Interrogating the occupation

June 25, 2008

Last night I ventured into Westminster to attend the UK launch of Professor Abdelhamid El Ouali’s argument for Morocco’s Autonomy Plan for Western Sahara, in the form of a book entitled Saharan Conflict: Towards Territorial Autonomy as a Right to Democratic Self-Determination (see an earlier entry). The launch was held in the Houses of Parliament, presumably a symbolic choice meant to emphasise the democratic nature of the Autonomy Plan (a link made by the professor in his speech). In brief, the autonomy plan provides for limited self-determination for the disputed territory of Western Sahara within a greater Morocco, while precluding the possibility of full independence for the territory.

It was a fairly low-key affair. Most of the audience consisted of Moroccans, including the ambassador to the UK (apparently not the one who complained to the Foreign Office about my academic activities in 2004), and a fair few embassy staff. Lord someone-or-other introduced Professor El Ouali, but apart from that members of the Commons and Lords were conspicuous by their absence. One or two civil servants (one of whom apparently advised the UK government on rendition), a previous British Ambassador to Rabat, less than a handful of journalists, and a few others with regional interests were also present. Representatives of the publishers, Stacey International, were also there, overseeing sales of the book (£16.95 – no sign of it on Amazon yet).

I went hoping to raise some concerns about the autonomy plan in the question and answer session that I assumed would follow a comprehensive presentation. However, I was disappointed. Professor El Ouali gave a short, fairly informal talk, the gist of which was that times had changed and we had to deal with new realities, independence was no longer relevant or appropriate as an option, autonomy was all about building democracy and securing human rights, and the fact that things weren’t panning out as they should was all down to those awkward Algerians. No mention was made of Polisario. Immediately after his talk, we were invited to enjoy the hospitality (wine, soft drinks, no nibbles), buy the book, and mingle. There was no opportunity for questions or discussion.

Determined not to waste my six hour round trip to the Mother of Parliaments, I duly joined the queue of embassy staff and autonomy sympathisers eagerly lining up to have their copies signed. After a while being bypassed by the queue of admirers, I took my chance to introduce myself to Professor El Ouali and ask the question that has been bothering me for some time.

The question in question is, what is the plan for the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara (i.e. the “Free Zone”) under the autonomy proposal? Are these to be left as a rump Sahrawi state, or will Morocco attempt to complete its acquisition of Western Sahara by force, risking further regional instability and conflict? The professor answered that the autonomy plan could only be implemented if it had the agreement of all the parties to the conflict, including the Polisario.

So far, so good. However, he then went on to say (I’m paraphrasing, but this is a pretty faithful rendition) “You’re talking about the ‘Liberated Territories’ – this is a myth. Polisario has never liberated any of this land. it is a buffer zone set up by Morocco.” Needless to say I pointed out to him that I run a research project in these very territories, and work with the Polisario in this context. Having travelled extensively in the Polisario-controlled areas (Lajuad, Mijek, Tifariti, Zug, you name it), I’m fully aware that the “buffer zone” is a face-saving Moroccan flim-flam, a story concocted to conceal the reality that Western Sahara is in fact already partitioned between the two warring parties.

My unmasking as someone from “the other side” seemed to cause some discomfort, but to his credit the Professor regained his composure and suggested that we talk at greater length later on, which we duly did (after he’d apparently checked up on me with his embassy colleagues – apparently both I and this blog are quite familiar to them, so ahlan wa sahlan if you’re reading).

In our subsequent discussion, Professor El Ouali was very keen to persuade me of the value of the autonomy plan, and of both his sincerity and his credentials (as someone who has worked extensively with refugees and at a high level in UNHCR). He, and some of the other Moroccans there, said that they were very keen on the idea of finding common ground and real, practical, and just solutions to the conflict. I even received an invitation to explore the issue at greater length in Morocco – flattering given that when it comes to politics I’m not exactly anyone’s representative, just a blogger with a point of view and some relevant travel experience.

On the surface this is all very encouraging, and the Moroccans I spoke to all gave the impression that they were keen to find common ground to resolve the conflict (and they were all very personable and friendly, in stark contrast to some of their compatriots who haunt the blogosphere). However, I’m very, very sceptical as to how much will there really is in the Moroccan establishment to find a real solution to the Western Sahara conflict.

Professor El Ouali kindly gave me a copy of his book, and I will make good on my promise to read it. Time permitting, I might even write a review. Having had a quick flick through it, I have to say that I don’t disagree with everything he writes. For example, I concur with his comments about globalisation. However, I think we will continue to disagree about the autonomy plan, for the reasons outlined below. What follows is a general argument about autonomy, not a response to the particulars of Professor El Ouali’s book. However, the argument does hark back to his comments about the nature of the Polisario-controlled areas.

The existence of the Free Zone and of the exiled Sahrawi refugees in the camps around Tindouf together represent a very serious stumbling block to the autonomy plan, under which there seem to be three broad possible outcomes (assuming the plan is to go ahead):

i. Polisario, with the support of the exiled Sahrawi community, voluntarily gives up the Free Zone so that it can become part of an autonomous Saharan region within a greater Morocco. The refugees return home and everyone lives happily ever after. A problem with this scenario is that, even if Morocco granted the refugees the right of return, it’s far from certain that they would want to take it (1). Furthermore, does Morocco really want all those potentially troublesome Sahrawi nationalists flooding back into an autonomous Saharan province, where they may well form a majority of the population? I hear that for all the infrastructure development that is going on in the occupied territories, no plans have been laid to build homes for returning refugees. I don’t think the Moroccans are expecting them back any time soon.

ii. The autonomy plan is implemented, but only in the regions currently occupied by Morocco. The Free Zone is left as a rump Sahrawi state under the control of the Polisario or whatever form of government may evolve among the exiled Sahrawi community. Refugees settle in the Free Zone to the extent that resources (principally water) permit. Whether the Free Zone could support some 160,000 people is debatable. If the Free Zone was settled, Morocco would have to live with a Sahrawi state full of disgruntled inhabitants who would still hanker after their old homeland across the border. This, presumably, is not on the Moroccan agenda. Under this scenario the autonomy plan would merely crystalise the current situation, and might increase tension in the region over the long term.

iii. Morocco extends its control throughout the entire territory of Western Sahara by invading the Free Zone. This would result in conflict with the Polisario, possible conflict with Algeria, and could destabilise the Maghreb as a whole.

Of course there is a fourth option – that the implementation of the autonomy plan depends of the agreement of all the parties to the conflict, that this is not forthcoming, and, er, nothing happens. At the moment this seems to be the most likely outcome, at least in the short term. So what exactly is the purpose of the plan?

The autonomy plan is predicated on two fictions. First, that Western Sahara is simply a part of Morocco with a troublesome secessionist movement, when in reality it is a partially occupied territory that has been partitioned between Morocco and the Polisario. Second, that the refugees in the camps around Tindouf would be happy, and welcome, to return to their homeland as Moroccan subjects. While the proponents of the plan are presumably aware of these problems, they are never addressed, suggesting that the plan does not represent a serious attempt to resolve the conflict. It is the view of this blogger that the autonomy plan is a stalling tactic designed to defuse criticism of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, and to discredit the Polisario (2). It seems to be the latest ruse via which Morocco seeks to avoid the holding of a referendum, while appearing to act constructively on the issue. It may seem like a solution to those not familiar with the realities of partition, which is why Morocco tries so hard to play down the existence of the Free Zone, and consistently underestimates the number, and misrepresents the aspirations, of the Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps. I look forward to finding out if these issues are addressed in Professor El Ouali’s book, but I won’t be holding my breath as I turn the pages.



(1) I’ve often heard from Moroccan sources that the refugees are held in the camps against their will by the Polisario, that they are effectively Moroccan citizens (well, subjects) being held as hostages by a secessionist group, and that they would welcome the opportunity to return to the Moroccan homeland. The truth is somewhat different. The exiles are in the camps as the result of the Moroccan invasion and occupation of Western Sahara (they weren’t kidnapped from their homes by marauding Polisario snatch teams). They are more-or-less free to leave subject to having the right paperwork (as citizens of any country who are lucky enough to have a passport are free to leave their national territories). Sahrawi from the camps travel widely, and they are a pretty cosmopolitan bunch as a result. Many have studied abroad, and international exchanges with solidarity groups in a variety of countries are common. When rains in the Free Zone are good, some of the inhabitants of the camps take their camels there for pasture. So, whatever their flaws and democratic deficits, the camps are not prisons with Polisario troops acting as gaolers. The exiled Sahrawi that I’ve spoken to certainly want to return to Western Sahara, but they do not want to live under Moroccan sovereignty. In their decades in the camps, the exiled Sahrawi have developed a strong sense of national identity. It seems to me that they are more inclined to return to Western Sahara with Kalashnikovs, to attempt to liberate it, than they are to return to live as Moroccan subjects.

(2) As long as the Polisario refused to entertain the possibility of the full integration of Western Sahara into Morocco, Morocco accepted the idea of a referendum with options of full integration, limited autonomy within a greater Morocco, and full independence. However, the Polisario eventually agreed to a referendum including these three options. Having had its bluff called, Morocco rapidly went off the idea – presumably Rabat suffered from a sudden loss of confidence that the Sahrawi (and perhaps even Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara) would vote to be part of the Moroccan motherland.

Cultural heritage plays second fiddle to politics at UNESCO

June 23, 2008

A while back I wrote that UNESCO might be involved in evaluating and restoring archaeological sites vandalised by MINURSO peacekeeping personnel in the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” of Western Sahara, and promised an update on this matter in due course. Well, a due course has been run, so here’s the update.

After my initial complaint to MINURSO about the vandalism, and following coverage of the destruction in the Times newspaper and elsewhere, MINURSO undertook to address the bad behaviour of some of its staff. It has to be said that the MINURSO leadership took the issue seriously, and implemented at least some measures to try to prevent similar vandalism occurring in the future. The precise nature of these measures could still do with some clarification, although they did include the erection of signs at archaeological sites warning MINURSO staff to respect the cultural heritage of the region, under pain of military discipline.

One of the matters that I and colleagues discussed with MINURSO was the possible rehabilitation of vandalised rock art sites, involving the removal of existing MINURSO graffiti if this proved to be feasible (and this may turn out to be impossible without causing further damage to the sites). An obvious place to turn was UNESCO, the UN organisation responsible for science, education and culture, which has designated a number of historical sites around the globe as World Heritage Sites.

I was always somewhat sceptical of the prospects of getting UNESCO involved in the rehabilitation of damaged archaeological sites in the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara, given the presence of eight UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites in Morocco (not to mention UNESCO’s self-declared “close relationship” with the government of Morocco – Note on 12.02.09: this wording has now been removed from the UNESCO Morocco page), and the UN’s reluctance to engage with governments that are not universally recognised and which are not members of the UN (e.g. the Polisario, which is still fighting for recognition as the legitimate government of an independent Sahara, with heavy opposition from Morocco and its allies).

I was taken to task for my scepticism by a number of people who didn’t see what the problem was. After all, the conflict in Western Sahara is a political matter, and UNESCO is interested in preserving world heritage for all of humanity, a noble cause that should transcend politics. So why should UNESCO do anything but jump at the chance to help protect the unique, spectacular and threatened heritage of this little known region?

I’m sorry to say my scepticism seems to have been justified. MINURSO approached UNESCO for advice and assistance with the assessment and restoration of the sites in question. UNESCO’s eventual response was to provide MINURSO with a list of independent experts who might be able to assess and restore the sites. At least some of these experts had already been identified by my Spanish colleagues, who have been conducting the bulk of the research work into the rock art sites which were the targets of the vandalism. It was clear that UNESCO would have no direct involvement in any rehabilitation efforts.

As I wrote earlier, Morocco became quite exercised about the vandalism story, and over UNESCO’s role in particular. It was reported in the Moroccan daily l’Opinion on 5 February 2008 that UNESCO was moving to evaluate damage to sites in the Polisario-controlled zone of Western Sahara without bothering to consult Morocco. Obviously this was, to the Moroccans, an unconscionable violation of their self-declared sovereignty over this region in which they have no presence (1).

On 6 February 2008 UNESCO issued a statement (2) emphasising that its involvement in this matter consisted of the provision of a list of experts who could be consulted by MINURSO, and some vaguely defined assistance with information and publicity campaigns aimed at MINURSO personnel. The message was clear – UNESCO would give some low-level advice to MINURSO, but would not be involved directly in any assessment or restoration of the sites in question. In other words, it would not be treading on Morocco’s toes.

This statement was gleefully seized upon by the Moroccan press, which went on to report on 7 February that UNESCO had promised Morocco that it would not undertake any assessment of these sites without first obtaining permission to do so from the Moroccan government. Furthermore, it was reported that UNESCO had emphasised that it had no links with, and did not recognise, the Polisario.

These claims by the Moroccan media were widely dismissed as propaganda by a number of people who had been following the story (via personal communication). However, to my knowledge UNESCO did not issue any statement clarifying or refuting these claims by the Moroccan press (I am happy to be corrected on this, but have not been able to find any such statement). As far as I can tell, that seems to have been that – I’ve had no news of any further developments on the UNESCO front.

It seems that UNESCO was more concerned with a Moroccan panic about it getting involved in the preservation of cultural heritage in areas Morocco claims but does not control, than it was with press statements implying that the organisation was prepared to favour one side in a dispute over territory whose status is yet to be determined.

It is inconceivable that Morocco would not exert diplomatic pressure on UNESCO behind the scenes in this matter. UNESCO are certainly doing what Morocco wants, insofar as they are refusing to get involved in the assessment of damage done to valuable archaeological sites by another UN agency, or in efforts to rehabilitate these sites. We don’t know what undertakings UNESCO did or didn’t give the Moroccans, but the organisation is certainly acting in accordance with Morocco’s demands and wishes in this matter. I strongly suspect that UNESCO caved in to Moroccan pressure, meaning that a UN agency tasked with preserving world heritage sites is effectively taking sides in a political and military conflict, in a way that undermines efforts to preserve unique, important and threatened world heritage dating from prehistoric times.

Of course I wanted to hear UNESCO’s side of the story, so I emailed them. The email went to UNESCO HQ in New York ( and to UNESCO’s Bureau of Public Information ( That was on 26 February. Four months on I am yet to receive a reply. Given that I direct an archaeological research project in the region in question, that I’m the one who broke the story about the vandalism, that I have been discussing this matter constructively with MINURSO, and that I work regularly with UN agencies (so I’m far from being a UN hater), you’d think they might have wanted to talk to me. But, apparently, they don’t.

(1) The vandalism as recorded by our team and publicised in the world’s media took place in the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” zone, in which there is no Moroccan presence. Parts of the Free Zone were occupied by Morocco during the war, before being abandoned or recaptured by the Polisario. Other parts of the Free Zone have never been occupied by Morocco. There is no access to the Free Zone from the Moroccan-controlled areas, except for UN personnel.

(2) This statement, and reproductions of the relevant articles from the Moroccan media, are collected in the 7 February MINURSO Press Review (click here to download – most of the relevant material is in French).

Spurious academic credibility

June 18, 2008

A new book has been published on the Western Sahara conflict, with the title: Saharan Conflict: Towards Territorial Autonomy as a Right to Democratic Self Determination.

Before those of you interested in the region rush out and buy this to add to your reference materials on the conflict, you might want to think about whether it’s a worthwhile investment. The publisher’s blurb includes the following paragraph:

“In The Saharan Conflict, Abdelhamid El Ouali espouses the establishment of a Moroccan-administered Western Sahara AR [autonomous region], and outlines Rabat’s vision for the Region, its implementation, governance and economic prospects. Professor El Ouali provides a much-needed scholarly account of the struggle for one of the last remaining white spaces on today’s political map of the world – and makes the timely case for its resolution.”

According to the blurb, Abdelhamid El Ouali is a professor with the Faculty of Law at the University of Casablanca. He is described as an international authority on Western Sahara, whose writing on the subject is widely published. A Google search (last checked 21 June) turns up a lot of links to promotional material on the above book, with a good smattering of Moroccan sources, but little else. (Confusingly, some of the Moroccan links refer to a book called “Autonomy for Sahara”, with the same cover graphic – presumably this is the same book.)

From the publisher’s description, it seems pretty clear that this book represents an attempt to give Rabat’s “autonomy plan” some academic legitimacy and produce a “respectable” work to which policy makers can refer when making the case for supporting Morocco’s consolidation, and possible extension, of is occupation of Western Sahara. As such it appears to be part of Morocco’s increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced propaganda and PR campaign (more on this in future posts). One purpose of the book is, no doubt, to give the appearance that “objective” academic analysis favours Morocco’s position.

As an “author many books on international justice, international legal order and refugees” [sic] professor El Ouali is presumably in a good position to make the case that the causes of justice and self-determination are served by denying the population of a partially occupied, disputed, non-self governing territory the right to vote on whether it wants its military occupation by an aggressive expansionist neighbour to continue or not. I’m interested to see whether he proposes any legal and just solutions to the plight of the 160,000 exiled Sahrawi refugees, perhaps involving their return to an occupied Western Sahara or on their dispersal throughout neighbouring countries. The former would not seem wise, given that it would result in the population of a Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara being dominated by Sahrawi who may not relish Morocco’s overlordship. The latter, a “solution” often proposed by Morocco and its supporters, does not seem particularly just. The only alternative to these two possibilities is for the Sahrawi to stay where they are, in the camps, which would hardly fulfill the lofty humanitarian ideals suggested by the publishers’ summary. Whatever one thinks of Morocco’s plans for Western Sahara in principle, it falls down when it comes to the practicalities of how to address the large population of exiled Sahrawi refugees (who are not keen on living in a greater Morocco), and the parts of Western Sahara not occupied by Morocco but controlled by the Polisario independence movement.

The book is being launched in London on Tuesday 24 June, at Westminster Hall. You can request further information (including perhaps an invitation to the launch) from the publishers (Stacey International) at:

Many thanks to Ronnie Hansen for alerting me to this.