Next Tuesday and Wednesday could well become historic days Western Sahara’s half million people. Although there is a chance that the UN-brokered talks due to be held on the country’s future may fail like so many before, there remains hope that they may for once succeed in becoming the first step towards the independence referendum that Western Sahara has been denied since it was occupied by Morocco thirty-five years ago.
Although their plight is often overlooked by the world’s media, the suffering of the Sarahawi people (Western Sahara’s indigenous population) is all too real. In the face of horrendous oppression and human rights abuses by the Moroccan authorities, many have fled their homes over the years and remain stranded in squalid desert refugee camps. The tragedy dates back to 1975 when Morocco amassed troops against what was then called Spanish Sahara, in an attempt to enervate Spain’s colonial power over the region. However, the Moroccan royalty saw fit hold onto the spoils of conflict and themselves became colonists. And despite resistance from the POLISARIO (liberation front) which receives support from neighbouring Algeria, Western Sahara remains under Moroccan control to this day.
Interestingly the situation –which has so often escaped the attention of activists and journalists across the globe – has long been a significant matter for the United Nations. In 1998 it oversaw “settlement proposals” in which Morocco and the POLISARIO agreed on terms for an independence referendum; however subsequent debate over the precise details and Morocco’s reluctance to let go of their colonial possession meant these have not yet been implemented. Since 1991 a civilian UN force has been on the ground to move the process forward, backed by UN military peacekeepers in place to stem the outbursts of violence between the two sides (the UN presence is collectively known as MINURSO – Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara). Successful progress in next week’s talks would be a victory for the UN on two counts – firstly it would mean tangible results that would politically justify its 19 year commitment in the country and secondly it would raise the prospect of –in the foreseeable future- being able to scale back the vast funds and resources dedicated to MINURSO (something that member states are always keen to monitor).
These could therefore be fundamentally important days for the UN as well as the Sarahawi people. Of course – were the referendum to be secured – that would provide an even more significant milestone for both. For the UN it could bring back some of the respect and euphoria that surrounded its successful (if belated) facilitation of East Timor’s return to independence in 2002; and for the Sarahawi people it could mean freedom….at long last.