In April 2011, the mandate of MINURSO - the United Nations (UN) Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, which has been tasked since 1991 with maintaining a ceasefire and monitoring Africa's longest territorial dispute between Morocco and the Sahrawi Polisario Front - was yet again renewed. Twenty one years since MINURSO was set up, closer attention ought to be placed on the Western Saharan dispute, one which has exhausted and frustrated a large number of UN special envoys.
It is important to recall that the occupation of the Western Sahara - a land once described by a MINURSO observer as 'the worst police state I have ever seen' - by Morocco is in blunt violation of international law. Back in 1963 the Western Sahara was included in a list of territories, identified by the UN, which sought self-determination. The notion of self-determination was already enshrined in the UN Charter and is supported by UN resolution 1514 which stipulates that 'all people have the right to self-determination'. This was further supported by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a ruling on October 16th 1975 when it declared that the Western Sahara was not a territory without a master (terra nullius) at the time of its colonisation by Spain. The ICJ judgement, therefore, declared that Morocco had no valid claim on the Sahara based on any historic title.
Having said that, Moroccan intransigence has only been possible with the biased involvement of Western states, principally the US and France, aided no less by Saudi Arabia's massive financial handouts. This can be explained by the fact that Morocco has long been considered a stable regional Western ally, one that maintains strong economic ties with the US and the European Union. Morocco's pro-Western antics, however, do not detract from its continued occupation of the Western Sahara. Such a double standard policy can also be compared to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Indeed, the latter's invasion by Iraq was based on historic claims similar to Morocco's, but was rightly rejected by the UN Security Council.
Similarly, in the case of Sudan, Western powers were deeply involved for Khartoum to finally accept the idea of an independent South Sudanese state. However, regarding the Western Sahara, neither the Security Council nor Washington nor Paris has ever acted against Rabat. Moreover, in April 2011, Paris threw all its diplomatic weight at the UNSC to prevent the renewal of MINURSO's mandate.
It is also probably time for the African Union (AU) to become more actively involved in this conflict and put all its diplomatic weight to find a final solution. In this period of profound political changes affecting North Africa, the AU must put more pressure on the USA, France and the United Nations (UN) for them to engage in serious and genuine talks on this issue.
Indeed, given the absence of any resolution to this protracted conflict on the horizon, any hope for a referendum may now rest on the emergence of a North African boisterous civil society. The so-called 'Internet and Facebook generation', which has succeeded in ousting despotic regimes in the region, may well in the future unite and become a transnational force to press for a solution. Change is already in the air: Moroccans, who are constitutionally bound not to challenge the country's position on Western Sahara, have quietly begun questioning the legality and high financial cost of the continuing occupation of this territory. Additionally, a growing number of Moroccan settlers in the occupied territory are beginning to consider the idea of a Sahrawi independence. These settlers are indeed all too aware that if Morocco were to ever cede on the idea of Western Sahara's independence, the tax and other economic privileges that they currently enjoy to live in the occupied territory would definitely end with the territory's independence. And after having lived there for so long, they may well decide to remain in a newly independent Western Sahara.
Today, this long-running conflict has become a powerful motivator for the Sahrawi people to achieve their nationalist ambitions. They are profoundly convinced of the justice of their cause and undoubtedly believe that in the end, it will prevail just as it has happened in Eritrea, Namibia, East Timor and more recently in South Sudan. Given the current political dynamics of the region, Morocco's current ruler, Mohamed VI, would do well to consider that even the harshest forms of repression are very difficult to sustain.
The protests against the Moroccan occupation in November 2010 in Al-Ayun and other cities in the Western Sahara should only be a reminder to Rabat as North Africa uprisings were just the continuity of the Al-Ayun protests. Morocco can either help facilitate an amicable solution to the Western Sahara conflict, one in which its economic interests remain firm, or the status quo ante may one day witness a violent rupture, one in which any future peaceful relations with the Polisario, may forcibly end at the hands of a bulging tide of people power.
Morocco's occupation of the Western Sahara is primarily motivated by the immense natural wealth present in the region. Indeed, Western Sahara has some of the world's biggest phosphate reserves, which provides a tremendous income stream for Morocco, together with the revenue generated from the local fishing industry. This revenue is crucial for Morocco given the huge sums Rabat has poured into the territory to cover tax incentives it provides to Moroccan settlers who live there as well as the cost of maintaining its army in the region (some 100,000 soldiers are stationed there, making up for a third of the total Moroccan population present in the territory) - an army that has also strong economic investments and interests in Western Sahara. Furthermore, a withdrawal of its troops would also be a conundrum for Rabat, which would have to find a solution for those soldiers that would no longer be needed. Finally, from a geo-strategic perspective, Rabat is also aware that by withdrawing from the Western Sahara, its ambition to become the regional leader would literally vanish.
Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa