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Quick Thoughts: Samia Errazzouki on Western Sahara

[Young Sahrawi refugees play soccer in the Dakhla refugee camp. Image by Samia Errazzouki.] [Young Sahrawi refugees play soccer in the Dakhla refugee camp. Image by Samia Errazzouki.]

[With no resolution on the horizon for the Western Sahara conflict, Jadaliyya asked Co-Editor Samia Errazzouki, who recently visited Sahrawi refugee camps outside the Algerian city of Tindouf, about the status of current efforts to organize a referendum in the territory]: 

Jadaliyya (J): What is the current status of United Nations efforts to resolve the Western Sahara question?  

Samia Errazzouki (SM): This past April, the United Nations renewed its mission for the referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO), which was initially established in 1991 following the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front. The mission is currently based in Laayoune, the territory’s main city. Every time MINURSO has been up for renewal, there has been a strong push among human rights organizations for the mission to expand its mandate to include human rights monitoring. And every single time, the United Nations has failed to include human rights monitoring in MINURSO, which has allowed Morocco to continue engaging in repressive measures against the Sahrawi population with impunity. 

Last month, the outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited Morocco and the Western Sahara. During her visit, Pillay expressed concern over the Moroccan government’s slow place in implementing constitutional and human rights reforms that were passed in 2011, at the height of the pro-democracy 20 February Movement’s activities. Pillay also deplored the ongoing use of torture in Western Sahara. But so long as MINURSO’s mandate does not include human rights monitoring, these grave violations will continue. 

J: What are the prospects for a referendum in Western Sahara, and what are the main obstacles to it being conducted?

SM: One of the biggest obstacles to the resolution of the Western Sahara conflict has been the lack of a referendum in which Sahrawis can exercise their right to self-determination. In 1975 colonial power Spain committed to a referendum, but reneged on this in the Madrid Pact that same year, which split the Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania. The Sahrawis have for decades experienced external domination, widespread displacement, and the general failure of international negotiations to either organize the referendum endorsed by the United Nations Security Council or resolve the conflict.

The referendum is the surest way to bring about a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict, yet prospects for it being actually conducted are dimming. The main point of contention and source of delay following the 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front has been the question of who will participate in it. The 1974 census carried out by Spain was supposed to determine eligibility. Yet participation became a heavily politicized issue as Morocco insisted on including settlers who entered during the 1975 “Green March” and onward in the referendum. Even if the 1974 Spanish census remains the reference for determining participation, the passage of time will make matters increasingly difficult as Sahrawis from the older generations pass away and younger generations are confined in refugee camps in Algeria or under Moroccan occupation.

J: Is there active opposition to Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara within the territory, and within Moroccan opposition circles?

 It is difficult to find critical voices on this question within Morocco and within opposition circles. These policies go beyond annexation, and include control over natural resources, an abysmal human rights record, and the overall lack of transparency when it comes to the Moroccan government’s activities in the Western Sahara. Since 1975, when King Hassan II prioritized annexation, the idea of “Moroccan Sahara” has been enshrined in the national narrative. Moroccans who lived under Hassan II’s  “Years of Lead” are still alive, and vividly recall the horrifying stories of Moroccans who dared to voice opposition to Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara. Such dissenting voices faced forced disappearance, torture, and even death. The underground prison of Tazmamart is a constant reminder of that era.

Even now—a good fifteen years into Mohammed VI’s reign—criticizing Morocco’s policies in the Western Sahara remains taboo and is generally avoided among even the most critical and radical voices in the country. The 2011 constitution, which was hailed as a “democratic model” for the region, bolstered the legal consequences of criticizing Morocco’s policies in the Western Sahara. Its preamble describes Morocco as “A sovereign Muslim state, committed to its national unity and territorial integrity.” The terms “national unity” and “territorial integrity,” while perhaps seeming vague, are generally understood among Moroccans as referring to the Western Sahara. Voicing critical views toward Morocco’s policies in the Western Sahara therefore means threatening “national unity” and “territorial integrity.” Such charges have actually been presented against dissident voices by the Moroccan judiciary.

Despite these legal constraints, there are Moroccans who have openly criticized the government’s policies in the territory, or who have at least expressed their support for Sahrawi self-determination. The leftist Annahj Addimocrati (The Democratic Way), for example, has maintained its position in support of Sahrawi self-determination and for direct talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet, who was one of the first Moroccans to visit the refugee camps in Tindouf, wrote a number of articles that went against propaganda generated by the Moroccan government about life in refugee camps administered by the Polisario Front. Ali Anouzla, also a Moroccan journalist, repeatedly voiced criticism of Moroccan policies in the Western Sahara. Nadir Bouhmouch and Youness Belghazi, two young Moroccan filmmakers and activists, have also visited the refugee camps outside Tindouf, and have been open about their support of Sahrawi self-determination and criticism of Moroccan policies. These are some examples, and for expressing such views their proponents have faced threats, harassment, trumped-up charges, and even prison time.

J: The Polisario Front has now maintained a ceasefire for twenty-three years and also appears to be making little headway diplomatically. How has this seeming paralysis affected the organization, and its standing among Sahrawi refugees?

SM: As with any refugee population there are varying opinions among Sahrawis toward the leadership entrusted with their representation and achieving a resolution that would allow them to return to their homes. Since it first came together in 1971 and was officially established in 1973, Sahrawi refugees have known no leadership other than the Polisario Front. During my trip this May to the refugee camps in Tindouf, which is where the Polisario Front is based, I sensed that the prolonged paralysis and state of limbo is producing frustration among segments of the population.

While the Polisario Front continues to enjoy general support, a number of Sahrawis do not shy away from voicing their frustration and opposition to it as stagnation appears to settle into a state of permanence. Mohamed Abdelaziz, the secretary general of the Polisario Front, has held his position since 1973—a tenure comparable in length to other leaders in the region. When faced with questions about why alternative leadership has yet to emerge from within the camps, most Sahrawis respond with the need to remain united in a common struggle. A marginal portion of the refugee population, mainly youth, express disdain with the stagnant nature of affairs and see a return to armed conflict as the only way out. A number of these differing views are present in a survey we published on Jadaliyya, which my colleague Allison McManus conducted.

J: Does the Youth Movement for Change constitute a serious threat to Polisario's status?

SM: There have been varying reports on the emergence of the “Youth Movement for Change” from within the refugee camps. These reports have mostly appeared in Moroccan media but made their first appearance on Al-Arabiya. While the Moroccan media has clung to this story as an opportunity to derail the Polisario Front, spokespersons from the Polisario Front have categorically denied the existence of such a movement. In various reports, which include video footage of the “Youth Movement for Change,” their members can be seen with their faces covered and can be heard denouncing what they describe as the Polisario Front’s corruption and despotism. While Moroccan media has positively covered this movement, they have ignored discussion over the fact the “Youth Movement for Change” also rejects Morocco’s position on the conflict.

Regardless of the debate over whether or not this group exists, what its goals are, and the views it is expressing, it might be an opportunity to have more open discussions about the positionality of the Polisario Front and its leadership in this conflict while also remaining supportive of Sahrawi self-determination.

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