Western Sahara and the Tide of History

In 1960, the UN adopted resolution 1514, which stated that all people have a right to self-determination and that colonialism should be brought to a speedy and unconditional end. Half a century later it may come as a surprise to readers to learn that there are still sixteen territories around the world that have yet to achieve decolonization. Known as "non-self governing territories," the list of places still ruled by a foreign power contains some familiar names: Gibraltar and Falkland Islands (Malvinas) to name just two. But while some of these territories like the tiny Pacific Island of Tokelau are dependencies that could be said to have rejected independence and democratically chosen to maintain their territorial status, others are more controversial. Most notable is Western Sahara, known as Africa's last colony, which has fought for self-determination for more than 35 years against neighboring Morocco.

In early October in New York, the UN's Fourth Committee on Decolonization heard petitions from people speaking on behalf of these non-self-governing territories. As with previous occasions, this year's meeting was dominated by petitions on the conflict in Western Sahara, a conflict that remains one of the longest-running in the world.

About the size of Britain, Western Sahara lies along Africa's Atlantic coast. In 1976, in a breach of international law, the departing Spanish divided Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for continued fishing rights and partial ownership of mining interests. A 15-year war ensued between the Moroccans and the Polisario Front, with the Mauritanians withdrawing in 1979. In 1991 a ceasefire was declared, and under the terms of a UN agreement a referendum for self-determination was promised. Nineteen years later, the native Saharawi are still awaiting that referendum.

An estimated 165,000 Saharawi refugees who fled the fighting are still housed in desolate refugee camps in the Algerian desert. Despite aid from the United Nations, conditions in the camps are abject with widespread health problems including hepatitis B, anemia and meningitis. A 2008 survey by the World Health Organization suggested that one in five children in the camps suffers from acute malnutrition.

Within occupied Western Sahara the Saharawi population face discrimination and human rights abuses. International organizations including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have raised serious concerns over violations of human rights in the territory and a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch found that Morocco had violated the rights to expression, association, and assembly in Western Sahara. Last Friday, Oct. 15, the trial of three prominent human rights defenders arrested more than a year ago after returning from a visit to the refugee camps was due to begin. Despite having committed no crime, they face charges of treason for which they could face the death penalty. Amnesty International released a statement timed to coincide with the start of their trial calling for their immediate and unconditional release but, on the day, the trial was cancelled and postponed until Nov. 5.

Against the backdrop of this human tragedy, the European Union has concluded a Fisheries agreement with Morocco under which Western Saharan waters are being unlawfully exploited by European fishing vessels. Many foreign governments and companies are involved in deals with Morocco, which give them access to Western Saharan vast mineral resources, most notably phosphates.

In New York this month, the UN Fourth Committee heard more than 80 petitions on the subject of Western Sahara including an impassioned plea from Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation. "Do not let the [Saharawi people's] trust in this Committee be in vain or you will send a terrible signal to the world that invasion, aggression and violence, as Morocco has employed, are the ways to achieve your ends" she said.

Despite many attempts to break the long-running diplomatic stalemate, progress towards a resolution has been tortuously slow. A political solution may seem far off with the parties positions being so far apart: the Polisario Front being unprepared to negotiate away their legitimate right to self-determination, Morocco rejecting any proposal that contains even the possibility of independence, and the Security Council so far unwilling to enforce its own resolutions. But history has shown that a political solution is the only way forward.

Nevertheless, it is important to stress that a political solution to this problem is far too important to be left in the hands of politicians. It is up to us all, to civil society groups, campaigners and individuals to make their voices heard. We must demand that our governments around the world exert diplomatic and political pressure on those who are ignoring the requirements laid out under international law and blocking a referendum of self-determination in Western Sahara.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "The arc of history may be long but it always bends towards justice." There is little doubt that the people of Western Sahara have both the tide of history and the force of justice on their side.

Ken Loach is a filmmaker. Stefan Simanowitz is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. He attended the Decolonization Committee meetings in New York (Oct. 5-7).

To mark the first anniversary of the imprisonment of three prominent human rights defenders from Western Sahara, both Loach and Simanowitz joined a high-level delegation to hand in a letter signed by parliamentarians to PM David Cameron on Oct. 8 calling on the British government to increase their diplomatic efforts on Morocco to ensure that the activists receive a free and fair trail leading to their unconditional release.