Western Sahara, the forgotten war

Inês Conde will be joining the team at the Next Century Foundation as a Research Officer shortly. The following reflections on the Western Sahara express her personal opinion:

In the Northwest of Africa, a sparsely inhabited land known as Western Sahara has been a hotspot of territorial conflict for over a century. Before the Spanish invasion in 1884, the desert was populated by a community of nomads, the Sahrawis. During the 92 years of Spanish occupation, the natives righteously and incessantly fought for their ownership of the land. When in 1975 the Spanish agreed to decolonise, Morocco stepped in and claimed ownership of the land. The International Court of Justice, however, denied the existence of any tie between Morocco and Western Sahara, and instead recognised the native Sahrawis as the rightful owners. Morocco rejected the ICJ ruling and invaded the desert, igniting war with the locals and forcing >100,000 Sahrawis into exile. Sixteen years of guerrilla warfare later, the two parties agreed to cease fire and to hold a referendum on who would govern Western Sahara, a referendum which is yet to happen.

Fast-forward to November 2020, the Moroccans break the ceasefire and restart a dormant war. With hardly any media coverage, this territorial conflict has escalated into a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of refugees seeking asylum and justice. For thirty years, the simmering conflict between Moroccans and Sahrawis has been dismissed by international powers, most notably the United Nations. According to international law, Morocco is clearly violating the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination and, by not pressuring the country to withdraw from Western Sahara, the UN is setting an alarming precedent for international intervention. Neglected by international agencies, the people of Western Sahara have been in exile for almost 50 years, surviving off insufficient food-aid programs and living in inhumane conditions. Since 1884, the Sahrawis have been awaiting justice, but justice will only come when their right to self-determination is respected and enforced.

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