By Peter Kenworthy
‘The strategy of the Moroccan regime is to starve the Saharawi refugees into accepting the Moroccan position. They pressurise the UN into not giving the refugees more aid,’ says the Minister of Cooperation in Western Sahara’s exile government the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Hach Ahmed Barek Allah. ‘If the starvation in the refugee camps continues, we cannot control the reaction of the people. We want to follow the peace process and continue negotiations, but with the situation now this is becoming increasingly difficult.’
Hach Ahmed visited Africa Contact’s offices in Copenhagen on Monday, 20. February, to discuss the increasingly desperate situation of the approximately 150.000 refugees, who have lived in isolated dessert camps in the Algerian dessert near Tindouf since they fled invading Moroccan troops in 1975, and the UN-led peace process that is meant to enable them to return to Western Sahara, but has been stalled by Morocco and its allies for over 20 years. He is also visiting Denmark and other Northern European countries to specifically ask their governments for humanitarian aid for the refugees.
‘Denmark and other Northern European countries are not like those of Southern Europe, who have too many interests with Morocco,’ Ahmed says. ‘We are therefore asking for urgent humanitarian aid from Northern European governments, including the Danish government.’
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has given basic assistance to the ‘most vulnerable’ Saharawi refugees in the Tindouf refugee camps since 1986 after the Algerian government had supported the refugees for 11 years. According to the WFP, ‘opportunities for self-reliance in the harsh, isolated desert environment where the [Tindouf refugee] camps are located are extremely limited, forcing the refugees to rely on international assistance for their survival. Malnutrition rates remain high, with acute malnutrition at a critical level of 18.2 percent, chronic malnutrition at 31.4 percent and underweight at 31.6 percent.’
But even this inadequate level of aid is being cut back, according to Hach Ahmed. ‘The UNHCR and the EU, who are the main donors, have only promised half of the aid they normally give. The economic crisis, especially in Southern Europe, has a very bad influence on the social and aid programmes.’
The Saharawis are becoming increasingly impatient with the UN, he says, and many are willing to break the ceasefire between Western Sahara’s liberation front, Polisario, and Morocco, which has been in place since 1991, and return to war.
‘It is becoming increasingly difficult to control the reaction of the people. The UN peace process has continued for over 20 years without any progress. This is because of the influence of [permanent member of the UN Security Council] France in the UN. And accepting Morocco as a member of the UN Security Council, while they are colonising Western Sahara, also makes us doubt the fairness of the UN. Would the UN have accepted Syria or Iran as a member of the Security Council? This is a clear example of the hypocrisy of the UN, and such occurrences make is very difficult for us to convince our youth to continue to accept the UN peace process.’
And especially the Saharawi youth have taken an increasingly radical approach towards the Moroccan repression, as they have done in countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East, and time is therefore running out, says Ahmed.
‘Many youths, especially in the refugee camps, do not believe a peaceful process in the occupied territories will give results anymore. Before the [13th executive] congress [of the Polisario Front in December 2011], we even thought that a new leadership that would stop the peace process might be elected. But the activists from the [Moroccan] occupied territories [of Western Sahara] that participated in the congress, advised against electing those who advocated going back to war with Morocco, and thereby gave the Polisario the space to continue with the peace process, at least until the next congress.’
Western Sahara has been illegally occupied by Morocco since 1975, where Spain secretly relinquished Western Sahara to Morocco (and Mauritania who left in 1979) in exchange for mining and fishing concessions. Being an illegal occupying force, Morocco has no right to sell the natural resources of Western Sahara, as it presently does e.g. through the EU-Moroccan Fisheries Agreement, or to continue to violate the human rights of its citizens. Instead, as international law and over a hundred UN resolutions demand, Morocco must hold a referendum on the status of Western Sahara.
The USA and France, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, have been the biggest obstruction to this referendum within the UN system. Instead, both are pressing for Western Sahara to remain under Moroccan autonomy. France has had ties with Morocco since the sixteenth century, as well as being Morocco’s main trading partner. The USA had one of its closest allies in Morocco in the ‘fight against communism’ and the ‘war on terror’. Morocco was the first country to recognise the independent United States, subsequently signing a treaty of friendship and commerce with the USA in 1777.
No state recognises Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara, which has also been rejected by the International Court of Justice. Over 80 countries recognise Western Sahara’s exile government, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, which is also a member of the African Union.
Peter Kenworthy writes for Africa Contact.