BIR LEHLU, WESTERN SAHARA – When Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco in 1975, it had been under Spanish control for nearly a century. But Spain’s grip on the territory had weakened in the dying days of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. And rather than allowing a process of decolonization, Spain signed the tripartite “Madrid Accords” with Morocco and Mauritania, both of which subsequently moved in to annex the territory. Mauritania relinquished its claim in 1979, but Morocco never left.
Western Sahara’s legal status is crystal clear. In 1963, it was officially recognized as a Non-Self-Governing Territory by the United Nations General Assembly under the UN Charter – a legal status it retains to this day. It is, in short, the last colony in Africa. In 1975, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) affirmed the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination, and found no ties of territorial sovereignty between Morocco and Western Sahara.
Yet Morocco has been allowed to continue illegally occupying Western Sahara for over four decades. And, as is often the case with unwanted occupations, Morocco has asserted its territorial claim through cruel repression, the systematic denial of basic human rights, and attempts to force demographic change – all while plundering Western Sahara’s natural resources.
The Polisario Front fought a war with Morocco until 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire agreement. That deal was supposed to set the stage for a referendum on independence in Western Sahara the following year – a democratic solution. But Morocco has prevented it from ever taking place.
Morocco has also repeatedly obstructed progress toward further negotiations. It has done so in defiance of the UN Security Council, even going so far as to bar the UN’s special envoy from travelling to the region to set the stage for talks. At the same time, Morocco’s behavior on the ground – including its repression of the Saharawi people and its illegal exploitation of natural resources – has made reaching a political solution increasingly difficult.
In the 42 years of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, we, the Saharawi people, have seen eight American presidents, six UN secretary-generals, and a battery of UN special representatives and personal envoys of the secretary-general come and go. Through it all, we have maintained our faith in the international community, and in the UN-led political process that was launched in 1991. It is time for that faith to be rewarded.
In its latest resolution on Western Sahara this year, the UN Security Council unanimously called for the launch of a new political process and acknowledged that the status quo is not acceptable. The Security Council recognizes that this is the best route to achieving decolonization in Western Sahara, protecting human rights, enabling self-determination by the Saharawi people, and setting the stage for long-term stability in the territory.
The UN Secretariat, the office of the secretary-general, and the new special envoy for Western Sahara, former German President Horst Köhler, now must work rapidly on creating a mechanism for face-to-face time-bound talks. The progress report that they deliver to the Security Council in six months should establish what that mechanism will be, as well as a timetable for negotiations; it should not just be a record of exploratory efforts.
In the meantime, we in the Polisario Front will continue to work toward securing the rights of the Saharawi people. Whereas other countries often fold to Moroccan pressure, for fear of harming trade deals or cooperation over security and migration, the law has proved to be a reliable ally for the people of Western Sahara. It has been particularly effective in pushing back against Morocco’s continued illegal exploitation of natural resources. This is why we have often turned to the courts when the political process has failed us.
Last December, the European Court of Justice joined the ICJ in stating unequivocally that Morocco has no sovereignty over Western Sahara – a move that could pose a significant challenge to Morocco’s relationship with the European Union. That judgment states clearly that any agreement pertaining to Western Sahara’s natural resources requires the consent of the Saharawi people, who are represented by the Polisario Front, as General Assembly Resolution 34/37 established in 1979.
And the EU is not alone. This past May, the Panamanian authorities detained a Canada-bound ship carrying phosphates that had been illegally mined by a state-owned Moroccan company in occupied Western Sahara. And South African authorities stopped a New Zealand-bound ship containing 54,000 tons of phosphate rock from Western Sahara. The high court in Port Elizabeth sent the case to trial to determine ownership, and the Polisario Front won a major victory – and ownership of the cargo – when Morocco announced that it would not contest the case.
The exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources is not only illegal; it also undermines the prospects for a successful political process. We have no intention of abandoning that process. But, if Morocco continues to engage in such activities, we will ensure that its efforts are as costly and cumbersome as possible, both for private companies and state actors. We will fight for our rights in every venue available to us, from national courts to the court of international public opinion.
Over the last four decades, the UN Security Council has repeatedly proved unwilling or unable to bring Morocco to the negotiating table. We, the people of Western Sahara, hope that this time will be different. But, until we know that it is, we will not stand idly by while a hostile occupier tramples on our rights, and pillages our resources.