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Sahara countdown

Resistance is often the key to winning any conflict, and although the best part of two decades have passed without any significant military action in the war for Western Sahara, the pro-independence Polisario Front has always set great store by the power to resist of the Sahrawi refugees in the camps at Tindouf, Algeria. While […]


Resistance is often the key to winning any conflict, and although the best part of two decades have passed without any significant military action in the war for Western Sahara, the pro-independence Polisario Front has always set great store by the power to resist of the Sahrawi refugees in the camps at Tindouf, Algeria.

While Morocco, the occupying force in the territory that was known as Spanish Sahara until the European country withdrew in 1975, has kept up a whispering campaign about dwindling numbers in the desert camps – the Polisario’s constituency, although there is also an unknown number of supporters of independence inside the territory – officials of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic have long stuck to the figure of 165,000 Tindouf residents.

Arguing that the numbers are exaggerated to gain more aid and moral leverage, Rabat claims Sahrawis from the camps swell the ranks of those crossing the sea in migrant boats heading for the European coast, as well as hinting at an Islamist terrorist connection. The Polisario leadership, on the other hand, cultivates the image of a model community, making the most of what it is afforded by the goodwill of other nations to educate and give its people a sense of community: a kind of Cuba in the desert. However much this may be true, there is no getting around the almost complete lack of opportunities for economic advancement in the remote Algerian outpost. A recent remark by a United Nations official seems to bear out the logic of migration and may perhaps serve to speed an eventual breakthrough in one of the world’s oldest unresolved conflicts.

In an interview published by the Moroccan daily Le Soir last year, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said that the UNHCR’s latest estimate of the Tindouf refugee population stood at 80,000. The figure, which, he said, was arrived at thanks to aerial photographs supplied by donor countries, meant that the amount of food aid being sent to the camps had been reduced accordingly. In response to a complaint by the Polisario, Guterres said the UNHCR would happily conduct a proper census if it were allowed access to the camps. As yet, this has been unforthcoming. The UNHCR website page for Algeria puts the number of political refugees in that country at just over 94,000, with an attached note explaining that the Algerian government estimates there to be a Tindouf populace of 165,000.

More than mere numbers

While the UNHCR is helping to deal with larger crises in and around Iraq, Afghanistan and the Darfur region of Sudan, the Sahrawi drama by no means becomes negligible because of this new refugee estimate. Indeed, the plight of thousands of families cut off from their lands and ways of making a living is the best reason for a solution to be found. But the Polisario leadership will feel that this latest development adds to the tide in Morocco’s favour, and reduces its room for manoeuvre as a new round of talks kicks off under the aegis of new UN special envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross. While it continues to block the MINURSO peacekeeping mission’s stated aim of preparing for a self-determination referendum in the territory, Morocco’s recent hints at a degree of autonomy in a reframed kingdom have swung the momentum in the Security Council in its favour as fatigue sets in over what was a hot conflict during the Cold War but is now a hopelessly entrenched sideshow.

The Security Council has asked for both sides “to continue to show political will and work in an atmosphere propitious for dialogue in order to enter into a more intensive and substantive phase of negotiations.” The key words are surely “continue” – when the Polisario has been unbending in its insistence on the referendum plan being executed – and “substantive” – meaning less legal discrepancy and more meaningful compromise.

Ross’ predecessor as the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy to the territory, Peter van Walsum, was forced out by the Polisario and its allies after he spoke the unspeakable truth: “Polisario’s insistence on full independence for Western Sahara has the unintended effect of deepening the impasse and perpetuating the status quo,” was the way he put it last year in an open letter explaining why his position had become untenable. He said he was sympathetic to the Sahrawi position, but that it would be unfair to encourage such ambition when it was absolutely clear that only a “consensual” solution would work as military intervention or even sanctions are simply not on the agenda.

What has been lacking from the Sahara crisis for some time now is a timetable with a cut-off point, after which the safety nets of international mediation could be removed. Any threat of a withdrawal of the MINURSO mission after having presided over such a thorough stagnation of the conflict would hardly seem credible, and there is the diplomatic carcass of Van Walsum lying by the wayside to provide proof that the application of pressure from the outside long ceased to be a credible option. Now there is diplomatic pressure on Rabat to do the honourable thing and start to behave like a worthy winner.

After the shameful and highly publicized dumping of pro-Sahrawi activist Aminatou Haidar, deported to a Spanish airport against her will last November whereupon she embarked on a month-long hunger strike before being allowed home to Laâyoune, the UN envoy Ross has asked the Security Council to consider the human rights situation, in occupied Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps, before agreeing to a routine extension of the MINURSO mission in April.

Owing to Moroccan pressure, that particular UN peacekeeping force is the only one of its kind in the world that does not have powers in the field of human rights. Into this most sterile of contexts, then, new elements have cropped up which may serve to push the two sides closer to the edge of the negotiating table. Here’s hoping.

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Published: Jan 23 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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1 Comment for “Sahara countdown”

  1. […] veneer during the summit weekend are the speakers at an alternative event in Granada, including Aminatou Haidar, the pro-independence Sahrawi activist whose month-long hunger strike in Lanzarote airport last […]

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