Tracing back the origins of a region is probably the trickiest issue to deal with in the sphere of international relations. And, unsurprisingly, precisely such a dilemma of detecting the provenance has arisen with the cataclysmic Arab Spring that has set the Middle East ablaze. Conventional wisdom has placed the beginnings of the Arab Spring at the door of Tunisia, with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor sick of the corrupt system. But there may actually be another source for this unrest, at the very periphery of the Arab world on the western edge of the great Sahara. Perhaps the most overlooked trouble spot today is the Western Sahara, a graveyard of colonialism and a blind spot for self-determination.
In 2010, protestors belonging to the Sahrawi tribe indigenous to the Western Sahara put up protest tents, called jaimas, at Gdeim Izik, a refugee camp in the region. The tribe was protesting Morocco’s presumed illegal occupation of their country, which has been free from foreign domination since Spain granted the region independence in 1975. The protests, though conducted largely outside the gaze of the international community, were strong enough to force the Moroccan sovereign Mohammed VI to change his local governors.
For experts in African history and geopolitics, the conundrum in the Western Sahara is a classic, textbook case. Firstly, there exist the vestiges of European colonialism. Morocco has long been tossed around between the Spanish and French, having been granted independence by the latter in 1956, 19 years before Spain did the same with Western Morocco. Like most post-colonial situations, the border between the newly sovereign entities could easily be labeled as being artificial, and this is precisely what Morocco did. It claimed to have ancient historical and cultural ties with Western Sahara, and hence moved in to conquer the region, supported by both the French and the Americans.
Secondly, of course, is the paradox of plenty that wracks the majority of African territories. Western Sahara has one of the world’s largest deposits of phosphate – an essential mineral used in ceramics, textiles and paints. Most crucially, phosphate is a major component of fertilizer that farmers use to grow crops that eventually feed the entire world’s population. This phosphate reserve, with all of its lucrative economic benefits, has often been touted as the sole reason Morocco is there in the first place. It is also a reason for us to care – should trouble arise in the region, the entire world’s food supplies shall be imperiled.
The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon recently reiterated his organization’s resolve to arbitrate the conflict over the Western Sahara. Unfortunately, while much has been said of the issue at the UN, it has had little effect on the ground. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2229, passed way back in 1966, had called for self-determination for inhabitants of what was then called the Spanish Sahara. Not satisfied, Morocco took the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ delivered an advisory opinion on October 16th, 1975, acknowledging the historical ties between Morocco and the region. However, crucially, it also held that the Western Sahara had not been terra nullius before Morocco occupied it – in other words, it had been the property of the Sahrawis. The ICJ in its ruling allowed the indigenous people of the Western Sahara to seek self-determination that was in keeping with genuine popular support.
The international community has since been asking for a referendum to be held in the region to allow the Western Saharan inhabitants to participate in a free and fair electoral chance to decide their future. Morocco, however, has steadfastly refused to even consider extending an independence option in any referendum. Morocco is only willing to offer a vaguely defined “Saharan Autonomous Region.”
Moroccan plans, however, face an extremely potent enemy. Polisario is the local Sahrawi resistance movement supported by Algeria that has been fighting the “occupation” for more than three decades. It controls one-third of the country and runs the refugee camps in Algeria and Western Sahara that house 165,000 Sahrawis. Interestingly, the United Nations lists Western Sahara as a “non-self governing territory,”and the Polisario as its legitimate representative. Given this shred of legitimacy and the fact that it’s managed to stick against Moroccan military might for so many years, the Polisario is surely a stakeholder in the region’s political process.
Why should we care about what is transpiring at the edge of the Sahara? Well, first of all, this strikes at the root of what America has preached ever since President Wilson coined his notion of liberalism – self-determination. Backed by the UN, ICJ and other non-governmental organizations the world over, the aspirations of the Sahrawis for self-rule can definitely not be overlooked. Secondly, this issue takes self-determination beyond the landscape of pure decolonization – there is no European imperialist involved here, only two African entities engaged in a struggle for territory and resources. Thirdly, as I have mentioned, there is the impact the phosphate reserves in the region will have on food supplies around the world – especially given the increasing shortages in the developing world that have led to food riots.
Lastly, there is a question of the modalities of the referendum, should it happen. Will independence be included as an option? And, more importantly, what is to be done about the refugees and internally displaced people? Surely, the Moroccan cause for holding onto the land will be weakened by the influx of several thousand of Sahrawi refugees from the Algerian camps they have been housed. Then there will be problems of how to account for and verify the rights of refugees and their offspring to take part in the referendum. This will have massive repercussions far and wide – two examples shall be sufficient proof of this. The first is that of Israel and Palestine, with the latter’s demand for the return of Arabs displaced by Israel bearing a striking resemblance to this case. The second is that of India and Pakistan squabbling over the disputed region of Kashmir, where each is unwilling to hold a plebiscite that may swing an unfavorable way.
It is unlikely that the conflict over the Western Sahara shall be resolved any time soon. If it does, however, it will hold immense significance that shall resonate beyond the borders of the Saharan desert, bringing new meaning to self-determination, referenda and statehood in the world over.
Dhruv Aggarwal is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.