The plight of the people of Western Sahara

Head over to a map of the world. Look for Egypt, that’s easy to find. Then look to your left. Assuming your map fits the usual specification, you will reach the western edge of North Africa. On the other side of the Mediterranean from Spain you will find Morocco. South of Morocco and north of Mauritania, there is an independent country of Western Sahara. This country is hardly known in global affairs, but it is not an independent country.

Western Sahara is the world's most sparsely populated country, being mostly dessert. It has a population of five hundred thousand people. Originally a colony of Spain, who withdrew from the country in 1975, the state of Western Sahara has been in dispute ever since. After Spain left, a war was fought between Western Sahara’s two neighbours, Mauritania and Morocco, which ended in 1979 when Morocco annexed most of Western Sahara. An independence movement, the Polisario Front, started a guerrilla war, seeking to establish an independent country known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR. This ended with a UN monitored cease-fire in 1991. Since then Western Sahara has been divided between the Polisario Front controlled SADR, which occupies around a quarter of the territory, and Morocco.

Morocco controls the majority of the country, including the population centres and natural resources. Both Morocco and the SADR are seeking international recognition for their claim to Western Sahara. Both have lined up support from across the world, but the territory remains disputed. Western Sahara is the largest and most populated territory on the United Nation’s list of Non-Self-GoverningTerritories and it exists in a legal grey area between being a disputed territory and a non-decolonized country or an occupied nation.

The location of Western Sahara in North Africa. Map from Wikipedia

Attempts to organise a referendum to decide Western Sahara’s future have been indefinitely stalled. The legal (and military) disputes that surround Western Sahara are varied and complex, with a host of countries and meta-national organisations (the Arab League, the African Union, etc) endorsing the different claims to the country. I suggest anyone with an interest in disputed territories and military occupations should look into the case of Western Sahara, as it is frequently overshadowed by events in Palestine.

So why is there less public outcry against what has happened in Western Sahara? Why do Palestine and Tibet get all the attention? It is difficult to say. All of the above and other situations around the world are clearly important places were citizens live without an ability to determine their own future. A lot of attention is drawn to the Middle East and China, partly because we in the west are complicit in the violations which take place in these countries through the trade agreements we have with their oppressors. This is especially true with Israel, as the UK and the US selling arms to the Israeli Defence Forces which are used against the Palestinians.

Also these other conflict areas are relatively well-populated. There is an estimated nine million Palestinians in the world, where as there are less than half a million Western Saharans. In the case of Palestine, many millions of people were displaced by Israeli occupation and have become refugees. Some of these have moved to the west where they have set up pressure groups highlighting the problems of those left behind in the occupied territory. In the case of Tibet, there is the Dalai Lama, an internationally-recognised figure, campaigning for freedom from occupation. However, more recently even the Dalai Lama has campaigned more for recognition of Tibet within China rather than independence. There are relatively fewer Western Saharans and less of them in western countries drawing attention to events in North Africa. When Africa is in the news more recently it has been in relation to uprisings connected to the Arab Spring, which did not spill over into an uprising in Western Sahara against Morocco.

Other disputed territories around the world attract more attention than Western Sahara, but it is important to remember that we in the west are just as complicit in the repression there. Morocco is enjoying a tourist boom currently, and the money we spend there funds the military which keeps Western Sahara under Moroccan control. Western Sahara may not be the world’s most high profile trouble spot, but is the largest disputed territory in the world and has the largest disputed population. Next time you are looking at a map do not take it for granted that a border is a sign of an independent country.