In conversation with Konstantina Isidoros, Peter Kenworthy profiles the longstanding Saharawi struggle for independence from Morocco and the gulf between people’s support for Western Sahara around the world and governments’ action on the conflict.
‘I don’t like this phrase “forgotten conflict”,’ Konstantina Isidoros tells me. ‘The primary concern here is that the Western Sahara conflict is very simple to solve but no one is solving it. It simply perpetuates its “forgotten-ness” and major newswires miss the point that the Western Sahara is actually a “hot” geopolitical potato that has the US and France fighting over regional superiority and valuable untapped natural resources, with Spain squirming between the two.’
Konstantina Isidoros is a doctoral researcher at Oxford University, but lives most of the year in the Sahara desert where she does anthropological and political science research, with a special focus on the Western Sahara region.
Morocco has occupied the more fertile and resource-rich three-quarters of the Western Saharan territory for the past 35 years, and brutally clamped down on the indigenous people, the Saharawis, within this occupied territory that dare dispute their rule, however peacefully. Many of those Saharawis that do not live in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara therefore live in the camps near Tindouf in the Algerian desert that they fled to in 1975 when Morocco invaded their country.
Although Konstantina spends much of her time in these camps, she insists that she is not pro-Saharawi or pro-Polisario (the Saharawi national liberation movement). She says she simply accepts the ruling of the International Court of Justice that Western Sahara is not Moroccan and that the Saharawi therefore have a right to return to their homeland, Western Sahara, and do so with full independence from Morocco’s illegal territorial violation.
As to whether Western Sahara is a ‘forgotten conflict’ or not, Konstantina seems to have a point. In fact, last November’s Gdeim Izik events in the Moroccan Occupied Territories – where over 10,000 Saharawis protested against Moroccan occupation – was the first widely covered uprising in the current wave sweeping the Arab world, she reminds me (a point that American author and activist Noam Chomsky has also made in interviews with Democracy Now and with the BBC's Jeremy Paxman).
‘Since Morocco’s brutal dawn raid on Gdeim Izik in November, major news outlets have begun covering the story,’ she says, ‘and with persistent lobbying from the international community, are covering it accurately and compassionately. One disappointing but interesting exception is Al-Jazeera. Its Qatar roots mean that one king is not going to allow damaging coverage of his fellow kings’ countries.’
Konstantina mentions the ‘vast body of respected publications on the Western Sahara conflict, of which all support the rule of international law’ as another example of the worldwide interest in the Western Sahara conflict.
Also, this year’s 35th anniversary celebration of the exiled Saharawi government, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic that is based in the Tindouf camps in the Algerian desert, was a well-visited success.
‘The anniversary celebration in Tifariti was attended by numerous distinguished international dignitaries, NGOs, scholars and many other foreign groups,’ says Konstantina. ‘The Saharawi hold many different anniversary celebrations during every annual calendar, and these form extremely important symbolic and political statements to the outside world. So yes, without question the world is listening.’
THE REALPOLITIK OF THE WEST
But if the world is listening, why isn’t it acting? According to Konstantina Isidoros, this is because those countries that have it within their power to pressurise Morocco and solve the Western Sahara conflict – mainly the USA, France, Spain and the UK – have tended to listen only to the Moroccans, and because these countries benefit from the status quo, financially or strategically.
‘Over the last 35 years, Morocco has built up a sophisticated propaganda machine, and wooed US and French governments [both permanent members of the UN Security Council"> to wipe out all criticism of its defiance of international law. To this day, Morocco treats all outspoken challenges with aggressive hysteria. Morocco would never have been able to get away with it without the geopolitical collusion and greed of Spain, the US and France,’ she insists.
The real hope is therefore that the Saharawis and those who sympathize with them, in the West and elsewhere, can muster enough media coverage, sympathy and action in favour of the Saharawi cause to force the governments of these key countries to act.
‘There is actually a vast chasm between what governments and their populations think and do in regards to Western Sahara,’ says Konstantina. ‘The current Spanish leadership has a pro-Morocco stance, while the majority of its population has a long history of compassionate solidarity with the Saharawi struggle. The US is standard – habitual hegemonic interests overseas, although there is a strong tradition of respected US academics analysing the conflict.’
But the media in other of the key countries does not cover the conflict at all, or covers it very one-sidedly. ‘France has an emotional colonial history with Morocco,’ Konstantina says. ‘Leading French politicians and elites have homes and vacations in Morocco and Morocco courts France with avaricious charm so that the majority French population receives little media coverage on any non-Moroccan stance. The UK has little history in the region and takes a refrained stance. The British population are mostly unaware of the conflict although parliamentary, NGO and academic circles are outspoken and growing rapidly.’
THE DIGNIFIED SAHARAWIS
Konstantina believes that if the Western leaders could be bothered to listen whole-heartedly to what the Saharawis had to say, they might change their minds and agree to give Western Sahara its independence, as many ordinary people around the world are calling for.
‘I wish these world leaders would come to visit the Saharawi refugee camps near Tindouf,’ she says, ‘to see how these people resolutely stand by their human right for self-determination, to see that these refugee camps are nothing like the disgusting propaganda websites that Morocco produce. This is why the Saharawi have so many international supporters and why there are so many foreigners who live in the camps all year round – we do so because the people are decent and dignified and because their political cause a just one.’
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* Peter Kenworthy blogs at Stiff Kitten.
* Konstantina Isidoros is a doctoral researcher at Oxford University.
* Africa Contact is a Danish member-based solidarity organisation that started out as an anti-apartheid and anti-colonisation organisation in 1978. After the dismantling of apartheid in 1994, Africa Contact focused on information and campaign work in Denmark, and towards the Danish public and decision makers. In addition to this, the organisation supports democratic movements, mainly in southern Africa. Africa Contact has a rights-based approach and works mostly with social and economic rights. The work of the organisation is mostly carried out by volunteers.
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