In 1991, the United Nations sent a force to Western Sahara to monitor the ceasefire between the occupying Moroccan forces and the Polisario independence movement. The Force, known by its French acronym MINURSO, was also tasked with facilitating a referendum on self-determination within the territory – in fact this was its principal purpose. Some 16 years on, the referendum has failed to materialise, and MINURSO is widely viewed by the indigenous Sahrawi, and by some commentators, as leaning towards Morocco. On a positive note, the ceasefire has been maintained without any serious violations, and MINURSO recently has been arranging family visits for Sahrawi separated from their relatives by the effective partition of Western Sahara.
So, MINURSO has overseen a period of relative peace and stability (or helped to maintain the status quo as Morocco consolidates its occupation, depending on your opinion), and has (belatedly) helped Sahrawi exiles in the refugee camps in Algeria maintain contact with family members on the other side of the Moroccan Berm that cuts divides the territory into two zones. However, it has singularly failed in its main task, which is to organise a referendum on self-determination. Perhaps MINURSO cannot be blamed entirely for the continuing stalemate, given the wrangling over voter eligibility and lack of will of the international community to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara in an equitable fashion, if at all. What is clear is that MINURSO is increasingly irrelevant when it comes to determining the future of Western Sahara. It is the view of at least some Sahrawi that MINURSO no longer has any business being in Western Sahara at all.
A recent visit (Nov-Dec 2007) to Western Sahara by this blogger revealed a more unsavoury legacy of MINURSO’s presence in Western Sahara – the deliberate vandalism of archaeological sites. The most dramatic example of this is at Lajuad in the Southern Sector of the Polisario-controlled zone, where MINURSO recently installed some communications hardware on the inaccessible (except by helicopter) summit of a smooth granite hill. It appears that the MINURSO personnel responsible for the installation amused themselves by spray-painting their names on the wall of a rockshelter that is also an important archaeological site (see photos). Although the paintings and engravings in this shelter are somewhat faint, it is difficult not to notice that the wall defaced by the MINURSO personnel houses ancient paintings and engravings, as does the floor of the shelter. Note the engraved and painted wavy lines in the second photograph below, under graffiti from what appear to be Egyptian and Russion MINURSO personnel (see this Flickr album for more photos of the defacement of the Lajuad rockshelter). Perhaps the visiting UN staff were encouraged by the apparently earlier Arabic graffiti – they have certainly left a much greater impression at this site.
This isn’t the first example of the deliberate vandalism of an archaeological site by MINURSO personnel. Similar defacement of decorated rockshelters by UN staff can be seen at the more accessible site of Rekeiz in the Northern Sector of the Polisario zone. Here MINURSO staff again have seen fit to write their names over ancient rock art.
It is a tragedy that UN personnel tasked with resolving one of the world’s longest running military and political conflicts are engaging in the willful destruction of important archaeological sites that have much to teach us about the prehistory of a part of the world that is virtually unknown to the international research community. It is also a tragedy for the cultural heritage of Western Sahara, and is indicative of a contempt for the Sahrawi people on whose land these crimes have been committed. The Polisario, who control the region in which this vandalism has occurred, have apparently complained to MINURSO about these actions, but as of late November 2007 had received no formal response.
It is clear that the destruction and defacement of archaeological sites is unacceptable. The only way for MINURSO to redeem itself in this matter, and by extension the reputation of the United Nations in this region, is to pay for the professional restoration of the sites that its staff have willfully vandalised. MINURSO must also make clear to all its staff that such actions will not be tolerated in the future. Any UN staff found vandalising archaeological sites should be disciplined, and preferably sent home. The funds for restoring damage sites might come from the relevant UN agency (in this case the Department of Peacekeeping Operations), or perhaps from the nations contributing to the MINURSO mission whose military personnel have taken part in these wanton acts of destruction. The guilty parties have, after all, been good enough to leave details of their home countries, their own identities, and the dates on which they committed their misdemeanours.
There is a further irony here, in that the personnel under the jurisdiction of one UN department are busy destroying archaeological sites as another UN agency (UNESCO) is about to embark on developing an inventory of rock art sites in Western Sahara with the aim of recording and preserving the territory’s cultural heritage. As long as UN staff on the ground in Western Sahara delight in defacing rock art, perhaps it is best not to advertise its location.