- Esther Neville
A forgotten crisis: Human Rights Violations in Western Sahara
Throughout history, borders have perpetually changed, relocated and alternated depending on which state was in power. A location may belong to one state one year, another the next year, and then be split in half so that both countries may claim what they regard as their lawful territory. Often, the citizens who actually live in those territories are simply overlooked by the great machinery. The conflict in Western Sahara is a prime illustration of this.
In 2005, the corpses of 43 Sahrawi men who had allegedly vanished were exhumed from Moroccan secret prisons. These "disappearances" of Sahrawis began in 1975 and lasted until the late 1980s. The latest big wave of "disappearances" in Western Sahara was reported to have occurred in 1987, during the presence of a UN delegation. The same year, construction workers discovered a mass grave including roughly 15 bones in former military barracks constructed in the 1970s, when many Sahrawis disappeared or were killed by Moroccan authorities.
Morocco has never been transparent about these disappearances, and the allegations of human rights breaches in Western Sahara have never been resolved. This raises the question of what makes the western Sahara so valuable and why 50 years later, it is still an ongoing conflict. To answer this, we must go back to the origin of the conflict.
In 1973, the Polisario Front, a movement seeking territorial independence, started rebelling against Spanish colonial forces. After three years of conflict, the Spanish military withdrew from the territory in 1975, in compliance with the Madrid Accords, which granted Morocco and Mauritania administrative control but not sovereignty over the region. This led to the start of the Western Sahara conflict: Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)/Polisario Front against the Kingdom of Morocco. The war lasted until 1991 when they finally agreed to a cease-fire.
During this period, the United Nations-led attempts to end the war and hold a vote on self-determination, however, up to this day never succeeded. In November 2020, the Polisario Front announced an end to the 1991 UN ceasefire agreement and resumed armed combat with Moroccan troops. In order to maintain the balance of power in the region, Algeria has continued to support the Polisario Front. On the contrary, significant nations like the U.S. have prioritised their own needs over neutrality or fair mediation. In 2020, President Donald Trump reversed years of American policy by recognising Morocco's claim to the Western Sahara territory. Joe Biden, his successor, has stated that he is considering the recognition but has not yet made a final statement. To this day, the conflict remains open: Morocco still considers the region to be part of its sovereign territory and has only provided limited autonomy, while Algeria, the primary supporter of the Polisario separatists organization, demands complete independence. The latter wishes to hold a referendum so that the people that are actually concerned may decide on the fate of their territory.
Several atrocities and violations of human rights have occurred during this period. Both sides in the conflict have accused the other of these crimes. The Moroccan government has been accused of various breaches, including torture, arbitrary incarceration, restrictions on free expression and assembly, and disproportionate use of force against peaceful protestors. The government has also been criticized for its treatment of Sahrawi political detainees and for restricting access to Western Sahara to journalists, human rights monitors, and other independent observers; they have denied all accusations. On the other hand, The Polisario Front has also been charged with violating human rights, including limiting the freedom of expression and assembly and abusing detainees. Additionally, there have been reports of human rights violations committed by armed groups affiliated with the Polisario Front, such as the use of child soldiers and landmines. Human rights organisations and the international community are still worried about the situation. The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was given a one-year extension in 2020 to continue monitoring and documenting the region's human rights condition. Moreover, the UN has recommended the formation of a human rights monitoring institution in Western Sahara to independently investigate and document all opposing parties' allegations of human rights breaches.
The extent of the atrocities perpetrated against human rights is up to this day unknown; one recent example, aside from those already mentioned, is the Oxford case. This case refers to a group of six human rights activists who were arrested and detained in Western Sahara in 2010. The activists were members of a delegation organized by the British organization, "Sandblast," which was visiting Western Sahara to observe the human rights situation on location. The six Sahrawi students were supposed to travel to Oxford, UK, to participate in a conflict resolution workshop sponsored by the British NGO Speak Together, the EU Youth Together Program and the British Council. The students were stopped at the gate and their access to the flight departing Agadir Inezgane Airport. They checked in, had their tickets and visas in order, but Moroccan officials refused to let them board the plane. They received no explanations and were all detained later that night, which is when their nightmare began. The students were accused of unlawfully entering the area and engaging in a demonstration without authorization. In addition, the activists were accused of instigating violence and endangering state security. The Oxford Six, as they then came to be known, were held without charge for more than a month and were subjected to physical and psychological abuse. During that time they were not only detained but did not have access to legal representation or medical care. These students were assaulted and tortured, and one, Ali Salem Tamek, was kept in solitary detention for several weeks. The Oxford Six were released on bail pending trial in November of the same year. They were later prosecuted and convicted of incitement to violence and endangering state security. The ensuing prison sentences ranged from two to six years.
The case of the Oxford Six exemplifies the difficulties that human rights advocates and observers experience in Western Sahara, where the government frequently limits freedom of expression and assembly. The case also underlines the territory's ongoing conflict and the necessity for a peaceful and just conclusion that respects the Sahrawi people's rights.
Human rights organisations, particularly Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have condemned the Oxford Six's arrest. The case highlighted the state of human rights in Western Sahara, as well as the ongoing conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front. The Western Sahara conflict is one of the world's oldest and one of its most overlooked. Despite large-scale displacement and a ceasefire in 1991 that froze military positions, the conflict's resolution remains elusive more than 50 years after it began. This is primarily due to the fact that the existing scenario advantages the majority of parties, including Morocco, Algeria, the Polisario Front, as well as Western powers. Despite this, the conflict has personal, political, and economic consequences, as well as true victims: for the countries immediately engaged, the region, and the international community as a whole.
This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.