After 40 Years, Time to End the Occupation of Western Sahara

Sahara desert close to Merzouga in Morocco with blue sky and clouds.
Sahara desert close to Merzouga in Morocco with blue sky and clouds.

This November marks forty years since 350,000 Moroccans crossed into the Western Sahara as part of the so-called "Green March." November 6 is a dark day for the Saharawi people, because it marks Morocco's illegal military invasion and partial occupation of Western Sahara.

In October of 1975, the International Court of Justice had totally rejected Morocco's claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara, and having failed to win the legal argument, Moroccan King Hassan II responded with force. He ordered the Green March, a civilian invasion, which was reinforced with an escort of 20,000 Moroccan soldiers.

With Francisco Franco on his deathbed, the Spanish colonial forces that had controlled the territory since 1884 did nothing to resist the annexation. In fact, the Spanish struck a deal to cede control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. The "Madrid Accords" between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania deliberately excluded any representatives of the indigenous Saharawi people of Western Sahara. Mauritania later relinquished its claim, but Morocco has continued its occupation in defiance of international law ever since.

The Saharawi people refused to stand idly by and watch while our land was stolen. For fifteen years, the Frente POLISARIO resisted the invasion and fought a war with Morocco. In 1991 the Organization of African Unity (the precursor to the African Union) and UN jointly brokered a ceasefire between the Frente POLISARIO, the legitimate political representatives of the Saharawi people, and Morocco with the agreement that the Saharawi people would be allowed to exercise our right to self-determination through a referendum. We are still waiting - a people divided between a brutal and oppressive Moroccan occupation in the west and the harsh desert refugee camps of southwest Algeria.

My country is divided by a 2,700 kilometers of sand "berm" that is littered with landmines and manned by tens of thousands of Moroccan troops. The landmines, in direct contravention of the Ottawa Treaty on anti-personnel mines, pose daily risks and dangers to the lives of the Saharawi population and their livestock in the liberated area of the territory. Those under occupation are denied basic human rights and freedoms; they are discriminated against and are frequently subject to arbitrary arrest, intimidation, detainment and torture. Those living in the refugee camps are exiled from their homeland; the precariousness of this situation was highlighted late last month when serious flooding destroyed the camps and created a major humanitarian disaster.

For decades we have followed a peaceful path towards liberation, patiently making our case to the world that we too deserve to exercise our fundamental right to self-determination. We do this knowing that we have the full weight of of international law on our side and that no country in the world recognizes Morocco's claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Some of the strongest support for our right to self-determination comes from the African continent, where many countries have fought their own battles for freedom in recent history. Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa, classified by the UN as a Non-Self-Governing Territory, awaiting a process of decolonization.

The African Union has been clear in its support, stating that "Western Sahara remains an issue in the completion of the decolonization process of Africa" that must be resolved. Many countries in Africa and around the world formally recognize the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, which is a full and founding member of the African Union. Morocco, on the other hand, is the only country in Africa that is not a member of the African Union due to its illegal occupation of Western Sahara. And still, the UN Security Council has chosen to ignore the calls of Africans and the African Union to rid our continent of colonialism and exploitation.

For almost 25 years the UN Security Council has had the responsibility to facilitate a referendum on self-determination in accordance with the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, tellingly called the United Nations Mission on the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). But France and other permanent members of the Security Council have failed to live up to this obligation by acquiescing to, or in some cases assisting with, Moroccan obstruction of the negotiating process. In the context of this stalemate, it is incumbent upon the UN Secretary-General to point the finger at Morocco and acknowledge that it is the reason why the UN's efforts to resolve the conflict have ground to a halt. As a first step the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must follow through on his promise to visit Western Sahara by the end of 2015. This would at least send a signal to the Saharawi people that the UN is serious about resolving the conflict.

It is hypocritical for the major Western powers, particularly the permanent members of the UN Security Council, to claim that they are the bastions of democracy and human rights while failing to stand up to Morocco when it denies the Saharawi people the basic right of self-determination. All we ask for is what we are owed under international law: the right to decide our own future.

Too often, the world has ignored the situation in Western Sahara because the ceasefire has held and we have not returned to war. But the status quo is not sustainable. An increasingly restless generation of Saharawi youth will not accept that it is their fate to live and die without ever knowing freedom from occupation. The international community should take heed and live up to its responsibilities before it is too late.