Western Sahara, Africa’s Last Colony
The Never-ending Conflict: Sovereignty Claims and Self-Determination Rights
Conflict is at the bedrock of human interactions, it is the foundation of a true democracy as disagreements and disputes often lead to a change beneficial to all parties and provide for accountability and better governance. A serious discrepancy in power distribution leading to exploitation and dominance by the high power group will lead to an increase feeling of depravation among the low power group members and they subsequently chose to confront the other group. The conflict becomes destructive when competition trumps cooperation as the one or both belligerents view the dispute through the zero-sum lens. When the conflict lingers for an extended period and additional components such as identity, ideology, and emotions add to the mix, it becomes intractable. No matter the conditions that feed the fight, intractable conflicts share a common characteristic: they defy settlement because leaders believe their objectives are fundamentally irreconcilable and they have more interest in the ongoing war than in any known alternative state of being. During the first half of the twentieth century, aside from the two devastating world wars, many intractable conflicts were in progress across the globe centered on the independence from colonial powers. Some of these conflicts were violent and extremely deadly such as Algeria and some were characterized by their nonviolence such as India, eventually the United Nations General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 Dec. 1960 settled these conflicts as it preserved the rule of self-determination and the right of colonized peoples to independence.
The post-colonialism era is an example of a complete change in the interactions between former bitter foes as they became cooperative in many aspects such as economy, defense, education, and allies in the international arena. One country however is still a colony and despite twenty years of UN led mediation effort following a long war, Morocco is still inflexible in its position disallowing the Sahrawi people to opt for independence. I suggest the causes of this entrenchment are the negative political impact of a withdrawal, the cohesiveness of the Moroccan society around the issue, the vested economical interest in continued occupation, and the passivity of the United States and France to enforce the UN resolution through the Security Council. This conflict can regenerate into violence again as the ranks of the Sahrawi are splitting as some no longer believe in a peaceful resolution. In keeping with the duty to protect doctrine and the realistic paradigm, there is a need to enforce the international rule of law in order to avoid a re-escalation of this conflict that could destabilize a region where extremist terrorist groups are active and seek a chaotic environment where they can thrive and prosper.
The Western Sahara is a vast, sparsely populated territory bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. A former Spanish colony, the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination was affirmed through a series of resolutions by the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly (UNGA, 1966), as well as a milestone 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ, 1975). Unhappy with these resolutions King Hassan II instigated the “Green March” of over 350,000 unarmed Moroccans into Western Sahara to claim the kingdom’s sovereignty over Western Sahara; subsequently both Mauritania and Morocco invaded the disputed land which led to an exodus of Sahrawi refugees to Algeria (USIP, 2006). The “Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro” (Polisario) proclaimed the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a government-in-exile, and waged a ferocious war on the invaders. The Polisario defeated Mauritania in the south; however, Moroccan forces moved into the former Mauritanian occupied territory and established control over the totality of the disputed land (ICG, 2007). From 1975 to 1991, Morocco and the Algerian backed Polisario fought a ferocious guerilla war characterized by violations of Human rights and the Geneva Convention as prisoners of war were held for over 20 years subjected to torture and forced into hard labor. Morocco’s complete control over the coast and central areas of the territory allowed it in later years to build a defensive sand wall that physically partitioned Western Sahara along a 2,000 km line (Appendix: Map of western Sahara). This changed the dynamics of the war as the Polisario became confined to the eastern side of the wall along Western Sahara’s frontiers with Algeria and Mauritania (Zunes and Mundy, 2010). This wall also caused the Sahrawi in the Moroccan controlled territory, who did not swear allegiance to the crown, to be permanently separated from their families (Lippert, 1997).
By the mid-1980s, a military stalemate became a reality, and both sides became increasingly cooperating with the UN secretary-general attempt in conflict resolution (UNS, 2006). In 1991, following negotiations between the parties, the UN brokered a ceasefire agreement after the Security Council approved a proposal to organize a referendum on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara to allow them to decide between independence and integration with Morocco (USIP, 2006). The plan established a permanent US mission to enforce the cease-fire, facilitate the exchange of prisoners of war, and monitor the decrease of Moroccan forces in the area, and confinement of the belligerents to particular positions (Daadaoui, 2008). From 1991 to 1998 Morocco tried but was not able to register tens of thousands of its green marchers as native Sahrawi eligible to vote (USIP, 2006). Convinced a referendum will not serve its interest, Morocco refused to live up to the terms of the 1991 ceasefire agreement by refusing any referendum that includes independence as an option for the Sahrawi (Shelly, 2004).
From that point on several UN envoys and regional mediators failed to bring the belligerents to a mutually acceptable solution, meanwhile tension is rising among the disfranchised Sahrawi trapped in the occupied territories as well as the refugee camps where a new generation calls to resume the armed conflict (ICG, 2007). A linear approach to the conflict reveals that Morocco and the Polisario have diametrically opposed positions on two fundamental issues in the referendum process. The first dispute is related to the identification of Sahrawi entitled to vote. The second and most important issue is whether the Sahrawi would have an option of independence among choices for self-determination. Both parties have not budged from their position with Morocco rejecting every plan by mediators and resorting to hardball tactics. However, the dispute cannot be oversimplified to just an issue of claim of sovereignty versus the right for self-determination.
The intergroup conflict theory is crucial to understand the cause of the parties’ intransigence, in this process we must identify how the group formed and the driving forces of their motivations to fight one another. A group is formed when several individual who are interacting share mutual traits making them sense they form a distinct unit, as such they collectively seek to realize interdependent objectives which they are conscious about (Deutsch, 1973). The groups in this conflict are divided among the issues; the exiled Sahrawi and those trapped in the occupied territory and didn’t pledge allegiances to the Moroccans are the group challenging the current situation. The members of this group were originally several nomadic tribes roaming the desert, however, Spanish colonialists built cities and as more and more nomads moved to the cities the Sahrawi nationalism grew like nationalism did in most of the colonies. Sahrawi nationalist movement started with pacifist demonstrations on 1970 in Al-‘Ayun, subsequently a group of Sahrawi students formed the Polisario on 1973 and started a war of independence against Spain (Zunes and Mundy, 2010). By the time Spain withdrew from the territory, the Sahrawi national identity was forged and the Polisario had combatants from all the tribes; this group consciousness was reinforced after the invasions of the Moroccan marchers and Armies (Hodges, 1983).
The level of cooperation and trust among the Sahrawi is significantly high; despite four decades of depravation they have established statehood in exile recognized by 80 nations, they elect an assembly every three years, and their nonviolent activism within the occupied territory is coordinated (Stephan and Mundy, 2006). Group awareness among Sahrawi is further strengthened by the recognition of the UN, the cultural dissimilarities with the Moroccan settlers, their unique language, and for those confined in the territory, their shared depravation with the refugees as 86% of positions are filled by Moroccans settlers to promote exodus into Western Sahara (Bahaijoub, 2010). All struggles for self-determination have strong local causes: these generally combine cultural differences with economic and political inequalities and deprivations. The Sahrawi have strong restraining bonds, their ascribed social identity amplifies the drive towards positive self-esteem and thus leads to prejudiced opinions, reliance on stereotypes, and aggressive behavior towards the settlers and the “traitors” (Tajfel and Turner, 1979). They are also attached and committed to their cause because of the investment they made throughout four decades in defying the Moroccans and living deprived in refugee camps or slums with a firm belief they will be vindicated in the future (Jensen, 2005). The time perspective and the overwhelming feeling of injustice prevented the dilemma with the instrumental disadvantageous bond from breaking their group solidarity (Deutsch, 1973).
In the other hand, the Sahrawi allied to the monarchy and the Moroccan settlers, Army, and security apparatus in Western Sahara with the whole Moroccan nation’s support forms the group guarding the status quo. After two attempts to overthrow the Monarch and widespread social restlessness have shaken the throne and stability of the regime, King Hassan II rallied the nation around the Western Sahara conflict (Hodges, 1983). Morocco’s move into Western Sahara was driven by internal politics as King Hassan II increased Moroccan nationalism in order to increase group cohesiveness within the society and keep the Army busy in the south (Fisher, 1990). Eventually the political opposition in Morocco adopted the "Moroccanness" of the Western Sahara, as the conflict became part of a wider struggle for dominance in the region with Algeria; Algeria was essential to Polisario’s survival and successful military stalemate against Morocco (Zoubir and Volman, 1993). The stability and viability of the Moroccan regime became interlinked with the future of Western Sahara, as the issue of Western Sahara became a national question (Mundy, 2009). The Moroccan regime created a conformity pressure within its society as politicians declared those who question the status of Western Sahara are not Moroccan, therefore they created a rule that nobody can depart from without facing harsh consequences (Fisher, 2006). Additionally, the military, the settlers, and the Sahrawi allied to Morocco have an economical vested interested in the conflict as they were benefiting from the subsidies they get from the government and the licensing fees they charge for activities in the territories, a withdrawal from Western Sahara will negatively impact their social status (Kreisberg, 2005).
Clearly, the intergroup conflict theory shed light on the intractability of this conflict, but the identity, group cohesiveness, and vested interested of some groups alone does not explain why the conflict has resisted twenty years of intervention. Intergroup hostilities are also generated from incompatible needs and objectives between groups, with the incompatibility increased by scarcity of resources (Fisher, 1990). Other factors such as the negative emotions, impact of external support for the parties, unaddressed new grievances produced along the conflict contribute to the intractability of the conflict (Kreisberg, 2005). Looking at these factors individually will lead to a distorted analysis of the conflict because all of them strengthen each other and worsen one other; the collapse of multidimensionality creates an infernal machine with its elements working in unison towards destructiveness (Coleman, 2011). The dynamical system theory is essential to analyze the intractability of this conflict and identify those areas that can be targeted in order to modify the broad pattern of relations between the parties towards a more productive and fruitful outcome (Coleman et all, 2006). The seemingly intractable nature of the Western Sahara conflict is driven by several attractors. The attractor illustrates the long term dynamics of the system; it is a state or a regular order of change toward which the dynamical system progresses over time, and to which the system goes back after it has undergone a perturbation (Vallacher and Nowak, 2007). Conflict attractors come from prior life events, personality dissimilarities, and interaction to particular events or from a personal history of conflict, positive feedback mechanisms stimulate emotions or actions along their current path or trajectory often increasing their strength thus keeping the system in the negative basin of attraction (Coleman, 2006).
The attractors for Morocco, aside from the ones identified above such as identity and political survival (Roccas and Brewer, 2002) are economical; Western Sahara contains rich deposits of phosphates, iron ore and significant marine fishing reserves, it is also believed to contain oil deposits (Haugen, 2007). There are also geopolitical attractors as Morocco worries about a dominance of Algeria in an independent Western Sahara due to its continuous support to the Sahrawi cause; Algeria has a vested interest in an access to the Atlantic ocean to export its iron (Mundy, 2004). Morocco invested heavily in the infrastructure of Western Sahara at the expense of many Moroccan provinces; a withdrawal will yield a heavy loss in investment (Omar, 2008). The attractors for the Sahrawi are the final hope for victory following years of war and harsh conditions in desert refugee camps and the slums, safeguarding of national honor and a determination to be in control of what they consider to be their ancestral land (Haugen, 2007). Conflicts are inherently dynamic; they escalate and deescalate, change form, expand into new groups, and can be passed from generation to generation. Therefore, when the UN and AU mediators got involved in the conflict, they did stimulate change, but were rather disturbing a system that has its own strong dynamics. Other than the ceasefire, the external pressures had no visible effects on the parties as they completely withstood the external involvement and preserved the status quo. The perseverance of sufficient positive feedback coupled with the relative absence of negative feedback provides a mechanism for the stabilization of the status quo of the conflict; in this case the Moroccan side is overwhelmed by positive feedback loops.In conclusion, Morocco’s rational behind accepting the cease fire and prolonging the negotiation is to frustrate and abolish any tendencies towards independence and dissipate the idea of Sahrawi cultural distinction (Kreisberg, 2005). Morocco’s hope to change the reality by spending millions of dollars annually in lobbying efforts and propaganda in the United States and Europe to legitimize their occupation and portray the Polisario as an ally to Al Qaeda is fruitless because reality is across the wall in the camps of Tindouf, and the Slums of Western Sahara. It is time for third party mediator to think seriously about pressuring the United States and France to adopt the only measure available to force Morocco to obey international law; break the cohesiveness of the Moroccan side through economic sanctions. Endorsing the expansion of a country’s territory by military force establishes a very dangerous and destabilizing precedent and will provide for more anarchy in the international relation systems and thus more intractable conflicts in the future.
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