(Approx. reading time: report 10 mins; background 2 mins.)
Report by Diarmuid Breatnach
On Tuesday March 5th a meeting in the Teachers’ Club, Parnell Square, was addressed by representatives of the Western Sahara people and by experts in human rights matters.
Western Sahara, a territory of 266,000 square kilometers (103,000 sq. miles) in the Maghreb, was part of Europe’s carve-up of North Africa, when it was known among most states as Spanish Sahara, in acknowledgement of the European state that occupied it. Its people speak Arabic and Castillian (Spanish) and some also speak French, an influence from neighbouring French ex-colonies. Few speak Berber.
The UN General Assembly in 1964 called on Spain to hold a referendum there which the Franco fascist regime declined to do but in 1975, after the dictator’s death, the new regime pulled out of the territory, practically handing it over to Morocco and Mauritania. After a conflict between those two states, Morocco emerged as the sole occupier and the conflict since then has been between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Saharawi people, who seek independence.
Chaired by Mark McLoughlin, filmmaker, the Dublin meeting had been arranged at short notice and its advertising further hampered by cancellation of a booking at Trinity College.
TRACING THE PLUNDER OF SAHARAWI NATURAL RESOURCES
Erik Hagen, of Western Sahara Resource Watch, with a display projected on a screen, showed how his organisation traces the ships arriving at the territory and departing with phosphates mined there to their destinations. From the registered tonnage of the ships, the amount of phosphates plundered can be calculated. The companies involved claim that they are doing no wrong, since they pay Morocco for the cargoes.
But according to the UN, no state may extract resources from a disputed territory without the consent of the people. Hagen talked about how EU had changed the wording to replace “consent of” with “being of benefit to” and then went on to effectively falsify agreement on ‘benefit‘, using a document on consultation with huge majority – and a total of Saharawi organisations – voting against as evidence for.
The only company currently exploring for oil in Western Sahara is San Leon, an Irish company, although they failed to find any and are currently fighting in financial difficulties.
Clive Symmonds, expert in international law talked about the policy of isolating produce from occupied territories, by first compelling their labeling as such, which, although that would not ban the products, would facilitate a ban if such were decided. The Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018 introduced to the Oireachtas (Irish legislature) and currently being processed with cross-house support despite Government opposition, is an example of how such a ban may be implemented (and Senator Black’s Bill will also be valid for Western Sahara). Of course, as Symmonds pointed out, such labeling is left to the exporter which in this case would be the Kingdom of Morocco.
Symmonds also referred to the EU Fisheries Agreement which, in permitting fishing within what Morocco claims as its territorial waters without reference to the Saharawi people, is permitting the plunder of the Saharawi people’s fish stocks – and the Irish State is a party to this, having signed the Agreement. Symmonds pointed out that the judgement of the European Court of Justice on 21st December 2016, stated that Western Sahara is a “separate and distinct” territory from Morocco and that trade agreements between the EU and Morocco do not apply to the occupied territory. The EU is in violation of this judgement.
“A REFERENDUM IS THE ONLY DEMOCRATIC WAY”
Mohamed Belsat, Frente Polisario Ambassador to Europe, talked about the policies of the Irish state, the EU and, in particular, France. Belsat said that they were in collusion with the Kingdom of Morocco and that in particular, France often seemed to be the opponent of the Saharawi people even more than Morocco.
Referring to what he said was the only democratic of ascertaining the will of the Saharawi people, Belsat said that it was a referendum. Morocco had called for this since they had flooded Western Sahara with Moroccans but, since the process of registration of genuine and historical residents of the area had been completed by the UN, the Moroccan Kingdom had withdrawn all support for a referendum.
“The cost of the occupation to the Moroccan kingdom is huge, in terms of military presence maintenance and so on,” Belsat said, adding that the cost of every litre of water supplied to the occupation forces was equal to four times the price of a litre of whiskey. Furthermore, the cost to the Kingdom exceeded the benefits it extracted from the colony. In January, Morocco had at last joined and signed up to the constitution of the African Union, the organisation of African states, of which Western Sahara is a founding member and which has a long-standing position on Western Sahara being an occupied colonyFor all these and other reasons, including dissatisfaction with the regime among the Moroccan general population, he felt that a campaign of pressure on Morocco and on the EU might well bear fruit in terms of the decolonisation of this “last colony in Africa”.
Later, Belsat’s response to a question from the audience amounted to an admission that there was no “peace process.” (sic) in operation (despite a reference to it by a number of speakers) and that as a result of this and the conditions under which they were kept by their oppressors, it was increasingly difficult to restrain the youth from resorting to armed resistance. At this a member of the audience commented that armed struggle against the army of the Moroccan Kingdom backed up by France would be “suicidal”.
“57 POLITICAL PRISONERS BUT MANY MORE HAVE DISAPPEARED WITHOUT TRACE”
ElGhalia Djimi, Vice-President of ASDH (Saharawi Association of Victims of grave violations of human rights by the Moroccan State), which cooperates with the League for the Protection of Western Sahara Political Prisoners in Moroccan Jails (LPPS), who had arrived in Ireland that day, made her presentation next. Speaking in French through a translator, Djimi talked about the conditions of life under occupation for the Saharawi people. Djimi showed a compilation of clips of soldiers, police and people in civilian clothes physically assaulting protesting Saharawi women, pulling their hair, punching and kicking them and informed the meeting that those in plainclothes were Moroccan police.
“There are 57 Saharawi political prisoners in Moroccan jails,” ElGhalia Djimi said, “but many more that have disappeared without trace.”
Unemployment is high among the Western Sahara people and as a result of that and other deficiencies in their lives, a drug problem has arisen, she told her audience. There are no third-level education facilities in the territory, obliging them to go to institutions in Morocco. Although they can study to gain professional qualifications for civil employment, those available are not usually those required by the employers, which is not true for their equivalent in Morocco, with the result that often Moroccans fit into the administrative jobs better than do the Saharawi people. In terms of their treatment by the authorities, all Sahawaris carry a Moroccan ID card but letters on it indicate their ethnic origin (which Belsat likened to the Nazi State’s requirement that German Jews by identifiable in their national ID documentation).
Moroccan citizen settlement in Layoune, the capital of Western Sahara, had now placed the indigenous people, once the majority, in a minority.
SOLIDARITY IN DUBLIN
In conclusion of the speakers’ presentations, Mohamed Belsat asked for support from the Irish people with their “history of struggle for freedom and solidarity with other struggling nations”‘
A couple of members of the audience mentioned that there had been an active solidarity committee with Western Sahara in Dublin in the past and one wondered about the possibility of resuscitating it.
Comment: The solidarity Committee in Dublin was independent of any political party or organisation, its name was Western Sahara Action Ireland and its FB page is still in existence. Between 2011 and 2012, the group organised a number of public events, including: two protests about Moroccan repression of Saharawi protesters, one in Dame Street and another in O’Connell Street; a protest against the EU’s Fisheries Agreement outside the Dublin offices of the EU in Dawson Street; the construction and maintenance of a “Western Sahara Tent” at the Electric Picnic of 2012, along with an exhibition of photographs taken in the territory. The latter was visited by Michael O’Higgins who was then campaigning for the Presidency of Ireland (he also appeared in the film shown at the beginning of public meeting in Dublin).
On each of the Dublin street events, a small group of Moroccans had attended to harass and attempt to intimidate the protesters, almost certainly sent by the Moroccan Embassy but their efforts were to no avail.
There had been many uprisings against colonial rule in the history of Western Sahara and the last Rif War, from 1920 to 1927, had cost the Spanish State military 23,000 casualties, of which 18,000 were fatalities. Only for the intervention of the French1, the forces led by Abd el Krim would have kicked the Spanish colonialists out of the footholds to which they were still clinging.2
Like the French in their North African colonies, the Spanish occupiers had suppressed risings not only by military force against insurgents and torture of captives, including electric shocks, but also by terror against the civilian population, including assassinations, massacres, rape and internment without trial.
Both European states also developed their own Foreign Legions. Forget about the 1924 Beau Geste novel by PC Wren and the various screenplays3 to which it gave rise; the Foreign Legions were tough terrorists in uniform, founded not to fight in open war but against resisting colonial peoples.
Since 1963, Western Sahara has been on the United Nations’ list of “non self-governing nations”. In 1965, the UN General Assembly, in its first declaration on Western Sahara, called on the Spanish State to decolonise the territory and, in 1967, to hold a referendum on self-determination but Spain refused. From 1973 to 1975, the Frente Polisario fought an armed struggle for national liberation.
After the Spanish State abruptly pulled out in 1975 (following the death of its fascist dictator General Franco) and – without allowing elections of an independent Saharawi government before doing so – it relinquished control to the Kingdom of Morocco (which had formally claimed the territory since 1957) and Mauritania and conflict broke out between those states. Mauritania in time abandoned its claim and Morocco moved in and seized Western Sahara.
The Saharawi people protested Morocco’s occupation of their land and were suppressed by military and police. The Frente Polisario fought the occupying Moroccan military from 1975 until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991, since which there has been no Saharawi armed struggle but plenty of Moroccan repression. One of the features of the struggle was the displacement of a large part of the Saharawi population as people fled the Moroccan military, many to Algeria (which had won independence from France in 1962 after a fierce and dirty war), where they remain in a refugee camp. The Moroccan Kingdom then built a wall to prevent Saharawis from returning, which it guards by troops and miles of landmines.
1The casualties of the French, according to Wikipedia, amounted to 10,000 with 2,500 killed in battle. The casualties of the insurgents and of the indigenous civilian population, as usual in these situations, is difficult to determine but, according to Wikipedia, came to 30,000, of which 10,000 were fatalities.
2For more on the Rif War 1920, read the article about it (see link in Resources and Useful Links).
3Including those of 1939 starring Gary Cooper and Ray Miland, 1966 with Telly Savalas and Doug McClure and the BBC serial of 1982.
REFERENCES AND USEFUL LINKS
Sahara Press Service: https://www.spsrasd.info/news/en
Western Sahara Resources Watch: https://www.wsrw.org/
Western Sahara Action Ireland facebook page (please bear in mind that at the time of writing this group is not active): https://www.facebook.com/groups/256377861125569/
Article on the Rif War 1920 by me: https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2018/08/09/an-old-war-with-a-lesson-for-today/
Recent Amnesty International report on Western Sahara under Moroccan rule: https://www.refworld.org/docid/5a9938ac4.html