Western Sahara: A Violence That Goes Unnamed

| March 2, 2013 | 0 Comments

The conflict in the Western Sahara is inadequately represented by terms such as ‘stagnated’, ‘frozen’ and ‘locked’, which contribute to obscure the reality that this conflict represents the continuation of French, US and Spanish colonial practices in Africa.

On 27 and 28 September 2011 more than 700 delegates from 42 different countries congregated in Abuja, Nigeria to celebrate a conference titled ‘The Struggle of Saharawi women for Freedom’ [1]. The event was organised by WAELE/ARCELFA [2] a pan-African women’s civil network which the Saharawi National Women’s Union is part of.

The initiative came out of the visit of a group of women from different countries in Africa to the Saharawi camps of Tindouf in Algeria a year before; it was an example, not just of the long tradition of Saharawi women’s dexterous international diplomatic activity (Rossetti, 2012), but of the healthy and strong solidarity across the nations of Africa.

Under the motto ‘Africa will not be fully independent until the Western Sahara is free’ the event was an exciting reminder of the threads that connect the struggles of different people’s across the world.

Designed by young activist and distributed through social media reproduced with the consent of the author who prefers to remain anonymous (2010)

Frank Ruddy, former Deputy Chairman of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), participated in the conference as key note speaker. Well-known amongst the supporters of the Saharawi cause as the man who has spoken openly in support of the political demands of the Saharawi people, it was encouraging, at times emotional, to hear his articulate and transparent words.

He confessed how, upon first accepting his position at MINURSO, he had an initial bias in favour of Morocco, for all those ‘cold-war’ films, he said humorously, for the sake of the Moroccan government’s old alliance with his country, the USA, and he described how he became gradually shocked by the Moroccan government’s unwillingness to negotiate and play fair, openly describing the various bribes he had received from them.

Ruddy shared stories of his first visit to the camps: he told us about the day he met Minister of Education Mariam Salek and commended her for her bluntness; he praised her for asking him hard questions, for making him feel uncomfortable and he extended his praise for the hard work and resilience he witnessed on the part of Saharawi women.

These words were touching and yet the sense of excitement and hope that came from listening to his unusual frankness was pierced by his comment on Peter Van Walsum, personal envoy of the UN secretary-general for Western Sahara, who in 2008 concluded his post by saying that Saharawi independence was an unrealistic and unattainable goal [2].

In relation to Walsum, Frank Ruddy said: ‘His words were harsh, but he was being honest, he spoke the truth’; and Ruddy’s words fell like a mug of cold water over the excited listeners at the conference.

Indeed, the truth is that this era is like no other. We live in times saturated by noble international laws and agreements, but which are hardly ever procured. The question is not whether the 40 years of the Saharawi people’s waiting for independence are legitimate, whether they are fair, whether they are feasible.

The only question worth exploring at this point is how is it that after 40 years of being on the right side international law, the high-level representatives of the international community continue to tell us that not much can be done to respond to the Saharawi’s legal claims?

As has been argued by Mundy and Zunes (2010: xxix), the spirit of the 1991 ceasefire agreements between the POLISARIO and Morocco was not one of peace, but of war by other means. Indeed, the 22 years of a diplomatic war of attrition between the two parties seem to provide ample evidence for this point (see Jensen 2005; Theofilopoulou 2006, 2007; Zunes and Mundy 2010: 169 – 253 for more details), but how exact is it to reduce the warring’ parties to two?

There is something misleading in the prevalent idea that this conflict has reached a stalemate, stuck in time by the stubborn zero-sum game between Morocco and POLISARIO (Jensen 2005).

Of course the fact that the conflict on the Western Sahara implicates all sorts of actors across North Africa as well as the major Western powers is a reality that escapes no one, but it is equally important to scrutinize the actions of ‘neutral’ international agencies and actors, most importantly of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to help explain the contradiction that these international legal institutions cannot implement their own laws.


Professor of international politics Andrea Solá-Martín (2005, 2006) has written a sophisticated evaluation of the role played by MINURSO in the conflict. He explains that international peacekeeping is premised on the distinction made by Jonathan Galtung (1976) between ‘negative peace’ and ‘positive peace’. Negative peace is the ability of peacekeeping operations to put an end to armed conflict.

Positive peace is the ability to put an end to all violent interactions between the conflicted parties. In the case of the Western Sahara these should include reducing and lodging of troops, exchanging of prisoners of war, returning refugees to their homes, de-mining activities, human rights protection, confidence building measures, a UN transitional administration, the organisation of both the campaign for the referendum, and the referendum itself.

None of this second batch of measures characteristic of Galtung’s ‘positive peace’ have been achieved by MINURSO in the Western Sahara, leaving Solá-Martín to conclude that only a limited type of peace, a ‘negative’ peace is currently being prolonged by MINURSO in the region.

To explain this situation, Solá-Martín reminds us that the UN is in no way above or immune to global politics. The post-cold war shift in US and Western European foreign policy, from one of communist containment to one of containing Islamic fundamentalism, has made North African political stability a priority for Western powers over procuring human rights and respect of international law amongst its peoples (also see Zunes and Mundy 2010: 59; Ruff 1987).

Traditional allies in the region such as the Alawite monarchy ruling Morocco continue to be supported by the same Western regimes which vastly influence the decisions of international bodies such as MINURSO.

Given this geopolitical context, exacerbated by France’s recent attack on Mali, it is no surprise that the UN Secretariat’s policymaking has often been accused of being biased in favour of Morocco (Ruddy 1995, in Solá-Martín 2005: 5).

Thus, Solá-Martín concludes ‘MINURSO’s peacekeeping can be seen as a way of promoting the status quo and legitimising the same order of power relations which was actually the root of the conflict’ (2005: 10).

The peace being kept by MINURSO in the Western Sahara is a mediocre version of peace, it is one that is best understood as part of a ‘Pax America’, a stabilising force, which is nothing but the continuation of the colonial interests that Basiri Lebsir, the disappeared leader of the first Saharawi nationalist movement, ‘Movimiento de Vanguardia para la Liberación del Sahara’ first started fighting against in the 60s; the same structured violence that Saharawis resist to this day in the occupied Western Sahara, in the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic and in diaspora.

Indeed, the fact that the experience of violence co-exists with international peacekeeping in the Western Sahara certainly does not escape Saharawis whose lives are marked by this experience on an everyday basis.

In fact, as evoked by imagery circulating in the social media such as the photograph below, more and more, the UN is becoming the explicit target of political activists world wide.

Foto1: Designed by young activist and distributed through social media reproduced with the consent of the author who prefers to remain anonymous (2010)

On 14 April, the occasion of the UN Security Council annual meeting to vote for the renewal of the MINURSO mandate, the Union of Saharawi Students (UESARIO), with its headquarters in the Saharawi Republic in the Tindouf refugee camps? (but which also operates through its student networks in their diaspora), organised an international campaign urging the Security Council to finally include the monitoring of human rights abuses in its mandate.

Demonstrations were organised in front of French embassies in Madrid, Rome, Paris, London, The Hague, Berlin, Vienna, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and Melbourne.

A demonstration was also organised in the Saharawi refugee camps of Tindouf. France, the country that persistently vetoes the UN resolution to enhance MINURSO’s capacity to promote ‘positive peace’ in the region was targeted, but the mockery made of MINURSO by the campaign through the image of three monkeys: one playing deaf, one playing blind and one playing mute is indicative of a growing consciousness and denunciation of the UN’s incapacity to intervene neutrally and effectively in resolving this conflict [3].

Image source: http://minurso.tumblr.com [Note to editors: permitted use by author of this article]


The persistence of violence towards Saharawis is most notable and well-known through the persecution and torture experienced by Saharawi political activists living in the Moroccan occupied territory where Moroccan forces continue to systematically violate several articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by the UN General Assembly December 9, 1998.

Such violence is as well documented by civilians and well-reputed international NGOs [4] as it is simultaneously witnessed and ignored by MINURSO, inside the Moroccan Occupied Territory.

Less visible is the violence that MINURSO’s function as conflict stabiliser in the region (Solá-Martín, 2005: 3) is exerting over the lives of Saharawi refugees for whom the passing of time affects their capacity to hope, dream and imagine a different future. The following extract of an interview with Fatma Mehdi, Secretary General of the Saharawi Union of Saharawi Women speaks for itself in this regard:

“When we heard the news of the ceasefire on the 6th of September of 1991, we all left our houses to cheer and celebrate the occasion, everyone, women, men, children… We felt as if we had gained already our independence. On that moment our thoughts were projected towards our occupied land.

We started to organise our trip back home. I remember how women began to take the tin off their temporary shelters in the camps, in order to back chests which they could use to store their belongings on their trip back to Western Sahara [5]. Those who had goats sold their goats. Those of us who had children abroad began organising to bring them back.

MINURSO began to elaborate lists about us, the POLISARIO front started to ask us where we wanted to live upon our return… I told my parents, I want to go live near the sea others wanted to live in a calm life in the desert … it was a time during which our collective hope became alive, our dreams, the many different dreams people had for their lives came to life, but they were dreams that didn’t last… I remember it as a kind of storm, which started very strong and then slowly faded away… it was very hard to adapt to a situation which seemed to have no end… Then there were all those talks… of “the peace- process” a process that, for us, has been a “retro-process”… from self-determination, to Baker II to… this suggestion of autonomy on the table now…

For me the peace-plan was… well, at least during the times of war, when we felt the international community didn’t support us, at least we could find consolation in the successes of our soldiers in the battlefield… but this “waiting” is very difficult. I always say: there are many types of violence, of human rights violations, which are invisible.(Fatma Mehdi, in conversation with the author, March, 2012)

Indeed, the passing of time is not neutral, it is causing a suffering which goes mostly unnamed, and it is politically charged.

The passing of time is allowing Morocco to further expand its settlements in the Western Sahara (Solá-Martín, 2005, 2006) while it is provoking exhaustion amongst Saharawis refugees whose future has been put on hold (Caratini, 2006). This passing of time is time being invested in strengthening a pax Americana in the region, and in the African continent.

The conflict in the Western Sahara is inadequately represented by terms such as ‘stagnated’, ‘frozen’ and ‘locked’. Not because they are inaccurate but because they contribute to obscure the reality that this conflict represents the continuation of French, US and Spanish colonial practices in Africa, a reality in which international actors such as MINURSO are not just passive mediators.

Moreover, these terms reproduce the false imaginary that the conflict has reached a sort of temporal impasse, that it is stuck in time. Time is passing and it is being used as a weapon, hindering not just the Saharawi people, but the independence of the entire African continent.

– Vivian Solana is PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto.


[1] To see the final declaration of the conference: http://www.waelearcelfa.org/downloads/english/saharawicommunique.pdf

[2] Women Advancement for Economic and Leadership Empowerment in Africa

[3]See his declarations at: http://elpais.com/diario/2008/08/28/opinion/1219874410_850215.html

[4] For further information on this campaign which will be organised again in 2013 see http://minurso.tumblr.com/

[5] Amnesty International (AI): “Disappearances” of People of Western Saharan Origin AI Index MDE 29/17/90 New York: AI, Nov 1990

2 Human Rights Watch “HumanRightsinWesternSaharaandintheTindoufRefugeeCamps” 2008http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/12/19/human-rights-western-sahara-and-tindouf-refugee-camps-0

3 Report ASVDH about Gdeim Izik y los acontecimientos que siguieron a su desmantelamiento http://asvdh.net/5528Report CODAPSO sobre el campamento de Gdeim Izik:http://www.scribd.com/doc/49325805/Informe-Sobre-el-desmantelamiento-del-Campamento-de-Gdeim-Izik-Codapso-2011

[6] A fiction film called “Los Baúles del Retorno”, directed by María Miró, and produced by Fígaro Films also tells this story.


1. Caratini, S (2006) “La prisión del tiempo: los cambios sociales en los campamentos de refugiados saharauis” Cuadernos Bakeaz, n77

2. Jensen, E (2005) Western Sáhara: Anatomy of a Stalemate. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner

3. Zunes, S. and Mundy, J.(2010) Western Sáhara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution, Syracuse University Press, New York

4. Rossetti, S (2012) “Saharawi women and their voices as political representatives abroad” The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 17, nº2

5. Ruf, W (1987) “The Role of World Powers: Colonialist Transformations and King Hassan’s Rule” pp 65-97 in War and Refugees: The Western Sáhara Conflict, eds. Richard Lawless and Laila Monahan, Pinter: New York.

6. Sola-Marti, A (2005) “The Contribution of Critical Theory to New Thinking on Peacekeeping. Some Lessons from MINURSO Centre for Conflict Resolution” Working Paper 15 Department of Peace Studies, Bradford.

7. Sola-Martin, A (2006) “Lessons from MINURSO: A Contribution to New Thinking on Peacekeeping”, International Peacekeeping Journal, Vol. 13, No 3, Routledge

8. Theofilopoulou, A (2006) “The United Nations and Western Sáhara: A Never-ending affair” Special Report no. 166. Washington, DC: Unites States Institute for Peace

– 2007 “Western Sáhara – How not to Try to Resolve a Conflict” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Aug 3.

Culled from :Here

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