On November 14th, the secretary general of the Polisario Front, a group fighting for the independence of Western Sahara, declared an end to a ceasefire with Morocco that had lasted for three decades. The ceasefire began in 1991, with intervention from the United Nations, and was issued on the basis that Western Sahara would eventually hold a referendum that would decide if Western Sahara would like to obtain independence or integrate with Morocco. Currently, the referendum has yet to take place. The two sides cannot come to a settlement on who the indigenous peoples of the land are, and thus, who can and cannot participate in the vote on the referendum.
Since the 1970s, after the end of Spanish colonial rule in the region, the Moroccan government sought to annex a majority of the territory in Western Sahara. Morocco currently controls approximately 80% of Western Sahara, which it refers to on maps as the “Moroccan Sahara.” The country jails dissidents who refer to the territory as Western Sahara or speak out against the numerous human rights abuses and media censorship within the area. In October 2019, Waleed Al-Batal, a human rights activist and member of the Sahrawi League for the Protection of Human Rights, was sentenced to six years in prison for being a participant at a peaceful demonstration calling for the people of Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. Videos of Al-Batal being brutally beaten and dragged by Moroccan authorities, which emerged prior to his sentencing, outraged human rights activists. Groups around the world called for an investigation into Morocco’s occupation and actions in Western Sahara.
King Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco, has vowed to continue occupation and control of Western Sahara, detailing in an official statement that Morocco “remains firmly determined to react, with the greatest severity, and in self-defense, against any threat to its security.” This statement comes after a Moroccan military operation launched in early November with the aim to re-open a highway between Western Sahara and Mauritania, which the Moroccan government accused the Polisario Front of blocking. The highway, which serves as a trading link between Morocco and the rest of Africa, provides significant economic value to the country. However, Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, claims that the Moroccan government exaggerated the importance of the highway, as trucks had been blocked for several weeks. The highway “is not an international or even regional road,” Salek says. “It is being used to loot the natural resources of the Sahrawi people.”
The international community has largely failed to stand by the Sahrawi people and has not consistently supported the independence and self-determination of Western Sahara, as supporting Western Sahara would entail risking diplomatic relations with Morocco. However, Egypt has strayed from the pro-Moroccan precedent set by Arab delegations in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. On November 15th, the Egyptian government issued a statement on Facebook calling for both parties to commit to the ceasefire and to respect the right to sovereignty. In October 2016, Egypt also hosted members of the Polisario Front at an official reception, showing a slight hint of recognition for the Polisario Front and their struggle for independence.
More nations must be forthcoming in their support for Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. Currently, the Moroccan government faces very minimal political pressure to work towards peace and end their occupation and colonization of Western Sahara. International human rights organizations have largely been prohibited from accessing and reporting from Western Sahara, resulting in a large reliance on internal human rights activists, who risk their lives if they speak out against any injustices they encounter. These human rights activists should be at the forefront of discussions for self-determination. Nations allied with Morocco should work hand-in-hand with these activists to create enduring solutions to independence and reconciliation.
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