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Western Sahara

With tensions coming to a head over the past two weeks, Morocco is once again under the international spotlight for its alleged illegal territorial occupation of Western Sahara. In the wake of a raid on the Sahrawi encampment of Gdeim Izik by Moroccan forces on Monday 8 November, Konstantina Isidoros argues that such ‘events shed illuminating insights into Morocco’s illegal occupation’.

The last two weeks’ events in Western Sahara have drawn an international glare of publicity and anger towards Morocco’s territorial and human rights violations in its illegal occupation of the Western Sahara. These recent events shed illuminating insights into Morocco’s illegal occupation. As beautiful as a peacock’s shimmering feather display, Morocco’s shrill screeching and undignified clawing provide extensive material for research and analysis across the academic disciplines of human rights, international law, anthropology and political science. This article first provides an update on current news about Morocco’s excessive physical violence in the Western Sahara, followed by an introductory précis to some of the analytical aspects of the symbolic violence.

On Monday 8 November, Morocco commenced a heavily militarised dawn attack on the Sahrawi encampment of Gdeim Izik, near the capital city of Layouune. Videos and photos, widely available on the internet, show the camp residents awaking in shock to the excessive Moroccan military assault. In the ensuing chaos and panic, youths in the camp defensively began fighting back with sticks, stones, small gas canisters and knives in a self-protective reaction to both hold back Moroccan soldiers beginning to run into the camp and to shield women, children and the elderly to give them time to flee.

Within hours of the Gdeim Izik raid, the capital city Layounne erupted into a week of violent street clashes, between Sahrawi human rights activists (comprising all sections of Sahrawi civil society (including youth, boys and girls, as well as mothers, all of whom predominantly shape and participate in Sahrawi civil society’s human rights campaigning) and the disproportionate military strength of Morocco’s armed and auxiliary forces.[1]

This week, although Layouune is described as quiet, the city is in fact on ‘lock-down’ by the Moroccan authorities, as is the entire region, under heavy military surveillance and blockades. International media and foreign observers are being denied access to the area. At time of writing, only Peter Boukcaert from Human Rights Watch has been able to briefly break through Morocco’s restrictions and meet with senior Sahrawi human rights activists. Despite this, the Sahrawi themselves have been actively sending messages, videos and photographs via mobile phone to the outside world. These sources indicate that during the violence, Moroccan armed forces began aggressive house-to-house searches, arrests and prolonged detentions, and the first formal witness statements are emerging describing a range of human rights abuses experienced during the period. Some videos suggest possible looting and ransacking of Sahrawi homes and business by what is said to be both Moroccan settlers and military forces. Sahrawi messages have described their fear of leaving their own homes, even to go to hospital, for fear of intimidation and further arrests. Many families are reporting they are unable to locate missing relatives in the various detention centres, police stations and courts, fuelling fears of yet more ‘disappearances’.

Over the protracted 35-year conflict, Morocco has been quietly and systematically rewriting its own human and physical ‘imagined geography’ onto the Western Sahara, in an attempt to authenticate and legitimise its illegal territorial occupation of a neighbouring nation-state.

Morocco’s use of maps and vocabulary provide one example of how it attempts to delineate a new historiography onto its territorial aspirations. There are three changes Morocco has made which attempt to write a new foundational truth on a newly severed map. Firstly, Morocco often uses maps which depict the Western Sahara as part of Morocco, the latter losing its rightful label ‘Western Sahara’. Secondly, official maps of the United Nation’s MINURSO force show the thick buffer line of Morocco’s infamous berm – a heavily militarised, fortified and land-mined sand wall built to protect its stolen land from the native Sahrawi population. This berm is Morocco’s second cartographic change – a powerfully physical change that creates a new colonial border over the original colonial contour. Yet not only does the berm split the visual cartography and physical geography, but it also divides the human population of Sahrawi into two, who are separated from each other on either side of the uncrossable berm.

A third element of this cartographic rewrite is Morocco’s references to the ‘Moroccan Sahara’ and ‘Southern Provinces’, a linguistic change to history. This also extends to the human body, with the emergence of the new term ‘Moroccan Sahrawi’. These ‘new’ people are Moroccan settlers from the north, who have been given incentives to migrate south, forming another of Morocco’s strategies to socio-economically implant itself into Western Sahara.

These visual and linguistic practices are intended to gradually percolate through a process of recitation and repetition to construct a new reality and redesign historical facts, to resonate with the imagined geography.

This physical and symbolic rewriting, or ‘Moroccanisation’ of Western Sahara’s geography, history and human body, runs parallel to the 35 years of protracted irresolution, enabling Morocco to dig itself deeper into the occupied territory. During this time, it has built infrastructure, expanded towns and cultivated its exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources in illegal, lucrative commercial deals.[2]

Each of these acts of symbolic violence enables Morocco, over time and with subtlety, to authenticate its occupation and portray the impression of political, economic and socio-cultural legitimacy to the outside world.

And yet all these acts are illegitimate and unauthorised. They are not recognised as occurring within a legal framework, nor do they occur on Morocco’s own sovereign soil, but on that of a neighbouring nation-state. So too are they unauthorised – the native Sahrawi civil society actively objects to the misappropriation of their sovereign soil, but they are subjected to human rights violations which are intended to silence and therefore eliminate their voices. This is best exemplified by the arrest and beating of a human rights defender, Mr Anama Asfari, in 2009 for carrying a two-inch key ring with the national flag of Western Sahara.

The Western Sahara conflict is a geopolitical drama comprising competing superpower dynamics, contests over crucial natural resources, much-needed strategic economic cooperation and regional political security–stability consequences. And Morocco's invasion and continuing illegal occupation of Western Sahara is a story of overt transgression of international law and fundamental human rights. As Zunes and Mundy write: ‘The ongoing Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara is one of the most egregious yet most underchallenged affronts to the international system in existence today’ (2010, p. 260).

In 1975, during the political chaos of the Spanish decolonisation of Western Sahara, the International Court of Justice published its advisory opinion, which rejected Morocco’s claims of territorial expansion into Western Sahara (at the time, Morocco was also audaciously claiming parts of Mauritania, Algeria and Mali).[3] Ignoring this judgement, Morocco immediately launched an invasion and subsequent 35-year occupation of the territory. Despite 16 years of war, and 19 years of a tense ceasefire, this conflict has remained protracted in irresolution due to the failure of the United Nations to uphold and enforce the international conventions it was created to govern. This is attributable to the complicit support of Morocco’s two key allies, the US and France, who exercise their power as United Nations Security Council members to circumvent over 100 UN resolutions on the conflict and sanction Morocco’s ongoing impunity, in order to secure their rival strategic interests. The third party involved is Spain, which has perpetually evaded its responsibility as the de jure administrator given that the original Spanish decolonisation process was never actually concluded.

In our modern political system and its international laws, Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara is unequivocally illegal and violates our accepted legal norms and conventions of both jus ad bellum (use of force) and jus in bellum (war and military occupation).[4] The story of the Western Sahara conflict is one which defies the international order, whereby the inviolable sanctity of a nation-state’s sovereignty is made an exception for Morocco’s territorial ambitions.


* Konstantina Isidoros is a doctoral researcher in social anthropology at the University of Oxford, specialising on the Sahara desert. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author. This document is an original transcript and copyrighted property of the author. Changes to this original transcript are not permitted without prior approval from the author.
* © Konstantina Isidoros 2010
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] Videos of Gdeim Izik camp and Videos of Moroccan dawn raid and Video of the aftermath of the destruction of the camp Video showing heavy Moroccan military presence circling the Gdeim Izik camp Video from BBC website Regarding Morocco's use of force, especially the use of hot water
[2] Western Sahara Resource Watch is one the most important organisations researching and reporting on the illegal exploitation of Western Sahara's resources under Moroccan occupation: For expert legal opinions, including Hans Corell ( UN under-secretary general for legal affairs) see
[3] International Court of Justice. Reports of Judgements, Advisory Opinions and Orders: Western Sahara. Advisory Opinion of 16 October 1975. (See also related Oral Reports, Written Statements, Press Releases, and Orders).
[4] Mundy, J. 'The Question of Sovereignty in the Western Sahara Conflict'. June 2008. Paper presented at the International Conference of the Jurists for Western Sahara. Canary Island.

The following sample publications are highlighted for readers wishing to access balanced analysis of the Western Sahara conflict:

Damis, J. 1983. Conflict in Northwest Africa: The Western Sahara Dispute. Hoover International Press.
Hodges, Tony. 1983. Western Sahara: Roots of a Desert War. Westport, Conn:L.Hill.
Shelly, Toby. 2004. Endgame in the Western Sahara: What future for Africa's last colony? New York: Zed.
Pazzanita, Anthony. 2006. Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara. 3rd.ed. Scarecrow Press.
Zunes, S. and Mundy. J. 2010. Western Sahara: Nationalism, Conflict and International Accountability. Syracuse University Press.
Arts, K. & Leite, P.P. International Law and Western Sahara.

Selection of campaign groups on the Western Sahara conflict:

Western Sahara Campaign UK (
Free Western Sahara Network (
Sandblast (
Western Sahara Resource Watch (
Australia Western Sahara Association (
The Western Sahara Association in California (
Spanish Group of pro-Saharawi Associations (
Norwegian Support Committee for the Western Sahara (
Illegal EU-Moroccan Fisheries Agreement (
Amnesty International (
Human Rights Watch (
Landmine Action de-mining programme in Western Sahara (