In introducing this second special issue on the occupied Western Sahara in Pambazuka News, Malainin Lakhal argues that it is ‘a subject that should concern all Africans, and all actors who know that Africa can never rise up as a Union or as a future power unless it jointly struggles for its freedom from poverty, ignorance, re-colonisation, foreign exploitation, internal rivalry, and lack of communication between all its peoples and elite.’
The conflict in Western Sahara seems to gain more and more visibility and importance in the regional and international geopolitics this last decade, despite the great lack of media coverage and academic analysis of its different facts, aspects, possible consequences and perspectives. It is thanks to some brilliant academics, jurists, human rights defenders, activists and journalists, both foreign and Saharawi that the question of Western Sahara has remained impossible to ignore whenever the debate tackles the future of North Africa, the Maghreb Union, the North-South and South-South interrelations and influence.
This clear-cut and easily identified conflict is about decolonisation in terms of international law. It is brought to the spotlight by the contributors in this Pambazuka special issue on Western Sahara. They have proven each in his or her own way how the Western Sahara conflict is made complicated by the opposite positions held by the two parties to the conflict, Polisario and Morocco. The former wants decolonisation and self-determination, the latter wants territorial expansion by military means. But also by the conflicting geo-political agendas of the regional actors and the super power nations who have their own agendas and strategic goals, not only regarding their position on Western Sahara, but also their vision of the future of all North Africa, African Union and the Middle East.
THE LAST COLONY OF AFRICA MUST BE FREE
The objective of this second special issue on the conflict of Western Sahara is not the result of a simple opportunity to cover one of the hottest conflicts on the modern political arena. It is rather a well thought-out and carefully discussed step towards communicating to readers some of the international legal facts, political theory debates, and on-the-ground realities relating to the last colony in Africa. It is thus a subject that should concern all Africans, and all actors who know that Africa can never rise up as a Union or as a future power unless it jointly struggles for its freedom from poverty, ignorance, re-colonisation, foreign exploitation, internal rivalry, and lack of communication between all its peoples and elite. Africa needs to build its model for the future on the basis of a conscious awareness about the huge potential it has, and above all its human resources.
This second special issue presents some new aspects and discussions of the conflict in Western Sahara. It cannot of course cover everything, but it offers a lot of interesting questions, ideas and facts to those who would like to know better what is at stake in the region. What is at stake is that the international legal order seems to be so easily violated and purposely manipulated by certain international actors, especially Morocco. Morocco could not continue its illegal occupation of Western Sahara and defy more than 100 United Nations resolutions unless it had a mysterious green light from Uncle Paris, and an even more mysterious complicity from other countries such as the US. But above all a criminal and immoral support from multinationals and international trade that does not care about the violation of the Saharawi people's right over their own natural resources. Readers can read this history of the Western Sahara conflict in the article submitted by Aluat Hamudi, a Saharawi Master’s student.
EXAMINING COMPLEX ISSUES
So what is at stake is momentous. Are Africans aware of it? This is another question. But what is certain is that the persistence of the occupation of Western Sahara, the violations of Saharawi people's political, economic, social and cultural Rights, the exploitative plundering of their natural resources and the persistent pressures exercised directly or indirectly over them during the last 40 years is only maintaining a very dangerous situation that can explode at any time, especially in a region that is far from stable. Dr Jacob Mundy contributes again by writing about the security issues across the Sahara-Sahel region, as part of a wider debate about Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara also a factor of regional instability. Dr Sidi Omar, a Saharawi colleague writes of the involvement of the African Union in the Western Sahara story, and of the factors that should rather convince the parties to reach a peaceful and fair solution so as to make this region one of the main assets of the Maghreb and African Union.
The articles collected in this edition cover many issues but our main theme focuses on the legal issues of the conflict and the status of Morocco in Western Sahara. The article by Pedro Pinto Leite and Jeffrey J. Smith offers a new insight in their detailed examination that questions technical legal theory on self-determination processes and the United Nations. Katlyn Thomas has provided us with her October 2012 Testimony to the Special Political and Decolonisation Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, alongside which we also provide the web link to the United Nations Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York June 2012 full report on the legal issues involved and the principle of self-determination.
Western Sahara Resource Watch provides an update on an imminent vote in the European Union regarding the importance of protecting Western Sahara’s natural resources, another key issue in the persistence of illegal occupation. It was thus impossible to prepare this second issue without a special focus on this key topic of the Moroccan and European illegal exploitation of the natural resources of this territory, but also a chance to listen to the stories that Saharawi activists and fishermen on the ground, such as Khalil Asmar and Mohammed El Baykam, sent us.
The Saharawi women and the unique experience of the Saharawi refugees in the process of the efforts of nation-state building is another aspect that is seldom discussed. The few studies on this subject were almost all done by wonderful women from many countries who were able to visit these camps and see first-hand how they function, such as Dr Alice Wilson’s introduction to the Saharawi direct democracy experiment based on her PhD research, and Sonia Rossetti’s PhD research on Saharawi women’s involvement in state building.
Joining them are four Saharawi women, Fatimetu, Senia, Asria and Agaila, all students and who illuminate the thoughts and experiences of being refugee youth caught up in exile from their homeland. We hope this serves to show how the Saharawi woman is a pillar in the building of the modern experience of Saharawi society.
VIOLATING THE RIGHTS OF A PEOPLE
The phenomenon of the massive and systematic violations of human rights in Western Sahara is another major aspect treated in this issue. It is a phenomenon because it is strikingly obvious that the Moroccan authorities of occupation are blatantly violating all internationally recognized rights, freedoms and liberties in this colony, while the international community seems to be wilfully turning a blind eye on this fact. All international human rights organizations, without a single exception, including the UN High Office of Human rights in addition to governments, parliaments, political parties, trade unions and civil society actors, have been denouncing the many human rights violations committed against Saharawi civilians in the occupied zones of Western Sahara. Konstantina Isidoros has provided a summary about the 17 February 2013 news of the Moroccan military tribunal of 25 Saharawi human rights activists and provides readers with links to the world-wide campaign groups who have spoken against the military sentencing of civilians.
Yet in the 40 years since Morocco’s illegal invasion of Western Sahara, the UN Security Council seems to be unable to adopt a simple resolution to mandate the UN peacekeeping mission (MINURSO) in the territory to monitor and protect Saharawi civilians from the Moroccan oppression and humiliation. MINURSO is in fact the only UN peacekeeping mission in the world without a Human Rights component and this is ‘thanks’ to the French refusal in the UN Security Council to allow such a decision to be taken. Both the UK based Western Sahara Campaign and Vivian Solana (also a PhD researcher) share their updates with us on this imminent renewal of the MINURSO mandate, and Salah Mohammed provides an insight of what happened when Christopher Ross, the UN special envoy, came for the first time to El Aaiun in Western Sahara in early November 2012.
THE CULTURAL DIMENSION TO STRUGGLE
Another astonishing factor that can help readers, as Africans, to link with the Saharawi people and self-determination struggle is the history of Saharawi culture, which is ethnically a mixture of Arabs, Berbers and Africans. So too is Saharawi music deeply rooted in both African and Arab-Berber traditions. We are grateful to Danielle Smith and Violeta Ruano from the UK based arts and human rights charity, Sandblast, for providing us with the visual colour, culture and music of the Saharawi, which we weave through this very international law-themed second issue. Danielle’s article illuminates how Sandblast has set up a music project in the refugee camps and Violeta shares her PhD research on Saharawi music’s role in our independence struggle. In contrast, Saharawi journalist and activist, Said Zeroual and RuGaibi Abdullah Mohammed Sheikh, have written how Saharawi under Moroccan military occupation feel about the theft of their culture and history, which is another important issue about our cultural heritage.
Finally, this Pambazuka second issue on Western Sahara offers valuable information about new books and films on our as yet un-decolonised African nation. Anthony Pazzanita, a long-time Western Sahara observer and current editor of the ‘Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara’, joins us again by sharing his forthcoming book review of ‘Western Sahara: The Refugee Nation’ by Pablo San Martín, another academic researcher who lived in the refugee camps. Throughout the special issue, we have posted links to the a range of films and documentaries from which readers can further discover how the Saharawi are trying to use the tools of non-violent protests and freedom of speech to continue to resist the occupier, despite facing enormous pressures, oppression and violence.
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* Malainin Lakhal, in the Saharawi refugee camps, is Secretary General of the Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union