Western Sahara: understanding the conflict

*note: I wrote this blog in November 2014 for Adala UK – read the original post here*

Political events and anniversaries in Western Sahara, Morocco and Europe are a good starting point for explaining important aspects of the Western Sahara cause for those new to understanding it. Though I wrote the below about events in 2014, it could equally be attributed to the 40th anniverary in 2015 and no doubt the 41st later this year.

31 October 2014: Sahrawis remembered the 39th anniversary of the illegal military invasion of Western Sahara by Morocco in 1975. Less than a week later, on 6 November, the King of Morocco marked the 39th anniversary of the Green March, when 300,000 civilian Moroccans marched into Western Sahara, with a speech. He reiterated Morocco’s intention to remain in Western Sahara ‘until the end of time’, labeling any Moroccan who disagreed as a ‘traitor’. With regards to negotiations to resolve the Western Sahara conflict, he explained that the maximum offer Morocco would make was that of autonomy and not independence. Just two months before, the world had watched as the people of Scotland took to the polls to vote on the future of their independence through a referendum; a right which was promised to the Sahrawis in 1991 by the international community and which to this day remains unrealised.

In his 2014 speech, the King also rejected the notion that the conflict was a question of ‘decolonisation’ or that Morocco was a force of ‘occupation’. He expressed his opposition to widening MINURSO’s (The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) mandate to monitor human rights in Western Sahara. (To read all of King Mohammed VI’s 2014 speech, click here). The Sahrawi government rejected the speech as being ‘contrary to international legality’. (To see more, click here).

On the same day, 6 November 2014, human rights violations in the form of the violent suppression of peaceful protests by Moroccan forces in Western Sahara continued unabated. Adala UK received reports of dozens of Saharawis who were injured during peaceful demonstrations in El Aiun, the capital of occupied Western Sahara. The violent suppression of protests is something that Adala UK has reported on repeatedly since 2012. Adala UK continues to urge the Moroccan authorities to respect the Saharawi population’s right to freedom of expression and to refrain from using violence against peaceful protestors.

A few days after the Moroccan King’s 2014 speech, as some European countries marked Remembrance Sunday on 9 November, the world remembered the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But in 2014, the wall that separates the Liberated Territories of Western Sahara from the Occupied Territories was 29 years old, standing for a year longer than the Berlin Wall. This is a wall that separates families but a wall of which very few of the general public in the West have heard (see Stefan Simanowitz’ article for more information).

On 14 November 2014, we remembered the 39th anniversary of the Madrid Accords: the internationally illegal agreement of decolonisation signed by Spain to hand Western Sahara over to its neighbours, Morocco and Mauritania. That same weekend, the 39th European Conference for Support and Solidarity with the Sahrawi People (EUCOCO) was held in Madrid. Several thousand people took to the streets to coincide with the conference, demonstrating in support of the Sahrawi people’s right to independence.

The widespread press coverage of these protests is significant. Given that Spain began a two-year non-permanent seat in the Security Council from January 2015, we were considering what role Spain (and also Venezuela, who were in the same position) can play in ensuring that a human rights monitoring mandate be incorporated into MINURSO.

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