morocco denied the report, but was angrier about the leak than about what was in it.
Later, the report blamed “almost all human rights violations and concerns with regard to the people of the Western Sahara” on the suppression of self-determination. This month, two Sahrawi human rights activists were put on trial by Morocco on charges of belonging to an illegal association. Amnesty International called for an end to this judicial harassment.
In the Algerian refugee camps, Sahrawis languish in a different way. They’ve been in an uncomfortable stasis for 31 years and have seen their hopes for independence repeatedly dashed by international apathy or Moroccan backpeddling.
In Dec. 2006, there was a serious food crisis in the camps as donations dried up. Some self-determination advocates thought Morocco’s Western allies, tired of the Sahrawi government-in-exile, had decided to starve them into Moroccan control.
Aid has been partially restored, but a recent joint visit by United Nations and World Food Program experts warned of an impending malnutrition crisis. No matter how much aid is sent to the camps, the problem won’t be solved until Morocco allows a referendum on independence.
It’s astonishing that a human rights violator as egregious as Morocco is considered a major non-NATO ally of the United States, putting our commitment to it on the same level as our commitments to Australia or Japan. Rather than supporting Morocco, the United States should call for the only solution to the conflict: a free , fair referendum on independence.