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Western Sahara: Nonviolent Intifada; Diplomatic Impasse

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Oct 15, 2008 (0801015)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

In 1975, as the last prolonged stage of Africa's decolonization process began with the fall of Portuguese colonialism, Portugal's neighbor Spain decided to dispose of its colony of Western Sahara by handing it over to Morocco and Mauritania, defying a World Court decision in favor of self-determination. For thirty-three years, Morocco has continued its occupation, with military and diplomatic support from the United States and France.

Most recently, both the diplomatic and military balance have tipped even more deeply against the right to self-determination for Africa's last colony. On October 6, five former U.S. ambassadors to Morocco, under Reagan, George Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush, lauded a declaration by UN envoy Peter van Walsum that independence was out of the question, and that negotiations should be based on Morocco's latest "autonomy" plan (see; for critiques see

That conclusion is still contested, however, both in Western Sahara and outside the country. Western Sahara, although it is occupied by Morocco, is a member of the African Union, while Morocco withdrew from the AU's predecessor Organization of African Unity in 1984 and has not yet returned.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from a commentary by Stephen Zunes on the announcement of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award to Aminatou Haidar, a nonviolent activist from Western Sahara and a key leader in her nation's struggle against the 33-year-old U.S.-backed Moroccan occupation of her country.

Also included are excerpts from the October 10, 2008 debate in the United Nations General Assembly's Fourth Committee, on decolonization, with statements by Morocco, Algeria, and other African countries.

For previous articles by Stephen Zunes on Western Sahara, see (2003) and (2003)

The most comprehensive sites for current news and commentary on Western Sahara, in English, Spanish, and French, are,, and

For information on the role of the United Nations, see the Global Policy Forum background pages at and the United Nations mission website at

For additional background links visit

For a well-informed account of the Western Sahara conflict, with an introduction by Nobel Laureate Jos‚ Ramos Horta of East Timor, see Toby Shelley's Endgame in the Western Sahara, available at

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Haidar's Struggle

Stephen Zunes | October 7, 2008

Editor: John Feffer

Foreign Policy In Focus

Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus senior policy analyst, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle East Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the co-author, along with Jacob Mundy, of Western Sahara: Nationalism, Conflict, and International Accountability, forthcoming in 1009 from Syracuse University Press.

Aminatou Haidar, a nonviolent activist from Western Sahara and a key leader in her nation's struggle against the 33-year-old U.S.-backed Moroccan occupation of her country, won this year's Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

This recognition of Haidar and her nonviolent freedom campaign is significant in that the Western Sahara struggle has often gone unnoticed, even among many human rights activists. ...

Unfortunately, given its role in making Morocco's occupation possible, the U.S. government has little enthusiasm for Haidar and the visibility her winning the RFK prize gives to the whole Western Sahara issue.

Moroccan Occupation

In 1975, the kingdom of Morocco conquered Western Sahara -- on the eve of its anticipated independence from Spain -- in defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice upholding the right of the country's inhabitants to self-determination. With threats of a French and American veto at the UN preventing decisive action by the international community to stop the Moroccan invasion, the nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed struggle against the occupiers. The Polisario established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in February 1976, which has subsequently been recognized by nearly 80 countries and is a full member state of the African Union. The majority of the indigenous population, known as Sahrawis, went into exile, primarily in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria.

Thanks in part to U.S. military aid, Morocco eventually was able to take control of most of the territory, including all major towns. It also built, thanks to U.S. assistance, a series of fortified sand berms in the desert that effectively prevented penetration by Polisario forces into Moroccan-controlled territory. In addition, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Morocco moved tens of thousands of settlers into Western Sahara until they were more than twice the population of the remaining indigenous Sahrawis. Yet the Polisario achieved a series of diplomatic victories that generated widespread international support for self-determination and refusal to recognize the Moroccan takeover. In 1991, the Polisario agreed to a ceasefire in return for a Moroccan promise to allow for an internationally supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Morocco, however, refused to allow the referendum to move forward.

French and American support for the Moroccan government blocked the UN Security Council from providing the necessary diplomatic pressure to move the referendum process forward. The Polisario, meanwhile, recognized its inability to defeat the Moroccans by military means. As a result, the struggle for self-determination shifted to within the Moroccan-occupied territory, where the Sahrawi population has launched a nonviolent resistance campaign against the occupation.

Nonviolent Resistance

Western Sahara had seen scattered impromptu acts of open nonviolent resistance ever since the Moroccan conquest. In 1987, for instance, a visit to the occupied territory by a special UN committee sparked protests in the Western Saharan capital of El AaiŁn. The success of this major demonstration was all the more remarkable, given that most of the key organizers had been arrested the night before and the city was under a strict curfew. Among the more than 700 people arrested was the 21-year-old Aminatou Haidar.

For four years she was "disappeared," held without charge or trial, and kept in secret detention centers. In these facilities, she and 17 other Sahrawi women underwent regular torture and abuse.

Most resistance activity inside the occupied territory remained clandestine until early September 1999, when Sahrawi students organized sit-ins and vigils for more scholarships and transportation subsidies from the Moroccan government. Since an explicit call for independence would have been brutally suppressed immediately, the students hoped to push the boundaries of dissent by taking advantage of their relative intellectual freedom. Former political prisoners seeking compensation and accountability for their state-sponsored disappearances soon joined the nonviolent vigils, along with Sahrawi workers from nearby phosphate mines and a union of unemployed college graduates. The movement was suppressed within a few months. Although the demands of what became known as the first Sahrawi Intifada appeared to be nonpolitical, it served as a test of both the Sahrawi public and the Moroccan government. It paved the way for Sahrawis to press for bolder demands and engage in larger protests in the future that would directly challenge the Moroccan occupation itself.

A second Sahrawi intifada, which because known as the "Intifada al-Istiglal" (the Intifada of Independence), began in May 2005. Thousands of Sahrawi demonstrators, led by women and youths, took to the streets of El AaiŁn protesting the ongoing Moroccan occupation and calling for independence. The largely nonviolent protests and sit-ins were met by severe repression by Moroccan troops and Moroccan settlers. Within hours, leading Sahrawi activists were kidnapped, including Haidar, who was brutally beaten by Moroccan occupation forces. Sahrawi students at Moroccan universities then organized solidarity demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other forms of nonviolent protests. Throughout the remainder of 2005, the intifada continued with both spontaneous and planned protests, all of which were met with harsh repression by Moroccan authorities.

Haidar was released within seven months as a result of pressure from Amnesty International and the European parliament. Meanwhile, nonviolent protests have continued, despite ongoing repression by U.S.-supported Moroccan authorities. Despite continued disappearances, killings, beatings, and torture, Haidar has continued to advocate nonviolent action. In addition to organizing efforts at home, she traveled extensively to raise awareness internationally about the ongoing Moroccan occupation and advocate for the Sahrawi people's right to self-determination.

U.S. Increases Backing for Morocco

As repression increased, so did U.S. support for Morocco. The Bush administration has increased military and security assistance five-fold and also signed a free-trade agreement. The United States remained largely silent over the deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied Western Sahara while heaping praise for King Mohammed VI's domestic political and economic reforms. This year's Republican Party platform singles out the Kingdom of Morocco for its "cooperation and social and economic development," with no mention of Western Sahara.

However, the occupation itself continues to prove problematic for Morocco. The nonviolent resistance to the occupation continues. Most of the international community, despite French and American efforts, has refused to recognize Morocco's illegal annexation of the territory.

As a result, the Moroccan kingdom recently advocated an autonomy plan for the territory. The Sahrawis, with the support of most of the world's nations, rejected the proposal since it would not allow them the choice of independence, as all those living in non-self-governing territories have the legal right to do.

Indeed, the autonomy plan is based on the assumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, a contention that the UN, the World Court, the African Union, and a broad consensus of international legal opinion have long rejected. To accept Morocco's autonomy plan would mean that, for the first time since the founding of the UN and the ratification of the UN Charter more the 60 years ago, the international community would be endorsing the expansion of a country's territory by military force, thereby establishing a very dangerous and destabilizing precedent.

In addition, Morocco's proposal contains no enforcement mechanisms, nor are there indications of any improvement of the current poor human rights situation. It's also unclear how much autonomy Morocco is offering, since it would retain control of Western Sahara's natural resources and law enforcement. In addition, the proposal appears to indicate that all powers not specifically vested in the autonomous region would remain with the kingdom.

Despite this, the Bush administration refers to Morocco's autonomy plan as "credible and serious" and the "only possible solution" to the Western Sahara conflict, further insisting that "an independent state in the Sahara is not a realistic option." While visiting Morocco last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her support for the "good ideas" put forth by the Moroccan occupiers. Referring to the 35-year-old conflict, she proclaimed that "it is time that it be resolved," presumably with the Sahrawis accepting their fate as permanently living under Moroccan rule.

Key House Democrats have weighed in support of Morocco's right of conquest as well, with Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who chairs the Subcommittee on the Middle East, joining Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) in signing a letter endorsing the autonomy plan. Prominent Republicans signing the letter included Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO), and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL). Indeed, more than 80 of the signers are either committee chairmen or ranking members of key committees, subcommittees and elected leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, yet another indication in this post-Cold War era of a growing bipartisan effort to undermine the longstanding principle of the right of self-determination.

Advocacy for Haidar

The RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights' selection of Haidar -- one of the most prominent opponents of the U.S.-backed autonomy plan -- may make it more difficult for the Bush administration to push acceptance of the Moroccan proposal through a reluctant UN Security Council. Ironically, the United States rejected a more generous autonomy plan for Kosovo and instead pushed for UN recognition of that nation's unilateral declaration of independence, even though Kosovo was legally part of Serbia and Western Sahara is legally a country under foreign military occupation.


Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), brother of the slain senator for whom the prize is named, stated, "I congratulate Aminatou Haidar for receiving this honor. All who care about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law for the people of the Western Sahara are inspired by her extraordinary courage, dedication and skilled work on their behalf."

Next Steps

Western Sahara remains an occupied territory only because Morocco has refused to abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions calling on the kingdom to end their occupation and recognize the right of the people of that territory to self-determination. Morocco has been able to persist in its defiance of its international legal obligations because France and the United States, which wield veto power in the UN Security Council, have blocked the enforcement of these resolutions. In addition, France and the United States served as principal suppliers of the armaments and other security assistance to Moroccan occupation forces. As a result, at least as important as nonviolent resistance by the Sahrawis against Morocco's occupation policies would be the use of nonviolent action by the citizens of France, the United States and other countries that enable Morocco to maintain its occupation. Such campaigns played a major role in forcing the United States, Australia, and Great Britain to cease their support for Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. Solidarity networks have emerged in dozens of countries around the world, most notably in Spain and Norway, but don't yet have a major impact in the United States, where it could matter most.

A successful nonviolent independence struggle by an Arab Muslim people under Haidar's leadership could set an important precedent. ,,, The eventual outcome rests not just on the Sahrawis alone, but whether the international community, particularly those of us in the United States, decide whether such a struggle is worthy of our support.

United Nations General Assembly, 10 October 2008 GA/SPD/400

Delegates urge sustained momentum in negotiations on Western Sahara, as Fourth Committee concludes general debate on decolonization

Morocco Proffers Autonomy Proposal as 'Real Opportunity' to End Deadlock; Algeria Says Reliance on Plan as Sole Basis for Talks Would Predetermine Outcome

The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) concluded its general debate on decolonization issues today as delegates called for the momentum created by the Manhasset negotiation process on Western Sahara to be preserved so the deadlock that had gripped the Non-Self-Governing Territory for more than three decades could finally be broken.

Throughout the afternoon meeting, speakers saluted the political will shown so far by Morocco and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO Front) in holding four rounds of talks in nine months. But many also called for the parties to expedite the negotiations and urged the United Nations to encourage them not to slacken their march towards a solution.

The representative of Morocco said that, with his country's autonomy proposal, which had been submitted to the Secretary-General in April 2007 and had prompted the current round of negotiations, it hoped to move forward towards a reconciled Maghreb that was secure, prosperous and free of terrorist threats.

"The settlement Initiative presented by my country offers, today, a real opportunity to put an end, once and for all, to this issue, as well as to the sufferings of the camp populations, and speed up the construction of the Maghreb where a sprit of reconciliation, cooperation and solidarity should prevail," he said.

Citing the assessment by the Secretary-General in his April report that realism and a spirit of compromise were essential in the negotiations, he underlined the conclusion of Peter van Walsum, the Secretary-General's Personal Envoy, that independence for Western Sahara was "unrealistic". That evaluation, the Moroccan Ambassador said, had been the outcome of three years of mediation and had been delivered with proper judgement. As such, it should constitute the basis for the dispute's rapid settlement.

Among those who echoed that conclusion today, Gabon's representative said Morocco's Initiative was "courageous but realistic". By taking into account the interests of both parties, it could lead to a lasting settlement. Nevertheless, all parties had to cooperate and take each other's interests into account.

The representative of Algeria, which hosts a number of Saharawi refugees in camps in its south-western province and participated in the negotiations as an observer, said that more than ever the negotiation process needed the international community's support. While the POLISARIO Front had based its position on international legality and the United Nations Charter, Morocco had wanted to see its autonomy proposal used as the sole basis for negotiations -- a situation which would predetermine the outcome and the decolonization process.

To move forward, he said efforts should concentrate on a solution that reconciled the principles of international law with the complexity of the issues. He noted that both parties had agreed to a fifth round of talks, but that discussions remained unscheduled because Morocco had yet to join consensus on the
Secretary-General's efforts to appoint a new Personal Envoy. For its part, Algeria hoped the international community would work towards a climate of trust through a decision that did not close the door on a mutually acceptable solution.

Joining those countries calling for strict respect of the inalienable right of the Saharawi people to self-determination, the representative of Timor-Leste said such respect was the only foundation for a resolution to the conflict, which, along with the Palestinian conflict, was becoming one of the world's longest-running disputes.

"There will not be peace in Western Sahara while its people are denied their fundamental right to choose their own destiny, which is the core of the issues and the root cause of this ongoing conflict," he said.



LAZAROUS KAPAMBWE ( Zambia) said that, despite last year's great hope and optimism regarding the "Manhasset process", subsequent meetings had not appeared to move the parties any closer to a resolution. The people of Western Sahara were disappointed, angry and frustrated, which could lead to desperation and even violence. He commended the patience of the Saharawi people during the long negotiations, saying they deserved the empathy and assistance of the international community, as well as the United Nations' more active and visible role. ...


NELSON SANTOS (Timor-Leste) said the Timorese had suffered greatly while trying to assert their freedom and independence, but after 24 years of struggle, their land was now among the community of sovereign nations. The United Nations intervention had been decisive for Timor-Leste, and he strongly believed the same standard should be upheld for the people of Western Sahara. The right of self-determination of Western Sahara was recognized by, among others, the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council. His country joined those who called for strict respect of the inalienable right of the Saharawi people to self-determination. Such a move was the only way to bring about a resolution to that decades-old conflict, which, along with the Palestinian conflict, was becoming one of the world's longest-running problems. "There will not be peace in Western Sahara while its people are denied their fundamental right to choose their own destiny, which is the core of the issues and the root cause of this ongoing conflict", he said.

He said that Timor-Leste was hopeful that all sides would cooperate fully with the United Nations Secretary-General and with the to-be-appointed Secretary-General's Personal Envoy. In addition, Timor-Leste was greatly concerned about human rights abuses and the suffering of the Saharawi people in the occupied Western Sahara. All parties should honour their commitment to human rights and abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law to release, without further delay, all those held since the start of the conflict.


MOURAD BENMEHIDI (Algeria) said the Committee had the opportunity each year to take stock of the work of the United Nations in the decolonization process, which remained incomplete. There, the oppressed had a forum to call on the conscience of humanity to fulfil their right to a free and dignified existence. He noted Algeria's own decolonization history and its "glorious" struggle for independence, which were the roots of its deep conviction and commitment towards the cause of colonized peoples.

He said Algeria naturally identified itself with the fight for justice in Western Sahara since the United Nations and the International Court of Justice had clearly established the applicability of that question to the decolonization Declaration of 1960. ... Successive reneging by Morocco of its commitments towards the Saharawi people and the international community had plunged the conflict into a deep lethargy, under which Morocco was able to consolidate its illegal occupation and plunder Western Sahara's natural resources.

... The resumption in April 2007 of the negotiation process between the two parties had generated a new hope for a just and final solution, and Algeria had again responded positively to the Secretary-General's invitation to participate as an observer in the talks. Today, it hoped that both sides could shed the burdens of the past and the logic of imposed solutions.

Over the course of those talks, Algeria had taken stock of the parties' true positions, he said. While the POLISARIO Front had based its position on international legality and the United Nations Charter, Morocco had wanted to see its autonomy proposal be used as the sole basis of for negotiations -- a situation which would predetermine the outcome of negotiations and the decolonization process. That persistent obstruction to peace adversely affected the credibility of the United Nations and the Security Council.


EL MOSTAFA SAHEL (Morocco) said that the issue of Western Sahara would not be on the Committee's programme of work had it not been for external interferences based on regional rivalries. The historic background of the region had triggered the conflict and continued to hinder its settlement. His delegation had circulated a memorandum to that effect. However, he would not address those aspects, but would instead take stock of recent developments and address the way forward so that a reconciled Maghreb could be relieved of terrorist threats.

Responding to appeals from the international community to end the deadlock, he said Morocco had presented an Initiative on Autonomy Statute for the Sahara region in April. ... There was no question that the Initiative of autonomy created a promising turning point in the settlement process, which had previously been deadlocked, he said, underlining Morocco's efforts to put an end to the dispute, as well as the need to enter into substantive negotiations, taking into account the evolution that had occurred since the beginning of 2006. The elaborating process of the Moroccan Initiative had been inclusive, transparent and democratic, and had involved the "nation's forces as well as the different components of the Sahara region".

He said that the call made by the Secretary-General's Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Peter van Walsum, for pragmatism when he concluded that an independent Western Sahara was"unrealistic" had been based on three years of mediation and four rounds of negotiation and had reflected the Special Envoy's "honesty and moral integrity". ...

Morocco did not understand the obstructionist and non-constructive attitude of the other parties vis-…-vis the Personal Envoy, he said. ... He stressed: "The settlement Initiative presented by my country offers, today, a real opportunity to put an end, once and for all, to this issue, as well as to the sufferings of the camp populations, and speed up the construction of the Maghreb where a sprit of reconciliation, cooperation and solidarity should prevail"....

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