Last month, while on a tour of the region ahead of a new round of informal talks between the two sides in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts, United Nations Special Envoy for the Western Sahara Christopher Ross stressed that there was a “need to lessen tensions and avoid any incident that could worsen the situation or hamper discussions.”
Four short weeks later, Western Sahara is smoldering. In the early hours of Nov. 8, Moroccan security forces moved in to remove more than 12,000 Saharawi protesters from the makeshift protest camp where they had been living for a month. As the smoke cleared, the death toll mounted, with the Polisario Front claiming 19 Saharawis killed, hundreds wounded and 159 missing. However, Rabat dismissed those figures, claiming that there had been 13 fatalities, all but two of whom had been members of the Moroccan security forces. In the days following the incident, there have been reports of large numbers of arrests, and Human Rights Watch has reported the torture and mistreatment of detained Saharawis. With most foreign activists expelled and journalists barred, it has been hard to establish the facts, but whatever the exact human cost of the incident, the political fallout has been substantial.
The removal of the protest camp coincided with the start of U.N.-brokered talks in New York aimed at resolving a stalemate in which the Polisario Front is unprepared to negotiate away its legitimate right to self-determination, Morocco rejects any proposal that contains even the possibility of independence, and the U.N. Security Council is unwilling to enforce its own resolutions to hold a referendum on self-determination. Although the first day of talks was canceled, the second day went ahead, but little progress was made. The Polisario Front’s U.N. envoy described the Moroccan action as “a deliberate act to wreck the talks.”
The Security Council released a statement Nov. 16 saying it “deplores” the latest violence in Western Sahara, but it failed to commit to a formal investigation. Nevertheless, demands for an investigation are being led increasingly by human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Two weeks ago, demonstrators gathered in Madrid and London, and a week ago, Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez called for a “clear and independent” report on the incident. In the British Parliament, MP Jeremy Corbyn asked Foreign Secretary William Hague to “intervene urgently with the government of Morocco and the U.N. to bring about a resolution to this crisis.”
During his tour of the region, his fourth trip there since becoming special envoy in January 2009, Mr. Ross described the current impasse over Western Sahara as “untenable,” and Martin Nesirky, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, recently said that resolving the conflict was a “priority for the United Nations.” But if a resolution is to be found, this rhetoric must be matched by action. The Moroccan occupation has been allowed to continue in breach of international law and of U.N. resolutions for more than 35 years, and the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara remains the only contemporary peacekeeping mission without a mandate to monitor human rights. Had it had such a remit, the violence that has occurred over the past weeks might have been avoided.
Fifty years ago this month, the U.N. adopted Resolution 1514, which stated that all people have a right to self-determination and that colonialism should be brought to a speedy and unconditional end. Half a century later, the Saharawi people are still waiting for Resolution 1514 to be applied in Western Sahara. Often, as with South Africa’s state of emergency in the 1980s, a conflict edging toward its endgame goes through a period of heightened tension. We can only hope worldwide concern and a renewed commitment from the international community might prevent this mounting tension from resulting in more bloodshed.
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, writer and broadcaster.