August 21, 2005


Prisoner release gives hope for W. Sahara peace: The Polisario Front freed 404 Moroccan prisoners of war held captive for, in some cases, 20 years. (Lisa Abend and Geoff Pingree, 8/22/05, The Christian Science Monitor)

This desert region has been controlled by Morocco since 1975. For the Saharawi people, it is their home, a place for which the Polisario Front has fought for decades. For the Moroccans, however, Western Sahara - the "southern provinces," as the government prefers to call the area - is an integral part of their national territory.

Western Sahara became a source of contention in the mid-1970s, when Spain officially ceded sovereignty of the territory, and the Polisario Front sought to secure the land as an independent state for the Saharawi people. Although the International Court of Justice had established the Saharawi's right to self-determination, Morocco sent a massive force to occupy Western Sahara in 1975, initiating a war with the Polisario.

In 1991, the United Nations brokered a cease-fire - the terms of which required a self-determination referendum for Western Sahara - and installed a peacekeeping force, called MINURSO. After political wrangling delayed the referendum, UN special envoy James Baker attempted in 1997 to negotiate a solution. But his efforts failed when Morocco rejected the plan in 2003.

Today, Moroccan officials profess willingness to discuss a solution to the 30-year conflict, but they refuse to negotiate an open referendum. Laayoune councilman Moulay Ould Errachid backs a federalist approach to the problem, one that would allow greater autonomy to Western Sahara. "But," he says, "we will not debate Moroccan sovereignty with anyone."

Morocco's refusal to hold the referendum is, for Brahim Gali, the Polisario's representative in Spain, a violation of international law and a clear indication that Morocco fears such a vote.

"We don't know if a majority of Saharawi would vote for independence," says Mr. Gali, "but we're not afraid of elections. The one who is afraid is the one who won't let the vote go forward."

Ali Lmrabet, a Moroccan journalist, takes a more forceful position. "If you believe the official Moroccan press, then only a few Saharawi want independence. If that's the case, then why not hold the vote? Because the truth is that most Saharawi don't want to be Moroccans. Personally, I'd prefer that Western Sahara remain part of Morocco, but the important thing is that the Saharawi choose for themselves. I can't force anyone to be a Moroccan."

Any people who think of themselves as sovereign will be.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2005 7:00 PM
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