The Winds of War have come to settle in the Sahara
By: Catherine Constantinides
Guerguerat - The people of Western Sahara remain forgotten, put aside, goal posts shifted and moved decade after decade and this unresolved conflict remains a scar on the conscious of Africa and world leaders who have been seated at the table.
The issue of Western Sahara remains firmly hushed into the silent background of the United Nations and African Union where the status quo has been cemented in place because it serves an elite few who benefit from the occupation by the Moroccan regime.
Moroccan armed forces moved with military aggression into the buffer zone, the non-militarized Saharawi territory of Guerguerat, this is in direct violation of the UN ceasefire agreement which has been in place since 6th September 1991. It was in the early hours of Friday, 13th November 2020, when Moroccan armed forces brutally attacked unarmed, peaceful Saharawi civilians and demonstrators in the buffer zone in the south-end of the territory, to open the road blocked by Saharawi activists who reached Guerguerat on the 20th of October 2020, when they began a peaceful demonstration at the illegal breach of Guerguerat, not far from the Berm, also known as the ‘Wall of Shame’.
These demonstrators aimed to denounce the illegal exploitation and movement of the natural resources of Western Sahara. Additionally, to give light to the human rights violations that occur daily in the occupied territory.
Morocco’s deliberate action has forced the Polisario back into an armed conflict. It has signalled a new chapter and moment in history for the liberation of the Saharawi people. And there can be no turning back, after waiting for a peace-led process by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum of Western Sahara, MINURSO. Almost 30 years later, a lack of political will and with no referendum in sight, the UN mission; MINURSO- which was tasked to organise and monitor the referendum for the self-determination of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara has failed.
Additionally, it must be noted that MINURSO is the only peace keeping mission in the world that does not monitor human rights, thus the ongoing violation of human rights in the occupied territory has gone unnoticed. This is a vile failure on the part of the UN as there have been ongoing calls for a human rights mandate under MINURSO for years by the international community, human rights organisations and activists alike.
Following the military attack on the Saharawi territory the Saharawi government has now declared the entire territory of Western Sahara "including its terrestrial, maritime and air spaces, a war zone", thus advising all countries and economic operators to steer away from the territory.
It’s been widely reported that the situation in occupied Western Sahara has been classified with continued force, intimidation, harassment, torture, forced house arrest, beating of activists and those that have taken to the streets to protest in support of the inalienable right to self-determination. It must be noted that the youngest arrest was a young child of 12 years old. Hayat Diya, was abused and tormented on the 16th November 2020 in the occupied city; El-Aaiun at her school ‘Nahda High School’ for wearing an apron carrying the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic flag. Hayat was taken to the police station where she was subjected to psychological and physical torture and sexual harassment. These criminal, anarchic acts have impacted this young girl in every way. This sickening behaviour on this innocent child are categorically irreconcilable with Article 13 of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of The Child and the Fourth Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Children During Armed Conflict.
Let us also note the harassment against journalists Ahmed Ettanji and Nazha El Khalidi on their wedding day on November 21st. Ahmed has been placed under house arrest and Nazha has been detained in her home. Their homes respectively were forcibly blockaded, electricity to their homes cut, doors barred from the outside and they have been prevented from leaving. Both well-known journalists at independent media house Equipe Media, have done extensive work to document the persecution of the press in the occupied territory in Western Sahara by the Moroccan security services.
It’s of paramount importance that urgent action be taken as a matter of emergency. This armed conflict brings instability to the region and uncertainty to the Sahel. The Saharawi people have been patient, persistent, respectful of process and procedure, but being dragged back into an armed conflict because Morocco broke the ceasefire agreement leaves the Polisario with no alternative but to stand and defend their people, their land and their fight for the most basic human right, their right to life, liberation and freedom. The allies of Western Sahara must continue to stand against the illegal occupation, colonization, oppression and heinous crimes against humanity that the Saharawi suffer on a daily basis.
The call to action is as follows:
1. We call for Morocco to immediately put an end to its expansionist and colonialist behaviour in Western Sahara, withdraw from the occupied territory and respect its internationally-recognised borders. Morocco’s violation of its neighbour borders is a direct violation of international law and of one of the core principles of the African Union Constitutive Act.
2. We call on the United Nations to set a date in order to enable, within a reasonable time frame, the organization of a referendum allowing the Saharawi people to exercise their legitimate right to self-determination unambiguously and in a democratic manner. We stand firm in our stance for self-determination and call for urgency in this matter.
3. We call on the United Nations Security Council to hold urgent meetings to address the new Moroccan military aggression and illegal territorial expansion, and stop the escalating situation and armed conflict on the ground.
4. We stand against the human rights abuses, harassment and unlawful imprisonment, unlawful house arrest, intimidation and torture taking place against the Saharawi people and condemn this form of violence and inhumane behaviour. We call on the UN and on the International Committee of the Red Cross to immediately intervene in the occupied territories of Western Sahara to protect and monitor the humanitarian and human rights situation of the Saharawi civilians in the occupied territories, being a war-zone: it must be treated under the Geneva Fourth Convention.
5. We demand for the immediate release of all political prisoners.
6. Economically, we must support economic co-operation not occupation. South Africa must stand behind ending illegal exploitation of the natural resources such as phosphate deposits, fisheries and arable land by their trade partners in economic deals that have not included or engaged with the people of Western Sahara. Not forgetting the European Union Court of Justice verdict of December 2016 which concluded that agreements between the EU and Morocco don’t apply to Western Sahara and its resources as the latter is a distinct country not part of the Kingdom of Morocco.
Morocco must accede to the legitimate demands and inalienable right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. The kingdom has no valid claim to the territory, Western Sahara remains under illegal military occupation by Morocco, a country that has repeatedly demonstrated its profound contempt for international law and the United Nations, and remains a brutal occupying power.
Let us be clear, this is a war for liberation, the Polisario cannot return to a failed ceasefire agreement that did not serve the legitimate rights of the people of Western Sahara and took from them thirty years in vain, the time is now. This must be the final chapter in the fight for liberation, justice and freedom!
Catherine Constantinides is a Board Member of The Saharawi Commission for Human Rights and an International Human Rights Defender and Climate Activist.