Between a spray-painted rock and a hard place

It’s difficult to talk about the archaeology of Western Sahara without politics rearing its head sooner or later. For me this usually takes the form of having to explain where Western Sahara is, and that it is a distinct entity that takes the form of a disputed, non-self governing territory, rather than simply a vaguely defined area somewhere in northwest Africa. People usually think I mean I’m working somewhere in Mauritania, Algeria or (eek) Morocco. Once I’ve explained the geography the conversation inevitably turns to the conflict and the partition of the territory between the Moroccan occupied areas and the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone”.

Now I don’t keep my sympathies for the Sahrawi independence cause secret. And I challenge anyone to spend time in the Free Zone with the displaced and politically marginalised Sahrawi without developing some sympathy for their aspirations to an independent state. But politics is politics, and science is science, and we must work hard to keep them as separate as possible in order that the former does not contaminate the latter. In fact this should be pretty easy when the science is dealing with environmental and social changes thousands of years ago, and the politics deals with a contemporary conflict. There is no mileage in using the archaeology of millennia past to say anything about the current political situation, or who has a right to be where.

Nonetheless, the management of archaeological sites must be carried out in existing political contexts, and politics does impinge on the activities of researchers and those concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage. It now appears that the politics of the Western Sahara conflict may present a diplomatic obstacle to the rehabilitation and preservation of archaeological sites damaged by personnel from the UN observer force in Western Sahara (known by its acronym MINURSO), as I will elaborate below.

The vandalism of archaeological sites in Western Sahara clearly warrants some action, in the form of measures to protect sites from future damage, and the rehabilitation of sites that have already been damaged where this is possible. All actors in the region should be cooperating to ensure that the cultural heritage is preserved. MINURSO has a duty to care for it, and Morocco and the Polisario both claim it. There really shouldn’t be too much to argue about (apart perhaps from who pays, which always generates some disagreement).

MINURSO have been very positive about taking action against the perpetrators, cooperating with the rehabilitation of the sites if this turns out to be feasible, and doing their best to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen in the future. Whether action is effective remains to be seen, but the important thing is that the MINURSO leadership is taking the issue very seriously, and seems to be responding constructively to the approach that those of us working in the region have been taking. This is one of constructive engagement coupled with continuing pressure, the idea being to create a climate in which the vandalism of rock art sites is seen as unacceptable by those who might be tempted to perpetrate it, while offering cooperaton to MINURSO in order to help them take sensible actions to protect the archaeology. Julian Harston, the civilian head of MINURSO and the UN Secretary General’s special representative in the region, has pledged to take additional actions to rehabilitate and protect the sites, and has apologised for the damage already done.

So far, so good, you might think. But not everyone approves of MINURSO’s apologetic stance. The Association Sahara Marocain (ASM), a pro-Moroccan, anti-Polisario group based in Casablanca which promotes Morocco’s self-declared “rights” to Western Sahara, has taken great exception to the fact that Mr Harston apologised to some Polisario representatives for the actions of MINURSO staff, after the Polisario representatives had taken up the issue of MINURSO graffiti over prehistoric rock art with him. In fact, ASM has demanded that Mr Harston apologise for the apology. AFP describes ASM’s tantrum as part of a wider “diplomatic incident, and reports that:

“ASM chief Reda Daoujni warned that if an apology was not offered to his group, it would call for a rally outside the Minurso offices in Western Saharaand in Rabat to protest Harston’s “blatant pro-separatist stance.””

ASM claims to be supporting Morocco’s “territorial integrity”, but does not seem to be bothered about vandalism to the important archaeological sites which would, if it had its way, represent an important element of Morocco’s cultural heritage. Instead, the organisation is concerned only with using cultural heritage as a political football and, to mix my metaphors, a stick to beat MINURSO with when it behaves in a way that isn’t convenient for Morocco. I guess this tells us something about ASM and its priorities.

MINURSO haven’t commented on this latest twist to the story, but they do seem to have identified the complaint from ASM as a potential problem. Any measures to protect archaeological sites will require some kind of coordination with the authorities on the ground, and in the areas housing the damaged sites the authority in question is the Polisario. Anything that prevents MINURSO from cooperating with the Polisario on the issue of protection for archaeological sites is likely to have a detrimental effect on efforts to protect the cultural heritage – any such efforts will need to have the support of all the relevant local “stakeholders”.

Having taken MINURSO to task over the actions of some of its personnel, I feel that I should stick up for them, at least on this issue. The MINURSO leadership is at least trying to right the wrongs committed by some of the UN personnel for which it is responsible, and is taking a lot of flack over this issue at present (albeit not without good reason). Julian Harston and his colleagues seem to be genuinely appalled by the actions of some of the MINURSO observer force, and I for one believe that they are serious about making amends and establishing measures to prevent future vandalism. It would be a real pity if their apparently genuine desire to take meaningful action to restore and protect vulnerable archaeological sites was scuppered by the politicking of the pro-occupation lobby.

So what lies behind ASM’s complaint? For one, they (and by inference, the Moroccan authorities) interpret the MINURSO apology to the Polisario as some sort of recognition of Polisario’s legitimacy, and this makes them mad. Never mind that Morocco has no presence in the areas of Western Sahara in which the damage has been recorded, or the fact that these areas are firmly under the control of the Polisario. Never mind the fact that the Polisario are the political representatives of the Sahrawi who inhabit and use these areas, and who endow the damaged sites with historical, cultural and even magical significance. Given this context, it would seem churlish and antagonisitic of Mr Harston not to apologise to representatives of the Polisario when they raised the issue of MINURSO vandalism with him, personally, during the talks at Manhasset. If he is sorry about the actions of MINURSO personnel, why should his apology exclude the authorities in the region in which these actions were carried out? Of course at the bottom of all this lies the fact that Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara is not officially recognised by any government (despite the pro-occupation stance of countries such as France and the US), while the Polisario is recognised as the legitimate government of Western Sahara by around 50 countries (the number changes as countries alternately cave into Moroccan pressure or decide to oppose what they see as Moroccan colonialism). No wonder Morocco is so sensitive and desperate to keep the spotlight away from the reality of an unresolved partition.

ASM’s complaint has deeper roots though. One of the results of the coverage (e.g. 1, 2) of the vandalism is that people are getting to hear about Western Sahara. Crucially, this is a story about Western Sahara that doesn’t mention Morocco, giving the lie to Morocco’s claims to have control or sovereignty over the entire territory. People might realise that this story is rooted in events that occurred in the Free Zone, and come to realise that, rather than being under Moroccan control, Western Sahara is actually partitioned between a Moroccan occupied zone and a Polisario-controlled zone. The reality of partition makes Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan” look like a less durable solution to the Western Sahara conflict, given that the plan does not address the status of the Polisario-controlled or Free Zone, or the status of the 160,000 thousand Sahrawi refugees displaced by Morocco’s occupation and now living in camps in the Algerian desert. Any coverage of events in the Free Zone reveals the inconvenient truth that Morocco’s occupation is not simply a done deal waiting for international endorsement. Such coverage exposes as a fantasy Morocco’s claims of sovereignty, as well as its claims that its occupation of Western Sahara is a stabilising influence in this part of the Sahara. Unresolved partitions of disputed territories and the existence of large numbers of refugees in neighbouring countries is not, as far as my reading of history indicates, conducive to political stability.

Morocco has been quick to try and assert its “ownership” of this story, with the Moroccan director of national heritage condemning the actions of MINURSO personnel in “the demilitarised zone” (i.e. the Polisario controlled zone, in which Morocco has no presence and over which it has no influence). More worryingly, according to accounts heard by this blogger from reliable sources, it appears that Morocco is exerting behind-the scenes pressure on UNESCO to seek Moroccan permission before getting involved in any efforts to clean up existing damage or to prevent future damage to archaeological sites (UNESCO have been approached by Spanish researchers hoping to engage them in the preservation of cultural heritage in Western Sahara). If it is not careful, UNESCO could end up apparently endorsing Morocco’s occupation, if it does indeed seek “permission” from Morocco to work in the areas in which damage to archaeological sites has been recorded. This would cause another diplomatic incident, with UNESCO coming under fire for seeking Moroccan permission to work in an area that is not part of Morocco, in which Morocco has no presence, and which is governed by a non-Moroccan political authority (the Polisario) which is recognised as the legitimate government of the territory in question by dozens of countries. Given the potential for diplomatic upset, the most likely outcome is that UNESCO will be scared off, and its considerable expertise in rehabilitating and protecting archaeological sites will not be available to those seeking to protect Western Sahara’s unique cultural heritage. To put it simply, Morocco is seeking to prevent the protection of cultural heritage which it claims, and the world will be a poorer place as a result.


5 Responses to Between a spray-painted rock and a hard place

  1. Justin Anthony Knapp says:


    I have seen this story reported a variety of places (including NYT), and I am so grateful for you breaking it; keep up the good journalism as well as archeology.


  2. […] Between a spray-painted rock and a hard place « SAND & DUST […]

  3. […] propaganda, and may not bear any relation to reality. Morocco has certainly tried its best to take ownership of this issue, as it can’t bear the fact that a story about Western Sahara that focuses on […]

  4. […] good pasture, or to attend political events organised by the Polisario. The Moroccan establishment prefers to play down the fact that there is a sizable part of Western Sahara that it doesn’t control, and which is […]

  5. […] I wrote earlier, Morocco became quite exercised about the vandalism story, and over UNESCO’s role in […]

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