New Internationalist

Tensions build in Western Sahara endgame

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A fortnight ago, whilst on a tour of the region ahead of new round of informal talks between the two sides in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts, UN special envoy for the Western Sahara Christopher Ross stressed that there was a ‘need to lessen tensions and avoid any incident that could worsen the situation or hamper discussions’. Two short weeks later and Western Sahara is ablaze, both literally and metaphorically. In the early hours of Monday morning, Moroccan security forces moved in to remove an estimated 20,000 Saharawi protesters from the makeshift protest camp where they had been living for the past month. The security forces were met with anger as the tented city was razed to the ground amid unconfirmed reports of large numbers of injuries and possible fatalities. Violent clashes between Saharawis and Moroccan forces have been reported across El Aaiun, Western Sahara’s capital.

The number of casualties has been hard to confirm but the unofficial claims suggest 11 Saharawi were killed, 723 injured and 159 are missing

The camp, know as Gdeim Izik, was set up on 9 October and attracted Saharawi protesters from surrounding cities demanding improved housing and employment opportunities. Moroccan forces were quick to surround the camp and over the past month there had been a number of clashes between protesters and the police, the most serious being the killing of a 14-year-old boy shot dead by Moroccan forces as he was travelling towards the Gdeim Izik in a car.

‘Everyone is being attacked’

Journalists were banned from entering the camp and at the weekend three Spanish MPs attempting to visit the camp were refused entry to the country. The Moroccan authorities obtained a court order to remove the camp and at around 6am on Monday the army moved in using tear gas, and high pressure hoses to clear the protesters. ‘Everyone is being attacked: children, women, men, the elderly,’ the Saharawi human rights organization, Sahara Thawra, reported on their website on Monday morning. ‘They are destroying the tents and part of the camp is burning.’ Moroccan forces met violent resistance which reportedly left a gendarme, a civil defence official and a fireman dead.

The number of casualties has been hard to confirm but the unofficial claims suggest 11 Saharawi were killed, 723 injured and 159 are missing. Additional reports suggest that an unknown number of Saharawi have been detained. Moroccan authorities announced the death of an employee of the Moroccan Phosphate Office, bringing the total number of deaths confirmed by Morocco to six.

Talks about talks

Meanwhile in New York, the UN-brokered ‘talks about talks’ that were due to take place on Monday and Tuesday were “delayed” amid angry recriminations. The UN envoy for the Polisario Front described the Moroccan action in El Ayoun as ‘a deliberate act to wreck the talks’. In the British parliament this week MP Jeremy Corbyn referred to the incident and asked the foreign secretary to ‘intervene urgently with the government of Morocco and the UN to bring about a resolution to this crisis.’

If a resolution is to be found the rhetoric must be matched by action

During his tour of the region, his fourth since becoming special envoy in January 2009, Christopher Ross had described the current impasse over Western Sahara as ‘untenable’. Last week Martin Nesirky, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s spokesperson, said that resolving the conflict was a ‘priority for the United Nations’. But if a resolution is to be found this rhetoric must be matched by action. The Moroccan occupation has been allowed to continue in breach of international law and of UN resolutions for over 35 years and the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara remains the only contemporary peacekeeping mission without a mandate to monitor human rights. Had they had such a remit the violence that occurred in Gdeim Izik might have been avoided.

Breaking the stalemate

Despite many attempts to break the long-running diplomatic stalemate, progress towards a resolution has been tortuously slow, with the Polisario Front being unprepared to negotiate away their legitimate right to self-determination, Morocco rejecting any proposal that contains even the possibility of independence, and the Security Council unwilling to enforce its own resolutions to hold a referendum on self-determination. History has shown that a political solution will be the only way forward and the international community will have an important role and responsibility in helping ensuring negotiations take place.

Fifty years ago next month, the United Nations adopted Resolution 1514 which stated that all people have a right to self-determination and that colonialism should be brought to a speedy and unconditional end. Half a century later, the Saharawi people are still waiting for Resolution 1514 to be applied in Western Sahara. Often, as with the South Africa’s state of emergency in the 1980s, a conflict edging towards its endgame goes through a period of tension. We can only hope that the pressure from the international community can prevent this tension resulting in more bloodshed.

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, writer and broadcaster. He worked for the ANC during the South African transition and he also chairs the Free Western Sahara Network.

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