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A Dublin public meeting on Western Sahara attracted a high-powered attendance including ambassadors and other diplomats of four foreign states, along with the Prime Minister and Minister for Women and Social Affairs of Western Sahara.
Western Sahara – a Spanish colonial possession but then occupied by the Kingdom of Morocco, has been called “the last colony in Africa”, by which is meant the last African region remaining under formal occupation by its coloniser.1
The Western Sahara liberation politicians included the Prime Minister of the Polisario Front, the national political representation of the Saharawi nation, Mr. Boucharay Beyoun and Souilima Biruk, Minister for Women and Social Affairs.
Other diplomatic representation for the Saharawi people was provided by Mr. Oubi Bouchraya for the EU and Europe, Mr. Sidi Breika, for the UK and Mr. Nafi Sediki, for the Irish state.
For other countries, there were the Ambassadors to Ireland of Cuba Mr. Bernardi Guanche, of Algeria Mr. Mohammed Belaoura and of South Africa Ms. Yolisa Maya. For Colombia, Andres Echeverri, Deputy Chief of Mission and Consul attended.
Also in attendance at the meeting in the Teachers’s Club, in Dublin’s City centre were the diplomats’ support and security staff, a few solidarity activists and SIPTU officials. Earlier, the Saharawi delegation had met with TDs, members of the Irish parliament.
COLONIAL RULE AND RESISTANCE BACKGROUND
Western Sahara is a territory located between the internationally-recognised borders of Algeria to the south, Mauritania to the east and Morocco to the north. Along with much of North Africa it was colonised by the Spanish State in the latter’s various forms2 from 1884 to 1976.
In 1967 the Harakat Tahrir organisation was formed and challenged Spanish rule peacefully but publicly. In 1970 the Spanish police destroyed the organisation and ‘disappeared’ its founder, Muhammad Basiri, widely believed murdered.
As the Spanish state left without making any arrangements for decolonisation, holding a referendum or handing over power to Saharawi representatives, armies of the Moroccan and Mauritanian states invaded. In response, the Frente Polisario was created, raising armed and political resistance.
Mauritania withdrew in 1979 and revoked its territorial claim but Morocco, supported by France, rather intensified its occupation and attendant repression. Large numbers of Saharawi people fled over the border into Algeria where they currently inhabit refugee camps.
The population is of part-Berber, part-Arabic descent, mostly Muslim in religion and in many aspects of culture. The people are universally at least bilingual, common languages in the occupied area being Arabic and Castilian (Spanish) along with, in the refugee camps in Algeria, Arabic and French3.
The Polisario Front has been resisting the Moroccan occupation from the moment it began in guerrilla war but in 1991 the United Nations brokered a ceasefire which was supposed to be followed by arrangements for the Saharawi people to determine the territory’s future.
All attempts in this direction have failed due to the irreconcilable differences between the objectives of the mass of Sahrawi people on the one hand, i.e self-determination and independence and those of the Moroccan State on the other, colonisation and extraction of natural resources.4
The Moroccan state has built a 2,700 km (1,700 mi) long wall or berm of rocks and sand fortified by bunkers, topped by surveillance and communication equipment. Artillery posts dot the wall with airfields on the Moroccan occupiers’ side.
Running along this is the minefield, the longest in the world. The wall even penetrates the Mauritanean side for several kilometres.
Popular demonstrations of the Saharawi people broke out at different points since, including a “protest camp” of 12,000 people broken up by Moroccan militarised police with disputed claims about numbers of injuries and fatalities and in 2020 more military action against Saharawi protests.
After the latter, the Polisario Front considered that the Moroccan forces had broken the truce and, declaring their own abandonment of it, resumed the guerrilla war last fought in 19915.
DUBLIN MEETING: PRESENTATIONS, SPEECHES AND EXCHANGES
Mark McLoughlin opened the meeting welcoming people and giving a brief overview of the situation of the Saharawi, before introducing the first speaker.
Suelma Beirouk,Minister for Social Affairs and the Promotion of Women, spoke briefly in Spanish, with her words interpreted into English. The delegation had been received and listened to by representatives of most of the political parties, she said.
They had also met with some civil society organisations and were made welcome. Saharawi women, Ms Beirouk went on to say, were at the forefront of the struggle for the nation’s self-determination and had suffered much – including even rape — but continued to resist.
Mr. Oubi Bouchraya, Polisario representative for the EU and Europe was the next to speak and the main speaker. In fluent English he set out the current international situation regarding Western Sahara and the context of the Delegation’s visit to Ireland.
The speaker pointed to the diplomatic importance of Ireland with its presence in the United Nations Security Council in which the Saharawi would hope for its support when the question of a referendum is due to be discussed there at the end of the month.
The UN has had a mission called MINURSO based in W. Sahara since 1991, the only one in the world without a human rights observation role. If it is not going to oversee that referendum, what is the point of it being there? On the other hand, observing human rights would be useful.
As a member of the European Union, Ireland also has an important role to play. The EU’s Ministers negotiated economic agreements with Morocco which included access to resources in Western Sahara. As WS is a non-self-governing colony, by international law, those agreements were illegal.
The European Court of Justice has judged accordingly and, though it allows them to stand temporarily, the agreements must fall, stated Mr. Bouchraya.
Questions, Contributions and Responses
From the floor there was a question as to whether the Polisario could have a national delegation recognised by the Irish government, as had happened in the cases of South Africa before the end of apartheid and currently with Palestine.
This question is being explored by the Saharawi mission. An aide to the South African Ambassador pointed out that that recognition for South Africa and Palestine had been gained as a result of pressure “from the bottom up” and went on to speak of the ANC’s unequivocal support.
A Dublin member of the audience, responding to the need for “bottom-upwards pressure”, related the history of the Western Sahara Action Ireland solidarity group some years ago which had been very active publicly to the extent of being harassed and even threatened by some Moroccans.
The WSAI group had however had suffered a number of departures of activists and with a number also active in other areas of struggle, was unable to maintain itself as an active group. He stated that he believed the group’s necessary reactivation needed an injection of some personnel.
A number of questions addressed the issue of the support for Western Sahara in Africa and generally. Over 80 states formally support the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination and most of those are in Africa, including the formal support of the African Union6.
1Actually this is not accurate since Ceuta and Melilla are both colonial enclaves on the northern and north-eastern coasts of North Africa, surrounded on land by territory of the Kingdom of Morocco. It would be more accurate to say that Western Sahara is the only remaining un-decolonised large territory.
2The Spanish State was a monarchy until it became a French client 1807-1814, followed by monarchy again but interrupted briefly by the First Republic (1873-1874), a monarchy again until the Second Republic in 1931, in which it was briefly a military dictatorship, followed by a Popular Front democracy (1936-1939). A military-fascist rebellion against the Republic led to its defeat and rule by a military dictatorship 1939-1978, then to its current form, a monarchy once more.
3Algeria was colonised by the French in 1830, winning formal independence in 1962 after a fierce national liberation struggle.
4The major natural resources being exploited are the extremely rich fishing off the coast and phosphates being mined on land. Solar energy ‘farms’ are also being run without benefit to the indigenous people and though not discovered yet (“thank God!” commented a Saharawi in a meeting), sources of oil and gas are a possibility.
5And for which there had been sporadic periods of pressure in particular from Saharawi youth.
6Formed in 1963, the African all 55 states currently in Africa.
Western Sahara Action Ireland: https://www.facebook.com/groups/256377861125569
Western Sahara Resource Watch: https://www.facebook.com/wsrw.org