New Internationalist

Read for freedom!

Financial crisis, economic depression looming, environmental catastrophe just round the corner... What happens to an issue like Western Sahara in such a climate? The answer, of course, is that it disappears from view - though, to be honest, the Saharawis are used to being forgotten by the media and the world's powerbrokers even at the best of times. The last colony remaining in Africa, half their people have been waiting in refugee camps in one of the bleakest desert locations on earth for more than 30 years, while the other half have been living under the mailed fist of Moroccan military occupation.

Last week in New York the unanswerable case of Western Saharans at last to be accorded the right of self-determination was considered at length, as it is every year, by the Special Political and Decolonization Committee of the UN.

When I visited Western Sahara in 1997 (both the territory occupied by Morocco and the refugee settlements in Algeria) it was actually a time of heady optimism. A ceasefire in the guerrilla war against the Moroccan forces had been in place since 1991 - a ceasefire arrived at on the basis that a referendum on self-determination was imminent. Morocco had dragged its feet in all kinds of ways, anxious, apart from anything else, to bus in more settlers who might take part in the vote. But in 1997 the UN finally seemed to be putting pressure in the right places.

Sadly, the only thing truly out of date about the theme issue of New Internationalist that I wrote at the time is the sense of optimism, as the Saharawis are still in limbo. In the intervening years Morocco has ruthlessly used the 'war on terror' to bolster its position as a 'stable' influence in the Muslim world and in North Africa. It has absolutely refused to consider a referendum in which independence would even be an option.

This is a scandalous breach of international law. It was at 9am on 16 October 1975 that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) famously upheld the right of self-determination of the people of Western Sahara over the territorial claims of neighbouring states, Morocco and Mauritania. To mark the anniversary - and to draw attention to the continuing injustice - students, artists, academics and activists from all over the United Kingdom will congregate outside the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University (in Russell Square) for a marathon public reading of the Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara. The readings will take place between 1 and 2 every weekday until 31 October - to sign up for a slot, either email danielle@sandblast-arts.org or sign up online to read at the event on facebook (Sandblast Arts). Director Ken Loach, comedian Mark Thomas and actor Juliet Stevenson are already taking part.

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