(Photo courtesy of MINURSO: click for larger image)
MINURSO have responded (fairly promptly, it has to be said) to the complaints and associated publicity about the defacing of archaeological sites by their peacekeeping personal. The results can be seen in the above photo, which shows a sign erected at the heavily damaged (by MINURSO and other graffiti) rock painting site of Rekeiz Lemgassem, in the Northern Sector of the Free Zone of Western Sahara, near Tifariti. Apparently another sign is being erected “at Aguanit” – presumably actually at Lajuad, where the worst examples of graffiti were noted by the Polisario in summer 2007, and then by a research team working with the Western Sahara Project (headed by yours truly) in winter 2007.
It remains to be seen whether these signs will have the desired effect. They will at least remove the excuse of ignorance or general thoughtlessness and, in combination with the negative publicity that previous acts of vandalism have attracted, should make people (particularly MINURSO personnel) think twice before advertising their personal details in six-foot high spray-painted letters on rock faces of archaeological and cultural significance.
The signs are only a start. More needs to be done in the region to foster respect for the cultural heritage of this fascinating and little-known (to the outside world at least) part of the Sahara. Codes of conduct need to be developed, disseminated , understood and acted on, and the discipline threatened in the signs needs to be enforced if future offences are committed by UN peacekeepers.
The issue of the existing graffiti also needs to be addressed. Assessments need to be carried out to see if it can be safely removed, without damaging the rock art underneath (and this may not be possible). If this is feasible, the work will be time consuming and costly. The issues of who pays for, and who carries out any restoration is yet to be resolved. Initial suggestions were that UNESCO might handle, and fund, the restoration. However, UNESCO is being remarkably quiet. The reason might be found in this article in the Moroccan journal l’Opionion, which states that UNESCO has emphasised to Morocco that it does not recognise the Polisario’s authority in the Free Zone, and that UNESCO has promised to seek permission from Morocco before undertaking any restoration work in the Free Zone – for example at Lajuad, where it’s assistance is most needed.
So, UNESCO has apparently promised to seek permission from Morocco to work in an area outside of Moroccan control, in which Morocco has no presence, and which is governed by a political authority completely independent of Morocco. If this is true, UNESCO is colluding with an occupying power in an attempt by the latter to influence activity in an area it covets but does not control, effectively extending the reach of its occupation. Given that the official UN position on the Western Sahara conflict is one of studied neutrality, any such collusion by a UN body with Morocco would be unfortunate. Of course this may be the usual Moroccan 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 the areas outside of its control has had so much international coverage. It is extremely likely (almost certain in fact) that Morocco has been lobbying UNESCO behind the scenes in order to prevent it operating in the Polisario-controlled areas (1). What is unknown at present is how UNESCO has responded to this inevitable pressure. However, it is worth noting the following, taken from the UNESCO website:
“Morocco maintains a close relationship with UNESCO…… the UNESCO Office Rabat is a cluster office representing UNESCO in Algeria, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia…. Morocco has eight sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List….”
It may well be that UNESCO’s “close relationship” with Morocco means that UNESCO will be reluctant to upset the Moroccan authorities for the sake of preserving archaeological sites in a disputed territory in which it has no existing interests.
I hope to have more news on the UNESCO front soon – I’ve emailed them asking if they could clarify the situation and explain their position. Watch this space.
(1) Morocco tries its best to prevent any foreign activity in the Polisario controlled zone (or “Free Zone”) in order to maintain the fiction that this is actually a demilitarized “buffer zone”, and not an independent region within Western Sahara that Morocco has not managed to acquire, run by a government (the Polisario) with which Morocco is competing for sovereignty over Western Sahara.