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Western Sahara Is Still Fighting for Freedom

As NATO powers declare unwavering support for Ukrainian self-determination, they are quietly abandoning the people of Western Sahara to Morocco's brutal military occupation.

Sahrawi women display Sahrawi flags during a demonstration on 18 June 2021 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/Getty Images)

‘We are being told by the West to simply accept our reality—the reality of occupation,’ Sahrawi journalist Nazha El Khalidi tells Tribune. ‘Why don’t we have the same right to self-determination as the Ukrainians? This hypocrisy shows you the real face of Europe and Spain, who are more interested in our land and resources than in the people of Western Sahara.’

El Khalidi’s comments were made against the background of a major diplomatic shift in recent months that has seen the Biden administration and various European powers back Morocco’s proposal for Western Sahara, under which it would be designated an autonomous region within the Moroccan state. This would, in effect, amount to formalising its illegal occupation of the territory and flies in the face of numerous United Nations’ resolutions on Western Sahara’s right to self-determination, as well as a ruling from the International Court of Justice.

Covering an area the size of Britain, the resource-rich Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony—or what the UN designates as a ‘non-self-governing territory’. The Sahrawi people were denied independence in 1975 after former colonial power Spain reneged on its promise of a referendum on the country’s future status, instead carving up the territory between Morocco and Mauritania (a decision backed by the United States but without basis under international law). About half the Sahrawi population fled to neighbouring Algeria to escape the subsequent Moroccan invasion.

In the decades since 1975, Morocco has installed what Freedom House describes as one of the most unfree political regimes on the planet across the eighty percent of Sahrawi territory it occupies, where journalists, human rights activists, and pro-independence supporters face systematic repression. ‘Not only do human rights defenders… continue to be wrongfully criminalised for their legitimate activities, they receive disproportionately long prison sentences, and while imprisoned, they are subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and torture,’ insisted UN special rapporteur Mary Lawlor.

The consensus among NATO powers began to shift away from a 1991 peace agreement, which promised a referendum on independence, when President Donald Trump recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory in December 2020. This was followed by the UK Conservative government’s qualified endorsement for Morocco’s autonomy plan, made in exchange for a post-Brexit trade deal with Mohammad VI’s dictatorial regime.

Yet a broader break with the UN’s position came this year as Vladimir Putin sought to accelerate Russia’s war plans. As the European Union rightfully condemned Russian aggression on its Eastern flank, on its Southern border, its leading states moved to back a Moroccan plan for the conflict’s resolution—one that would amount to the illegal annexation of one African country by another. The Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, established by the pro-independence Polisario Front, is a full member of the African Union and is recognised by over eighty countries as the legitimate authority in Western Sahara. But now, for progressive and social democratic leaders like Germany’s Olaf Scholz, Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron, the erasure of Western Sahara from the international map is seen as a ‘good basis’ for resolving the conflict.

A Forgotten Struggle

‘After Donald Trump recognised Moroccan sovereignty over our country, the police would taunt us,’ El Khalidi explains. ‘When we were at demonstrations or being arrested, they would tell us that we were alone, that nobody even knew that we existed and that the most powerful country in the world backed their position and not ours. Do you know how that feels? If you are sacrificing yourself, putting yourself in danger and nobody is writing about you or listening to your voice—well, that is really hard.’

She describes Western Sahara as a ‘bubble’, in which ‘we are left isolated and surrounded by Moroccan military and settlers’. El Khalidi and her husband Ahmed Ettanji run one of the few independent media platforms operating out of the occupied territories, Equipe Media, which uses its blog and social media to break Morocco’s ‘information blockade’. ‘But we are confronting a huge propaganda machine, with Morocco having close relationships with many international media outlets and Western governments,’ El Khalidi explains.

Indeed the extent of Morocco’s influence was seen last year, after the European Left grouping in the European Parliament nominated the Sahrawi activist Sultana Khaya for the Sakharov Prize for freedom of conscience. Currently under house arrest for more than five hundred days in the city of Bojador, Sultana is the President of the Sahrawi Association for the Defence of Human Rights. While participating in student protests in 2007, she lost an eye after being savagely beaten by police officers.

And ‘on 15 November [2021], Moroccan security forces broke into [her] house’, Amnesty International reports. ‘They raped her and sexually abused her sisters and 80-year-old mother. This is not the first time Moroccan forces have committed acts of torture and other ill-treatment against Sultana Khaya and her family.’

Yet her candidacy was blocked from proceeding to the final round of the Sakharov prize after Social Democratic MEPs voted en bloc for a rival nominee—Bolivian coup leader Jeanine Anez, who had been put forward by the Neofrancoist Vox party. ‘The Sájarov prize should be a tool to make silent causes visible,’ protested Podemos MEP Idoia Villanueva. But unwilling to risk angering the Moroccan regime, the Party of European Socialists chose to support the extreme right’s anti-democratic candidate instead.

Occupation Inc.

Morocco increasingly has a zero-tolerance approach around the issue of Western Sahara, tying its continued cooperation in areas such as defence, trade, immigration, and energy to its allies’ willingness to toe the official line on its occupation. At the time of the Sakharov prize controversy, it had broken off diplomatic relations with both Germany and Spain, having recalled its ambassadors to the two countries in May 2021 for their criticisms of Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. In the same month, it had also opened the border crossing with the Spanish north African enclave of Ceuta so as to allow a record 6,000 immigrants to cross in one day—thus leveraging its role as an outsourced border guard for the EU to apply pressure on Spain and Europe.

Beyond this more immediate diplomatic crisis, the EU and the UK also have a series of economic interests that link them to the occupation regime, with European and British multinationals engaged in a range of extractivist industries in the Western Sahara. As Miguel Urbán, a left-wing member of the European Parliament, notes, ‘the illegal occupation is being paid for by the Sahrawi’s own resources… with the territory being turned into a Wild West for multinationals—in which anything goes.’

Western Sahara has some or the richest fishing waters in the world, one of the largest reserves of phosphates (used to produce modern fertilisers), potential gas and oil reserves, and is exploited for industrial-scale sand, salt, and agricultural exports. For Morocco, it is also becoming a strategic site for renewable energy production, with companies like Siemens and the UK-based Windhoist partnering with the Moroccan Royal Family’s green energy company, Nareva, to construct a series of wind farms across the occupied territories.

Yet the legality of much of this activity has been placed in doubt by a number of court cases. In September 2021, the EU’s highest court ruled for a second time against a free trade deal with Morocco on agricultural and fisheries products, because it had no legal basis to include Western Sahara. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) concluded that Western Sahara had a ‘separate and distinct status’ from any country in the world ‘by virtue of the principle of self-determination’, and must be regarded as ‘a third party’ when it came to such bilateral treaties. As a third party, it could not be legally subject to these treaties without ‘the expressed consent of its people’ through an agreement with its legitimate representatives, the Polisario Front.

This has created a major legal headache for the EU and has been another factor behind European countries’ shift towards supporting Morocco’s autonomy proposal. Ninety percent of the catch from European trawlers operating in Moroccan-controlled waters comes from fishing in the Sahrawi zone, while French agri-food conglomerates are exporting masses of fruit and vegetables grown on the water-poor Dakhla peninsula to Europe. With Morocco also set to become the largest exporter of renewable energy to the EU in the coming decades, particularly of green hydrogen, the ECJ ruling also creates potential legal hurdles for other key sectors beyond fisheries and agriculture.

Legitimating Annexation

As the Ukraine crisis began to gain traction, Germany was the first country to move on Western Sahara. ‘Increasingly interested in renewable energy projects and plans to manufacture green hydrogen in the Maghreb, Germany has made a stronger political, economic, and technological presence in North Africa a priority,’ writes veteran La Vanguardia journalist Enric Juliana. And as tensions with Russia rose, this ‘strategic option’ was becoming an ‘absolute priority’. In January, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier sent a letter to Mohamed VI stating that ‘Germany considers the autonomy plan presented in 2007 as a serious and credible effort and a good basis for reaching a settlement to this regional conflict’.

This clearly does not go as far as Trump’s unilateral recognition, but the letter positively evaluates a framework for settling Western Sahara’s status under Moroccan sovereignty while showing Germany’s willingness to accept a roadmap for negotiations that falls outside the 1991 peace treaty, with its explicit commitment on an independence referendum.

Then the Biden administration, which had remained silent on the issue during its first year in office, intervened in early March. This came after Congress blocked further military aid to Morocco until it demonstrated its commitment to pursuing a ‘mutually acceptable political solution [with the Polisario Front]’. Having hitherto avoided any comment on Trump’s rupture with decades of US foreign policy, Secretary of State Antony Blinkens now insisted that Morocco’s autonomy plan represents a ‘serious, credible, and realistic’ proposal and could ‘meet the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara’. This was the cover needed to allow the administration to sign a waiver bypassing Congress’ veto on the Moroccan funds, but it also signalled that the Biden administration was not going to overturn Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty.

Ultimately, in the wake of Putin’s invasion, reinforcing its strategic alliance with Morocco had taken on a new urgency as the US sought to secure the EU’s Southern flank, as well as reinforce European unity around its leadership. In this context, Biden dispatched US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to Madrid, where the head of Spain’s left-wing coalition Pedro Sánchez was urged to fall into line behind the emerging new consensus. Without informing coalition partners Unidas Podemos, Sánchez too sent a letter to Mohamed VI, but only after another mass incursion of immigrants into Spain’s other North African enclave, Melilla.

Sánchez’s letter went the furthest in its support, claiming that the autonomy plan represented ‘the most serious, credible, and realistic’ solution to the conflict and so leaving clear that an independence referendum was now off table as far as NATO was concerned. His backing was also particularly significant as Spain remains the legal administering power for Western Sahara, still responsible under international law for completing its decolonisation and ensuring its right to self-determination. As Unidas Podemos leader and the country’s deputy prime minister Yolanda Diaz noted, Sánchez’s support for the autonomy plan meant he was not fulfilling ‘the country’s mandate’.

The Reality of Autonomy

In the end, Trump’s move to recognise Moroccan sovereignty, which was considered an outlier position in 2020, has operated to consolidate a shift away from the terms of the 1991 peace agreement. But the cynicism of such Western leaders is not only about their willingness to disregard international law when it comes to a key ally but that they are also fully aware that autonomy under Morocco’s occupation regime can amount to little more than a sick joke, with no real possibility that the Sahrawis can exercise political freedom within such an arrangement. ‘I’ve been to 70 countries, including Iraq under Saddam and Indonesia under Suharto,’ Professor of International Relations Stephen Zunes told The Atlantic. ‘[Western Sahara] is the worst police state that I’ve ever seen.’

‘In February thousands of people protested in [the Sahrawi capital] Dakla after the disappearance of a local man who had been under police surveillance’, Ettanji recounts. ‘Protestors were met by a brutal crackdown as the police and paramilitary units broke up the demonstrations, arresting many involved, ransacking homes of activists and sealing off entire neighbourhoods. The police then claimed the charred remains of the man had been discovered but the family disputes its account and wants an independent investigation, believing he was abducted by the security forces.’

But some of the most harrowing testimony of life under the occupation comes from the Sahrawi political prisoners being held in isolation within Morocco. The journalist El Bachir Khadda was sentenced to a twenty-year jail term for his reporting from the month-long Gdeim Izik protest camp in October 2010, an event which Noam Chomsky posits as the start of the Arab spring (and which ended when Moroccan forces stormed the camp, leaving eleven Sahrawi dead and hundreds injured). Isolated for ‘twenty-two hours a day in a cell without even the most basic standards of hygiene’, Khadda explains that the hardest day of his detention was the first time his mother visited:

The day of the visit was like hell for us Sahrawis. We were blindfolded, our hands handcuffed and the guards beat us along the way from our cells to the visiting room. Two wire meshes separated me from my mother like barriers but when she entered the room, I immediately smiled on seeing her. I wanted to lift her spirits and to hide from her the pain I suffer from the daily torture… But after the visit was over, the guards blindfolded me, handcuffed me and took me back to my isolation cell, where my ordeal really began. They beat me, slapped me, kicked me, insulted me and it was all because of the smile with which I had received my mother… My two torturers made fun of my helplessness before their blows, telling me: ‘Now smile like you did at your mother!’

Khadda and other Sahrawi political prisoners have staged a series of hunger strikes in protest at their treatment, with fellow journalist Mohamed Lamin Haddi (who is serving a twenty-five year sentence) lasting more than seventy days without food before the Moroccan authorities intervened to force feed him.

Meanwhile, the war between the Polisario Front and Morocco continues after the collapse of a twenty-nine-year-old ceasefire in October 2020. ‘At the moment it’s a low-intensity war, though we are seeing a slow, but continued escalation as time goes on.’ explains Mohamedsalem Werad, Co-Editor of the Algerian-based Saharawi Voice. ‘Morocco has been ramping up the use of drone strikes, including on civilian infrastructure east of its [2,700 km] military wall [separating the occupied territories from the desert regions controlled by the Polisario Front]. Most civilians who lived in the Liberated Territories have had to evacuate. But there also daily attacks being carried out by the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army along the military wall.’

Now, as NATO governments accept the Moroccan autonomy plan as the parameters within which a settlement is possible, the Sahrawi people find their very right to exist as an independent nation questioned by some of the most powerful countries on the planet. As socialists, we must stand with them against both Moroccan colonialism and those in the West which believe in the selectivity of the principle of self-determination.