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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 11:34 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 11:34 | SYDNEY

Western Sahara: The forgotten non-state

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26 May 2010 11:16

The UN list of 'non-self governing territories' is a Who's Who of small and obscure tropical islands scattered predominantly across the Caribbean and Pacific. Among the 16 non-states, one can find idyllic holiday destinations such as the Cayman Islands, New Caledonia and Bermuda; a handful of tiny UK and US territories; and Tokelau, an island uninterested in self-determination.

The glaringly obvious outcast is Western Sahara, which is not an island, not in the Pacific nor Caribbean and has a substantial population, albeit mostly displaced. So why is this North African territory still rubbing shoulders with Pitcairn and its 46 citizens on this stagnant UN list?

Like any good tangle involving neighbours, there's an antagonist, some historical animosity and a struggle for resources.

Formerly a colony of Spain, Western Sahara was seized by Morocco in 1975 after Spanish withdrawal. Morocco's invasion was in direct violation of the October 1975 International Court of Justice ruling, which clearly rejected Morocco's territorial claims. Thousands of Western Saharawis' fled the Moroccan army, ending up in the Algerian desert; the remainder came under Moroccan occupation, an occupation regularly accused of human rights abuses.

Supported by Algeria, Western Sahara's liberation movement, the Polisario, has continually demanded a referendum to give the people of Western Sahara the chance to vote for independence. Morocco has rejected any notion of independence and proposes a plan for considerable autonomy, but under Moroccan sovereignty. In reality, this sounds only slightly better than the situation at hand.

The recently extended UN peacekeeping presence, UN MINURSO, has a pocket-sized force of 224 soldiers and thanks to old allegiances, is the only UN mission in the world without the mandate to monitor human rights. Besides a bi-annual promise by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to do more in promoting political negotiations on the 'Western Sahara issue' and his regularly issued statement of concern on human rights abuses, there is very little public discussion or debate on Western Sahara.

Australia's lack of interest in the plight of Western Sahara is arguably warranted. Simply put, 'out of sight, out of mind'. But on closer inspection, this indifference is slightly surprising, considering the parallels that can be drawn with Timor-Leste's marathon fight for independence and subsequent UN-sponsored referendum in 1999. A sensitive issue, particularly in the agricultural sector, is Australia's continued importation of Phosphate from Western Sahara, an issue expertly covered by the ABC.

There are few larger injustices in existence in 2010 than Western Sahara's situation as a constrained and constricted non-state. A quirky short film sums up the situation and the plight of the Saharawis better than I can here. A much larger film by Oscar winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem, titled 'Sons of the Clouds', is in production and set to include interviews with key players in the dispute, including former and current world leaders.

Already pre-purchased and with international distribution, the film will no doubt bring this dormant issue back to the attention of the mainstream international media. When you add the angry French officials refusing to support their own government on its Western Sahara policy, US senators applying pressure to Secretary of State Clinton to find a resolution to the dispute, a deteriorating human rights situation that is getting more attention, and dedicated bloggers recording every injustice, there is sure to be an increasingly boisterous international call for Western Saharan independence.

The only question is, will Morocco jump before being pushed by a slowly awakening and dissatisfied international community?

Photo by Flickr user extrujado, used under a Creative Commons license.

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