news analysis advocacy
For more frequent updates, visit the AfricaFocus FaceBook page
tips on searching

Search AfricaFocus and 9 Partner Sites



Visit the AfricaFocus
Country Pages

Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Central Afr. Rep.
Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo (Kinshasa)
Côte d'Ivoire
Equatorial Guinea
São Tomé
Sierra Leone
South Africa
South Sudan
Western Sahara

Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail! on your Newsreader!

Print this page

Western Sahara: Violence Brings Rare Attention

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Nov 17, 2010 (101117)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"On November 8, Moroccan occupation forces attacked a tent city of as many as 12,000 Western Saharans just outside of Al Aioun, in the culminating act of a months-long protest of discrimination against the indigenous Sahrawi population and worsening economic conditions. Not only was the scale of the crackdown unprecedented, so was the popular reaction: In a dramatic departure from the almost exclusively nonviolent protests of recent years, the local population turned on their occupiers, engaging in widespread rioting and arson." - Stephen Zunes

The turn to violence has attracted rare attention to Morocco's long-standing occupation of Western Sahara, and the stalemate despite continuing UN efforts to promote negotiations. Western Sahara, not Morocco, is a member of the African Union. But Morocco's Western allies, particularly France and the United States, have declined to pressure Morocco to engage in serious negotiations. Although there is a UN peacekeeping mission, the mission's mandate includes no human rights component.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains several updates, from the United Nations and from the International Federation of Journalists, as long as an analytical article by Stephen Zunes published by OpenDemocracy ( Zunes is co-author, with Jacob Mundy, of the recent book on the Saharan conflict entitled Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Western Sahara, visit

For additional references, see particularly

For Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy's new book, visit

Additional articles by Stephen Zunes on Western Sahara are available on

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

UN Security Council 'Deplores' Western Sahara Violence

16 November 2010, Margaret Besheer | United Nations

Voice of America

The U.N. Security Council has deplored last week's deadly clashes in Western Sahara, but has not said it will agree to a request from the pro-independence Polisario Front for a U.N. investigation into the violence.

The 15-member Security Council had private briefings Tuesday from the U.N.'s department on peacekeeping and the Secretary-General's personal envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross.

Afterwards, the council expressed its condemnation of the recent deaths and injuries during a raid on a protest camp city outside the Western Saharan city of Laayoune. It reaffirmed its support for the U.N. mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, and urged the parties to demonstrate further political will towards a solution. But the statement stopped short of calling for a U.N. or independent investigation into the violence.

Ugandan Ambassador Ruhakana Rugunda, who holds a non-permanent seat on the council, told reporters that his country would like to see a fact-finding mission dispatched.

"The Ugandan delegation would like to see facts established by the United Nations or any other independent force, so that the world, the humanitarian agencies and all those concerned, can know the extent of the problem and how to deal with it," said Ruhakana Rugunda.

He said Uganda would also like to see full access granted to humanitarian organizations, and he criticized the lack of a human rights monitoring component to the U.N. Mission. MINURSO is the only U.N. mission to not have such a component, despite past attempts by some Security Council members to enlarge the mission's mandate to include one. Morocco is strongly opposed to such a component, and critics say its ally, veto-wielding Security Council member France, has blocked the addition of a human rights component to the mission.

Morocco's U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Loulichki told reporters his government has nothing to hide and would share all of its information on the recent violence with MINURSO.

But Ahmed Boukhari, the representative of the Polisario Front, said the Moroccan government is not credible and the Polisario would continue to ask for an independent investigation. "We say that, in any case, the conclusion of the debate, even deploring what has happened is not enough," said Ahmed Boukhari. "We would like to continue to ask the Security Council members to allow a full investigation of what has happened. We believe - Polisario - the information we have gathered is indicating that a huge tragedy took place in Western Sahara."

The Polisario says dozens of people were killed in the raid, but Morocco says the death toll was much lower, and includes 10 members of its security forces.

The United Nations has been seeking a settlement in Western Sahara since the withdrawal of Spain in 1976, and fighting ensued between Morocco and the Polisario Front, supported by Algeria. Morocco has offered Western Sahara autonomy, but the Polisario says it wants a referendum on self-determination, with independence as an option.

Western Sahara: IFJ Rejects 'Baseless' Accusations Against Spanish Media in Morocco

16 November 2010

International Federation of Journalists (Brussels) -

press release

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) today called on the Moroccan authorities to lower the temperature of its criticism of Spanish media which have been accused of being 'hateful' and 'racist'.

These attacks, targeting in particular the ABC newspaper, come in the wake of a series of restrictions on foreign journalists, including the withdrawal last week of the accreditation of Luis de Vega, ABC Correspondent in Morocco.

"There is no basis for accusing Spanish journalists of racism and hatred in their coverage of the crisis in Western Sahara," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. "The Moroccan attacks are misguided and the authorities should calm down and focus instead on allowing journalists the right to report independently on the crisis. The withdrawal of Luis de Vega's accreditation is an unacceptable interference in journalists' affairs."

Moroccan officials have escalated their attacks on Spanish journalists since the events in Laayoune last week, accusing media in Spain of bias reporting on events in Western Sahara. Yesterday, the Information Minister, Jalid Naciri in a press conference accused some Spanish media of being hateful and racist. The attack follows the decision last week to ban flights to Laayone which affected many Spanish journalists. On Friday Luis de Vega was told he could no longer work as journalist in Morocco.

The IFJ says these actions raise concerns over the commitment of Morocco's to press freedom.

"The ill-tempered language from Morocco has not been helpful. This is the time to focus on professional quality and solidarity, not to be divisive and make baseless accusations," added White. "Luis de Vega must be reinstated and all journalists allowed to visit unhindered the zone they wish to report on."

Western Sahara: Parties to UN-Backed Talks Agree to Meet Again Next Month

10 November 2010

The third round of United Nations-backed informal talks on the dispute over Western Sahara has ended with Morocco and the Frente Polisario agreeing to continue their discussions next month and again early next year.

The UN has been involved in efforts towards a settlement in Western Sahara since 1976, when fighting broke out between Morocco and the Frente Polisario after the Spanish colonial administration of the territory ended.

Morocco has presented a plan for autonomy while the position of the Frente Polisario is that the territory's final status should be decided in a referendum on self-determination that includes independence as an option.

According to a communiqué issued last night at the end of the talks, which took place outside New York City at the invitation of the Secretary-General's Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, the parties engaged in "broad and frank" discussions of each other's proposals.

This is despite the fact that "each party continues to reject the proposal of the other as a basis for future negotiations," stated the communiqué.

"To create an environment propitious for progress, the parties have started to build a new dynamic for the next steps of the negotiating process," it added.

The communiqué also noted that, for the first time, the delegations of the two parties and the two neighbouring States, Algeria and Mauritania, together discussed the programme of Confidence Building Measures set out by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Among the elements of the programme, which was launched in 2004, are flights aimed at connecting Sahrawi refugees living in camps in Algeria's Tindouf region with their relatives in the territory of Western Sahara.

The parties agreed to resume family visits by air without delay and accelerate the inauguration of family visits by road. The four delegations plan to meet with the UNHCR to further discuss these issues.

It was decided at the end of the talks, which began on Monday amid clashes on the ground between Moroccan security forces and Sahrawi protesters which reportedly resulted in a number of deaths and injuries, that the parties will continue their discussions again in December as well as early next year.

Upsurge in repression challenges nonviolent resistance in Western Sahara

Stephen Zunes, 17th November 2010

Open Democracy / direct URL:

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and serves as advisory committee chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. His most recent book (co-authored with Jacob Mundy) is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010)

Summary: Sahrawis have engaged in protests, strikes, cultural celebrations, and other forms of civil resistance focused on such issues as educational policy, human rights, the release of political prisoners, and the right to self-determination. They have also raised the cost of occupation for the Moroccan government and increased the visibility of the Sahrawi cause.

On November 8, Moroccan occupation forces attacked a tent city of as many as 12,000 Western Saharans just outside of Al Aioun, in the culminating act of a months-long protest of discrimination against the indigenous Sahrawi population and worsening economic conditions. Not only was the scale of the crackdown unprecedented, so was the popular reaction: In a dramatic departure from the almost exclusively nonviolent protests of recent years, the local population turned on their occupiers, engaging in widespread rioting and arson. As of this writing, the details of these events are unclear, but they underscore the urgent need for global civil society to support those who have been struggling nonviolently for their right of self-determination and to challenge western governments which back the regime responsible for the repression.

Western Sahara is a sparsely-populated nation located on the Atlantic coast of northwestern Africa. Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Arab tribes, collectively known as Sahrawis and famous for their long history of resistance to outside domination, the land was occupied by Spain from the late 1800s through the mid-1970s. The nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed independence struggle against Spain in 1973, and Madrid eventually promised the people of what was then still known as the Spanish Sahara a referendum on the fate of the territory by the end of 1975. Irredentist claims by Morocco and Mauritania were brought before the International Court of Justice, which ruled in favour of the Sahrawis' right to self-determination. A special Visiting Mission from the United Nations engaged in an investigation that same year and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence under the leadership of the Polisario, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania. Under pressure from the United States, which did not want to see the leftist Polisario come to power, Spain reneged on its promise for a referendum and instead agreed to partition the territory between the pro-Western countries of Morocco and Mauritania.

As Moroccan forces moved into Western Sahara, most of the population fled to refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Morocco and Mauritania rejected a series of unanimous UN Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and recognition of the Sahrawis' right of self-determination. The United States and France, meanwhile, despite voting in favor of these resolutions, blocked the UN from enforcing them. Meanwhile, the Polisario - which had been driven from the more heavily populated northern and western parts of the country - declared independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Thanks in part to the Algerians providing significant amounts of military equipment and economic support, Polisario guerrillas fought well against both occupying armies. Mauritania was defeated by 1979, agreeing to turn their third of Western Sahara over to the Polisario. However, the Moroccans then annexed that remaining southern part of the country as well.

The Polisario then focused their armed struggle against Morocco and, by 1982, had liberated nearly 85% of their country. Over the next four years, however, the tide of the war was reversed in Morocco's favor thanks to dramatic increases in American and French support for the Moroccan war effort, with U.S. forces providing important training for the Moroccan army in counter-insurgency tactics and helping with the construction of a wall which kept the Polisario out of most of their country. Meanwhile, the Moroccan government, through generous housing subsidies and other benefits, successfully encouraged thousands of Moroccan settlers to immigrate to Western Sahara. By the early 1990s, these Moroccan settlers outnumbered the remaining Sahrawis indigenous to the territory by a ratio of more than 2:1.

A cease fire in 1991 was part of an agreement that would have allowed for the return of Sahrawi refugees to Western Sahara followed by a UN-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Neither the repatriation nor the referendum took place, however, due to Moroccan insistence on stacking the voter rolls with Moroccan settlers and other Moroccan citizens that it claimed had tribal links to Western Sahara. To break the stalemate, the UN Security Council passed a resolution in 2004 which would allow Moroccan settlers to also vote in the referendum following five years of autonomy. Morocco, however, rejected this proposal too, with the apparent reassurance that the French and Americans would yet again threaten to veto any resolution imposing sanctions or other pressures on them to compromise.

Unarmed popular resistance

As happened during the 1980s in both South Africa and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, the locus of the Western Sahara freedom struggle shifted from the military and diplomatic initiatives of an exiled armed movement to a largely unarmed popular resistance from within, as young activists in the occupied territory and even in Sahrawi-populated parts of southern Morocco confronted Moroccan troops in street demonstrations and other forms of nonviolent action, despite the risk of shootings, mass arrests, and torture. Sahrawis from different sectors of society have engaged in protests, strikes, cultural celebrations, and other forms of civil resistance focused on such issues as educational policy, human rights, the release of political prisoners, and the right to self-determination. They also raised the cost of occupation for the Moroccan government and increased the visibility of the Sahrawi cause. Indeed, perhaps most significantly, civil resistance helped to build support for the Sahrawi movement among international NGO's, solidarity groups and even sympathetic Moroccans.

Internet communication became a key element in the Saharawi movement, with public chat rooms evolving as vital centres for sending messages, as breaking news regarding the burgeoning resistance campaign reached those in the Saharawi diaspora and among international activists. Despite attempts by the Moroccans to disrupt these contacts, the diaspora has continued to provide financial and other support to the resistance. Though there have been complaints from inside the territory that support for their movement by the older generation of Polisario leaders was inadequate, the Polisario appears to have recognized that by having signed a cease-fire and then having had Morocco reject the diplomatic solution expected in return, it has essentially played all its cards. So there was a growing recognition that the only real hope for independence has to come from within the occupied territory in combination with solidarity efforts from global civil society. There have been some small victories, such as the successful campaign which led to Sahrawi nonviolent resistance leader Aminatou Haidar securing the 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, as well as forcing Moroccan authorities to reverse their expulsion order in December 2009, which resulted in her near-fatal 30-day hunger strike.

After Moroccan authorities' use of force to break up the large and prolonged demonstrations in 2005 -2006, the resistance subsequently opted mainly for smaller protests, some of which were planned and some of which were spontaneous. A typical protest would begin on a street corner or a plaza where a Sahrawi flag would be unfurled, women would start ululating, and people would begin chanting pro-independence slogans. Within a few minutes, soldiers and police would arrive, and the crowd would quickly scatter. Other tactics have included leafleting, graffiti (including tagging the homes of collaborators), and cultural celebrations with political overtones. Such nonviolent actions, while broadly supported by the people, appear to have been less a part of coordinated resistance than a result of action by individuals. Still, the Moroccan government's regular use of violent repression to subdue the Sahrawi-led nonviolent protests suggests that civil resistance is seen as a threat to Moroccan control.

One of the obstacles to the internal resistance is that Moroccan settlers outnumber the indigenous population by a ratio of more than 2:1 and by more in the major cities, making certain tactics used effectively in similar struggles more problematic. For example, although a general strike could be effective, the large number of Moroccan settlers, combined with the minority of indigenous Sahrawis who oppose independence, could likely fill the void resulting from the absence of much of the Sahrawi workforce. Although that might be alleviated by growing pro-independence sentiments among ethnic Sahrawi settlers from the southern part of Morocco, it still presents challenges that have not been faced by largely nonviolent struggles in other occupied lands - among them East Timor, Kosovo, and the Palestinian territories.

A shift in Morocco's strategy

Despite this, civil resistance also appears to have forced a shift in Morocco's strategy to maintain control of the mineral-rich territory. Although the Moroccan autonomy plan for the territory put forward in 2006 does not meaningfully address Morocco's legal responsibility to recognize the Sahrawi's right of self-determination (see my Open Democracy article More Harm Than Good), it nevertheless constitutes a reversal of Morocco's historical insistence that Western Sahara is as much a part of Morocco as other provinces by acknowledging that it is indeed a distinct entity. Protests in Western Sahara in recent years have begun to raise some awareness within Morocco, especially among intellectuals, human rights activists, pro-democracy groups, and some moderate Islamists - long suspicious of the government line in a number of areas - that not all Sahrawis see themselves as Moroccans and that there exists a genuine indigenous opposition to Moroccan rule.

In the occupied territory, Moroccan colonists and collaborators are given preference for housing and employment and the indigenous people receive virtually no benefits from their country's rich fisheries and phosphate deposits. In response, a new tactic emerged late this summer, as Sahrawi activists erected the tent city about 15 kilometers outside of El Aioun, the former colonial capital and largest city in the occupied territory. Since any protests calling for self-determination, independence, or enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions are brutally suppressed, the demonstrators pointedly avoided such provocative calls, instead simply demanding economic justice. Even this was too much for the Moroccan monarchy, however, which was determined to crush this nonviolent act of mass defiance. The Moroccans tightened the siege in early October, attacking vehicles bringing food, water and medical supplies to the camp, resulting in scores of injuries and the death of a 14-year old boy.

Finally, on November 8, the Moroccans attacked the camp, driving protesters out with tear gas and hoses, beating those who did not flee fast enough, setting off rioting and triggering the burning and pillaging of Sahrawis homes and shops, with occupation forces shooting or arresting suspected activists, hundreds of whom disappeared after the outbreak of violence.

Morocco has been able to persist in flouting its international legal obligations toward Western Sahara largely because France and the United States have continued to arm Moroccan occupation forces and blocked the enforcement of resolutions in the UN Security Council demanding that Morocco allow for self-determination or even simply the stationing of unarmed human rights monitors in the occupied country. So now, at least as important as nonviolent resistance by Sahrawis is the potential 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 Australia, Great Britain, and the United States to end their support for Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.

Despite 35 years of exile, war, repression and international neglect, Sahrawi nationalism is at least as strong within the younger generation as their elders, as is their will to resist. How soon they will succeed in their struggle for
self-determination, however, may well rest on such acts of international solidarity by global civil society.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see

Read more on |Western Sahara||Africa Peace & Security||Africa Politics & Human Rights|

URL for this file: