Sahrawi’s continued plight in Morocco: Is Self-determination the solution?

The 20 February protests on the streets of Casablanca, as well as other cities, prompted the King to establish a new constitution as a means of curbing corruption, enhancing economic conditions and bettering health among other services. Following a national referendum which endorsed the Moroccan Constitution on 1 July 2011 that endeavours to preserve and enshrine socio-economic and civil rights from freedom of expression to equality amongst women and men. Rather promisingly torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances were all criminalised acts as rights to be enjoyed by the citizens of Morocco. Despite this however the states will to protect and facilitate the freedom of all its citizens is debatable by challenges faced by the Sahrawi people: A group marginalised by a conflict between the Polisario Front and Morocco over the disputed occupied Western Saharan territories that fall within the ambit of Morocco’s sovereignty.

A conflict that began shortly after Morocco annexed and seized control of Western Sahara in 1975, enforcing Spain to decolonise the state leaving the Sahrawi people under the fetters of Moroccan sovereignty. The Polisario Front opposed this rule and sought the right to self-determination initially through an Algerian-backed coup before agreeing to a United Nations brokered cease-fire with Morocco in 1991. Part of the agreements included the gradual cessation of power to administer Western Sahara to the Sahrawi people should they vote in favour of self-determination via a referendum. To date, there has been no referendum because of disagreements over who would be eligible to vote which means Morocco continues to clasp Western Sahara in the arm of its sovereignty. A sovereignty not formally recognised by the United Nations who classify Western Sahara as a “non-self-governing territory”. Nevertheless, the reality is that Western Sahara remains under Moroccan control and thus its sovereignty.

In late 2010, prior to the Moroccan Constitution 2011, Sahrawis deserted the town of El-Ayoun and established camps in the desert at Gdeim Izik to protest the socio-economic plight faced in the Moroccan-administered Western Sahara. Despite Moroccan authorities’ attempts to negotiate with the leaders of this movement, any deliberations did not lead to anything that benefitted the Sahrawi people. In fact, shortly thereof security forces had proceeded to demolish the settlement. While some residents left others remained resilient, which sparked hostile confrontations between Sahrawis and the security forces which leaked onto the streets of El-Ayoun, where property as well as vehicles were damaged. It was confirmed that eleven security officers and two civilians died in the clashes.

In the aftermath of these events, hundreds of Sahrawis were arrested with 25 being referred to military courts in what the Human Rights Watch has called the “Tainted Trial of Sahrawi Civilians” where confessions were obtained under questionable circumstances. What is evident are the continued abuses the Sahrawis face as a result of their opposition to their treatment by Moroccan authorities. Other abuses include restrictions on freedom of expressions through peaceful protests via the web with activists being halted on the streets and questioned over their activities, and on a more brutal note reports suggest that Sahrawis are being beaten when openly campaigning for independence or self-determination. As a result many Sahrawis believe that any prospect of being a self-governing state is futile and that the need to rearm themselves and rebel, if negotiations continue to fail.

Weary of this, the international community and the United Nations are resolute on assuming all their responsibilities towards the Sahrawi people. The Sahrawi delegation and the United Nations are adamant on renewing discussions on seeking ways to resolve any further tensions by honouring the charter that was established in 1991 and signed by the Polisario Front and Moroccon authorities to organise a referendum for the Sahrawi people to determine their own fate. The Sahrawi delegation feels it is within their interest to cooperate with the United Nations to end the conflict and put an end to the colonisation of Western Sahara on the basis of the international legitimacy, UN Charter and the total respect of Sahrawi people’s right to an autonomous state.

If negotiations are successful, the Sahrawi delegation is hopeful of seeing an end to the continued Moroccan occupation, the perpetual violation of human rights in the occupied territories as well as the plundering of Western Sahara’s natural resources that is the cause of the socio-economic plight Sahrawis are experiencing. A hopeful attempt at removing the fetters of a repressive regime.

However, is self-determination the right approach for Sahrawis? What is clear is Morocco’s reluctance to hand over Western Sahara to the Sahrawi people owing to the wealth of resources available in and around the region. An area enriched with phosphates and a broader access to the sea, means that the economic benefit of retaining Western Sahara greatly outweighs the desire for Morocco to transfer autonomy. This in conjunction with the potential undiscovered reserves of oil and gas tipped to be available for drilling convey the reasons why the government is almost intransigent about hosting an official referendum. Although this may sound contradictory to the fact that both conflicting parties had agreed amicably to this plan in 1991 and to cease-fire in the aegis of the United Nations, the reality is that the cease-fire ended but any developments of a referendum seem rather bleak.

Instead the Moroccan government contend that resources cultivated are ploughed back into the region for greater economic development and a means to catapult the desert region into the modern era. While this may be true, Sahrawi activists who can only wish for an independent state argue that these are the spoils of an illegal occupation, sustained to plunder all its natural resources with none of its investments benefiting the majority of the Sahrawi people with the exception of a handful of pro-Moroccan Sahrawi groups.

Further to this, the developments of the area is actually prompting other Moroccans to migrate down south for economic prosperity often causing the further displacement of Sahrawi people as Moroccans are often prioritised over the Sahrawis. This adumbrated with the concomitant problems delineated above convey the socio-economic plight Sahrawis are experiencing and it explicates why they dream of capitulating Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Nonetheless, this may not be a practical solution as Morocco have continued to utilise the occupied territories for 23 years without there being any prospect of a referendum for the Sahrawi people in the endeavours to reclaim the region to improve socio-economic conditions. The process of self-determination has already been a prolonged and unsuccessful battle. Pursuing this option seems a futile attempt at resolving what is the nucleus of the problem and that is the Sahrawi’s socio-economic standing within the region. Efforts should be redirected towards establishing themselves as an integral minority group whose rights need protecting under the Moroccan constitution. The Sahrawi people should initiate a more diplomatic approach that ensures they receive a ‘better bargain’ in the economic developments within Western Sahara and aim to request and establish a set of socio-economic rights for the indigenous population of the region.

Negotiating this approach could be a more effective solution in resolving the dilemma over the socio-economic needs of the indigenous groups that find themselves marginalised in situations around employment and other civil rights. By negotiating the idea of integration and perhaps a demand for local governance, the Sahrawi people may benefit further from fighting battles through the Moroccan politico-legal system to enshrine special rights for their community to ensure they are not economically disadvantaged in any developments of the area. This strategy could prove more fruitful in its aims of advancing Sahrawi’s socio-economic conditions as well as improving other rights that will free them from the fetters of a repressive state which may have resulted as a consequence of the Sahrawi people’s desire for self-determination which Morocco themselves may not yearn for.

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Published by AsfarEurope in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)