Global Policy Forum

Africa’s Last Colony


By Gilonne d'Origny

November 15, 2008

On Nov. 13 in Washington a brave woman named Aminatou Haidar was presented with the Robert Kennedy Human Rights Award. She has risked her life under Moroccan oppression to protect her fellow Sahrawi, the people of Western Sahara, who have suffered oppression, torture, kidnappings and murder at the hands of Morocco. The award puts the spotlight on the plight of the West African territory, the continent's last colony, whose population is still, in 2008, seeking to exercise the basic human right to self-determination--to choose how to be governed and by whom. How did Western Sahara remain stuck in the colonial era? And more importantly, how will it get out?

In 1974, much later than other colonial powers, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco agreed to grant the right to self-determination to the people of Western Sahara, a territory his country had administered since the Berlin Conference of 1884. Spain proposed to abandon the territory and its indigenous population, much as the Portuguese did in East Timor in 1975. Spain conducted a census in the major coastal towns and announced a referendum on self-determination for over 74,000 Sahrawi counted. But before it could take place, Franco fell into a coma and Spain suffered a power vacuum during which the monarchy took over the reins, spending several months restructuring the system from a dictatorship into a parliamentary democracy--and too distracted to worry much about Western Sahara.

Morocco had announced its will to take over control over Western Sahara. But the International Court of Justice issued an Opinion stating that Morocco had no claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara and that Spain must conduct the referendum as soon as possible. On Nov. 14, 1975, the cabinet of the soon-to-be King Juan Carlos of Spain signed the tripartite secret Madrid Accords with King Hassan II of Morocco and the government of Mauritania. In them, Spain agreed to share Western Sahara with Morocco and Mauritania. Both countries, as it so happened, had already begun invasions into the territory; Morocco from the North and Mauritania from the South. It was the same year that Mozambique, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe, Angola and the Comoros won independence.

The Madrid accord and the invasion flagrantly violated the finding of the International Court of Justice, which had declared that Morocco's claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara were groundless and that the Sahrawi people had a right to self-determination. Numerous Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have since agreed that Morocco has no right to the sand-swept territory. A violent war ensued. Most Sahrawi fled eastward and settled in four refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. The 15,000-strong Sahrawi guerilla army defeated Mauritania, which capitulated in 1979. Morocco's 100,000-strong army was afraid the same might happen to it, and so, between 1981 and 1989, it built a 2,600 km long wall with the help of France, the United States, and Israel. The wall cuts the Northwest of Western Sahara off from the Southeast, with about two-thirds of the total territory under Moroccan control. In 1991, the Moroccan government and the Sahrawi government, known as the Polisario, agreed to a cease-fire. A U.N. delegation, called the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), arrived in 1992 with the intention of holding a referendum on self-determination. It never took place.

So this year, Western Sahara once again petitioned the Fourth Committee, the U.N. General Assembly group dedicated to issues of decolonization. It made its 2008 case for independence alongside the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, New Caledonia, American Samoa and Guam. For now, Spain remains the reluctant administrator of Western Sahara. The only way, under international law, that it can rid itself from its duty of care will be to ensure that a free and fair referendum on self-determination takes place.The American diplomat Christopher Ross was chosen this past summer to untangle this mess. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed him special envoy to Western Sahara, just in time for the annual meeting of the Fourth Committee. The Polisario has welcomed his appointment. Morocco has yet to approve him. If international law were followed, this would be an easy enough problem for Ross to sort out. Western Sahara falls under U.N. Charter laws. General Assembly Resolution 1514 outlawed colonialism and imposed an obligation on all colonial powers to let the indigenous population within the colonial territory vote for self-determination. If Ambassador Ross convinces the parties involved to follow international law, he will have the honor of closing the door on Africa's colonial past. Let us hope that a year from now, Sahrawis are not back petitioning before the Fourth Commission and that Aminatou Haidar sees her work rewarded with freedom for her people.

More Information on the UN Security Council
More Information on Western Sahara


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