Human Rights in Western Sahara & the Refugee Camps: Report

December 19, 2008

Human Rights Watch has released a 216 page report on human rights in Western Sahara (focusing on the Moroccan-occupied areas) and in the Polisario-run Sahrawi refugee camps around the Algerian town of Tindouf. You can download it from this page:

Even without having read it, I’m confident it will make more reliable reading than the claims of partisans from either side of the conflict, which can be found on a variety of web-based discussion forums, as some of us know only too well. If I have time to read and digest it I may comment on it, but no promises. And it is probably best to let the report speak for itself, unless there is anything specific in it to take issue with or discuss at greater length.


Rock Art Update II

December 17, 2008
Rekeiz Lemgassem Archaeological Park

Rekeiz Lemgassem Archaeological Park (Polisario sign)

On my recent trip to Tifariti (in the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” of Western Sahara), I made an excursion to Rekeiz Lemgassem, one of the rock art sites that has suffered significant damage as a result of vandalism by foreign visitors, local people, and UN staff from the MINURSO peacekeeping mission (1). Things had changed since I last visited the site in late 2006, before the furore over vandalism by MINURSO personnel erupted. As a result of this scandal MINURSO had erected signs at  Lajuad and Rekeiz Lemgassem, the two sites where damage has been most extensive (see an earlier post). What was new this time was the presence of a Polisario checkpoint at the approach to the Rekeiz Lemgassem, in order to control access to the site. Anyone visiting the rock art here must now obtain a permit from Tifariti in advance, and must be accompanied around the site by a guide.

These practical measures to protect the site – put in place by the Polisario government – are complemented by more symbolic measures, namely the declaration of the area around Rekeiz Lemgassem as an archaeological park and promises to protect the site in law, as stated on the sign pictured above, which was erected on the day of my visit near to the MINURSO sign which was put in place earlier in the year. What this means in practice is debatable – the practical steps of controlling access and preventing people from wanderning around by themselves are likely to have the biggest impact. I suspect that the Polisario sign is at least in part a response to the MINURSO sign, which was put up unilaterally (MINURSO have to tread carefully and can not be seen to endorse the Polisario as any kind of “official” governing authority, so joint declarations with the Polisario as the government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic are out) (2). Presumably this is an attempt by Polisario to take the initiative and declare and/or demonstrate ownership over the cultural heritage of the Free Zone.

Politically-motivated or not, any measures on the part of Polisario to protect archaeological sites and to take responsibility for the preservation of cultural heritage can only be welcomed. One thing that became clear during my time in Tifariti and at the cultural festival in Auserd is that the scandal over the MINURSO vandalism was big news, and did a lot to raise awareness of Western Sahara’s incredibly rich prehistoric archaeology among the Sahrawi in the camps. People who might not have given any previous thought to the issue of archaeological heritage were angry about the actions of MINURSO personnel, and this appears to have stimulated a wider sense of ownership over the territory’s prehistoric heritage. This may be the point at which prehistoric archaeology becomes important in the Sahrawi’s national self-image, and we might be seeing the beginning of a process in which archaeology plays a role in national identity, and nationalism generally, as has happened in so many other countries.

Archaeologists may ask themselves whether this is a welcome development. Archaeology and politics do not always mix well, particularly from the point of view of academic research. However, archaeology and politics have a tendency to become enmeshed with one another despite the best efforts of archaeologists, and the chances that archaeology can remain untouched by politics in such a contested territory as Western Sahara are, well, nil. That is, unless those of us doing the research keep it secret and withhold all our findings from the Sahrawi, which in itself would be unethical, not to mention impractical.

The main challenge now is to avoid the politicisation of the interpretation of the archaeological record. So far this hasn’t been a problem – the Polisario know that they can make political capital out of the archaeology, and are manifestly doing so as the above actions illustrate. However, so far there is no indication that they see archaeology as a means of illustrating historical “rights” to land, which is the point at which a certain substance usually tends to hit the fan.

So far, so good. It appears that for the archaeological heritage to be protected it must demonstrate its relevance to today’s concerns – protection in exchange for publicity value and potential to demonstrate stewardship over heritage and, by extension, territory. As long as archaeologists are free to ask their own research questions and develop their own interpretations of the the archaeological record, this should be a deal we can live with.

(1) For an inventory of damage to rock art sites in the Free Zone cause by staff from the MINURSO peacekeeping mission you can download this PowerPoint presentation (in pdf format, 15 Mb), prepared by Nick Brooks and Joaquim Soler i Subils.

(2) Last I heard, MINURSO was looking into the possibility of removing the graffiti at Lajuad. As far as I know they are still pursuing this via negotiations with arcaheologists from the University of Girona and external experts (they have been talking to my colleage Joaquim Soler), but no further details are available at present. The main issue here is likely to be who pays for any such work, and which agencies are involved in implementation of any clean-up.

For more discussion of cultural heritage and its relationship to the Western Sahara conflict, see Cultural Heritage and Conflict: The Threatened Archaeology of Western Sahara, by Nick Brooks, in The Journal of North African Studies (pdf file, 3.1 Mb).

For more information on the work of the Western Sahara Project (archaeological and palaeo-environmental research), see the Project website.

Trojan Horse, by Rolando de la Rosa

December 16, 2008


A couple of weeks ago I visited the camps around Tindouf to talk about our achaeological work in the Free Zone at a Sahrawi cultural festival. While I was in the region I took the opportunity to spend a few days in Tifariti, where the ArTifariti event was taking place. This involved a host of international artists (mostly Catalan, Basque, and “mainstream” Spanish, but with a good smattering of other nationalities also represented) descending on Tifariti and being let loose to create various artworks. The work I liked most was this one by Mexican Artist Rolando de la Rosa. It consists of a horse whose body is made from oil drums, and whose head is constructed from a bomb detonated by Land Mine Action.

I saw Rolando in Auserd camp after the Tifariti event, and he told me that plans were afoot to install the horse near the Berm, where it could gaze accusingly at the occupying forces. I also like the work of the Algerian artists who were making a bombed-out building destroyed towards the end of the hostilities before the 1991 ceasefire a bit more cheerful and interesting.

More photos here.

Touching a nerve: a case study in propaganda

December 12, 2008

When I set up this blog I didn’t intend it to be so heavy on Western Sahara. However, the more I’ve worked in Western Sahara the more I have been exposed to the politics of the region –  in particular the anti-independence, anti-referendum, and especially anti-Polisario propaganda that emanates continuously from Rabat and supporters of Morocco’s occupation. This runs the gamut from laughable through inventive to sometimes offensive, and can be quite sophisticated. Having an over-developed social conscience I sometimes feel compelled to address this propaganda, and expose it where I can (although I really don’t want to end up as an apologist for the Polisario – the issue to me is not the nature of the Polisario, but rather Morocco’s occupation and the issue of self-determination, which would be at the heart of the Western Sahara question whether opposition to Moroccan occupation was led by Polisario or Mickey Mouse). My efforts in this regard are necessarily small, as countering the Moroccan propaganda machine could easily be a full-time job, and not one I’d want, even if someone was paying me (and they’re not, despite rumours to the contrary).

There are plenty of people on the Moroccan side (and the Polisario side – let’s be fair) for whom “information management” is a full-time job. Perhaps foolishly, in terms of time costs, I allowed myself to get drawn into a discussion with someone whom I presume is one of these professionals, over at Global Voices Online. The gentleman in question calls himself Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad, and he claims to be a “Unionist Sahrawi”. (i.e. in favour of the forced union between Western Sahara and Morocco). I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and we had a long exchange, which eventually fizzled out. He paid me the compliment of commenting on Sand and Dust at long last, under a recent post. Now, when people post on your blog you can see their IP address, so I established that Ahmed Salem, or at least his internet connection, is based in Casablanca, with the IP address registered to the Office National des Postes et Telecommunications (based on plugging the IP address into the free web software at

After my last post on the McDonald’s and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s maps (I wonder if they’re now using the same source, or should that be sauce?), Ahmed Salem underwent a veritable eruption on Global Voices online, which had linked to my ramblings. Apparently I hit some sort of nerve. This is what he wrote:

“The article above comes from the blog of a very well known Polisario supporter under the name of Nick Brooks. His pro-polisario blog is about biases he is far from the situation on the ground. I have already discussed with Nick about his position. He always argues that he is impartial in his blog ?!#2~à@)&°0 !!!!! I told him so why putting just pro-polisarian links on your blog? Why not putting URLs form the unionist sahraouis website as CORCAS and many others supporting unionism in the region of Western Sahara? No way. Nick is not credible at all. He is supposed to conduct some research work in a buffer zone established by the UN in 1991 just after the war held between the moroccan army and the polisario troops supported by Algeria & Lybia. HE IS SPONSORED BY AN ALGERIAN STAKEHOLDER OIL COMPANY ;-). He is very closed to Polisario troops in the buffer zone.

I believe Nick is among those who would like to maintain the status quo in the Western Sahara issue to keep alive his research work and SPONSORING.

Nick has no lesson to give to the international community about the reality on the ground in Western Sahara. It becomes clear to everyone that Polisario leaders were lying and they are still continuing to lie on Human rights in Western Sahara.”

Of course I replied. In fact I was quite flattered to have generated such a response. Whatever its other impacts, this blog appears to be raising the blood pressure of at least one Moroccan propagandist, and the fact that the practitioners of the Maghrebian dark arts find it necessary to indulge in such slander suggests that they feel my views have some relevance, and that’s gratifying. By the way, he’s right about my not being impartial (but wrong about my claims to be) – as another blog puts it: “truth not balance”

I have to say I’m not sure whether to be amused or disapproving of Ahmed Salem’s accusations, which I suspect are a little hypocritical, given that he’s probably employed to peddle propaganda. Out of interest I googled Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad” to see what his web footprint was like – i.e. how busy he is on the web with his propaganda. Not huge, but significant. Maybe this isn’t his full-time job but he’s certainly pretty active, and his arguments are well-rehearsed and often inventive. In any case his arguments provide a good case study of the Moroccan propaganda machine, and anyone interested in what sort of arguments and tactics the Moroccans are using to persuade, cajole and insist would do worse than look at the works of Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad.

In addition to Global Voices and this blog, he crops up on: Flickr; Magharebia; Wikipedia (as Moroccansahraoui, claiming to be from Laayoune); Palestine Think Tank (under his own name alongside another “Moroccan Sahrawi” using similar language and levelling the same accusations at the author of the article in question as he levels at yours truly: you looks well paid by the Algerian regime to defend a false cuase, from the bigining and Algeria is spending money to find people like you to spread this kind of lies….the only HYPOCRIT HERE IS YOURSELF); and Christianne Vienne’s website (she’s a Belgian senator, from what I can see). So he’s certainly busy, pushing the same line – that the majority of Sahrawi want to be Moroccan, that Polisario is a Marxist (or post-Marxist, now Islamic fundamentalist) organisation holding people against their will, that only a small percentage of the people in the camps around Tindouf are Sahrawi, the remainder being economic migrants from the Sahel, and so on, and accusing anyone who disagrees with him of being on the Algerian payroll.

Ahmed Salem likes to point to the CORCAS website a lot. CORCAS is the Royal Advisory Council on Saharan Affairs, appointed by the Moroccan government to give the appearance of a legitimate devolved administration. Their website has lots of articles about how great the Autonomy Plan is and how wicked the Polisario are, and not a few pictures of King Mohamed VI. I couldn’t help but think of the Egyptian Gazette, which I used to glance at in the early 1990s when I was living in Cairo, and which always kicked off with a story about President Mubarak.

Ahmed Salem also likes to argue that Morocco is bringing the benefits of development and modernity to poor primitive, neglected Western Sahara, and points to a number of Moroccan sites boasting about investment in the territory. His Flickr account (westernsaharaoccidental) consists of photos presumably intended to illustrate modernity and abundance in Laayoune and Dakhla, in the Moroccan-controlled areas of Western Sahara (market stalls groaning with fresh produce and aerial shots of modern conurbations). Most of these photos are captioned “Autonomy and more development to face the Globalization”. Of course different kinds of images can be found on sites such as ASVDH, which monitors human rights abuses in the occupied areas.

So, why am I bothering to devote attention to this propaganda merchant? Partly as a sort of right-to-reply after his outburst at me, but also (and more importantly) to cast a spotlight on the Moroccan propaganda machine while it’s in action and allow the few readers of this blog to scrutinize the arguments and tactics that form its backbone. The propaganda of Ahmed Salem and his fellow practitioners follows a number of key principles, which seem to include the following:

1. Steer the debate away from the issue of Morocco’s occupation and the holding of the referendum, and turn it into one about the Polisario, whom you should portray as a separatist group driven wholly or predominantly by Marxist or Islamist ideology. Ideally you should transform the debate into one about the historical origins and legitimacy of the Polisario, which you should misrepresent. Your aim should be to discredit the Polisario through accusations of slavery, child abuse, terrorism, human rights abuses, communism, and Islamic fundamentalism. People should be left with the opinion that the Polisario are so reprehensible that the Sahrawi, whom they represent, do not deserve independence. By contrast Morocco should be portrayed as a champion of democracy and human rights which offers a much better future.

2. Emphasise that independence is not realistic and that those who support the referendum are seeking to prolong the conflict and are just causing more suffering for the people in the Tindouf camps. Pretend that your concerns are for the well-being of the Sahrawi refugees (although insist elsewhere that they are not refugees and many are not Saharawi), thus making your opponents appear callous and uncaring about the refugees – make it clear that anyone who disagrees with you is guilty of using the refugees as political pawns in pursuit of a sinister political agenda.

3. Portray the Tindouf camps as detention centres in which people are held against their will. Morocco has the best interests of the people in the camps at heart – they want to be Moroccan.

4. Emphasise the nature of the conflict as one between Algeria and Morocco, rather than between Morocco and the Polisario, and insist on Algeria’s links to terrorists, Marxists/communists and Islamic fundamentalists. Always emphasise the leftist or “eastern-block” nature of the countries that have historically supported the idea of independence – your audience is predominantly a western one and this will help to discredit the idea of a referendum on independence.

5. Accuse any foreigners supporting the referendum of being in the pay of Algeria, and any Sahrawi or Moroccan groups who question Morocco’s occupation of belonging to irrelevant, extremist, fringe political groups. It is very important to persuade people that those who disagree with the position of the Moroccan government are a tiny minority whose views do not count.

6. Emphasise the benefits that Morocco is bringing to the occupied areas of Western Sahara – the issue is really one of development, not invasion and occupation. Opponents of autonomy within a greater Morocco are ill informed extremists and are against modernity and development.

7. Deny that the Polisario controls a significant part of Western Sahara and portray this as a buffer zone set up by Morocco in cooperation with the UN. Accuse anyone talking about the “Free Zone” of propaganda. Very few people have been to the Polisario-controlled areas, and most people do not know that they exist, thinking instead that Morocco controls all of Western Sahara. It is very important to maintain this impression.

8. Give the impression that the UN and the international community support Morocco’s position and its autonomy plan, and see this as the only realistic option. Insist that Morocco’s autonomy plan is compatible with the principle of self-determination.

9. Invoke the views of international bodies when they support the Moroccan position, but dismiss views from the same bodies when they appear to support the holding of a referendum or the idea of independence. For example, cite UN envoy van Walsum’s controversial comments that independence is unrealistic, but dismiss the original UN resolutions on Western Sahara as irrelevant.

10. Dismiss countries that recognise Polisario as the legitimate government of Western Sahara as irrelevant, usually Marxist, regimes. Similarly, argue that the original rulings of the UN on the need for self-determination are irrelevant because the security council was dominated by leftist governments whose opinions should not count.

11. Portray the conflict as a hangover from the Cold War rather than a conflict about decolonisation.  Emphasise that it was a manifestation of the conflict between Western capitalism and Eastern communism, which the West won. Emphasise that the Polisario and the independence cause had support from the East – the message should be that, being on the losing side in the cold war, the Polisario and Algeria should give up the independence struggle as the world has moved on.

12. Make lots of stuff up and don’t worry about consistency – it doesn’t matter if many of your assertions contradict each other: if you push them hard enough some of them will stick.

13. If people remain unconvinced by all the above tell them to shut up and write, PREFERABLY IN CAPITALS, that they are not impartial/objective,  that they have no credibility or authority to speak about the topic, that they do not understand the situation, and that they must be in the pay of Algeria and the Polisario.

I’m sure we can add to this list – suggestions are welcome.

I hope Ahmed Salem appreciates the attention I’ve devoted to him. He’s always telling me off for not linking to pro-Moroccan websites on this blog. While this is a bit rich given his sole focus on links to CORCAS and other pro-Morocco, anti-Polisario websites, I’ll let that pass and hope that this post redresses the balance. I’m sure he’ll appreciate my collecting his works and presenting them as a set of handy links alongside the one to CORCAS. Maybe he’ll do us the honour of commenting again here, saving me the trouble of more harvesting of his opinions from other sites.

Clowning around, or McForeign Policy

December 10, 2008

Last week the Moroccan incarnation of fast food giant McDonald’s felt it appropriate to apologise for producing and distributing an accurate map of Morocco which scandalously omitted to include Western Sahara as a part of the kingdom. The map was apparently included with its “Happy Meal”. McDonald’s dutifully responded to a complaint from the guardians of the occupation by saying that “borders were incorrectly drawn” and exhibting due contrition (1).

I guess this is understandable – small considerations such as respect for international law and UN resolutions, and squeamishness about territorial aggression, occupation of neighbouring territories, and widespread human rights abuses obviously take a back seat when it comes to the important business of selling burgers and making lots of money.

So what’s the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s excuse? Apparently even more eager than McDonalds to appease the Moroccan imperial machine, the FCO includes on its website a map of Morocco which includes all of Western Sahara. As far as I’m aware this isn’t as a result of a public scandal in which an accurate map respecting internationally recognised borders, and Western Sahara’s status as a disputed non-self-governing territory, was distributed to Moroccan kids along with Union Flags or Beefeaters in little plastic tubes. This rather gives the lie to the British government’s claim to support the upholding of international law and UN resolutions, and to favour the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination.

A comparison might be interesting here. Syrian approved maps (2) show the Turkish province of Hatay as part of Syria, which has long claimed this region. As it probably should, the The FCO map of Syria shows Hatay as part of Turkey. Now, this is entirely different, you may think, as Morocco at least exercises de facto control over Western Sahara, whereas Syria has no presence in Hatay. Well, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Moroccan control does not extend throughout all of Western Sahara, with a large swathe of the territory being controlled by the Polisario independence movement. So, the FCO map includes, as part of Morocco, areas which are not formally recognised as Moroccan by any government except that of Morocco, and areas which Morocco does not even control. Furthermore, these latter areas are administered by a functioning government of a state that is recognised by the majority of African nations.

I guess the lesson here is that, if you’re a government that wants the UK to recognise your “sovereignty” over a region (even if only informally), you just have to throw your weight around and convince the poor spineless saps at the FCO that your country is strategically important. Belligerence and intransigence pay, apparently. It doesn’t even matter if the areas you claim are not under your control and are governed by someone else, as long as you are persuasive enough and convince the poor dears at the FCO that said region needs to recognised as “yours” in order to combat the terrorist bogeyman (even if he isn’t there – invoking terrorism is usally enough, regardless of the facts).

When I first visited Western Sahara in 2002 I contacted the FCO to see what their travel advice said (I needed to know about this for my insurance). Even though I told them that I was going to a part of Western Sahara only accessible from Algeria and Mauritania, which was not under Moroccan control, they forwarded my query to the embassy in Rabat. The embassy never replied to me, but no doubt passed the information to their Moroccan buddies responsible for monitoring activity in the Free Zone.

Maybe there are elements in the FCO that regret the passing of the British Empire, who indulge their tastes by assisting other countries with colonial aspirations. Or perhaps the FCO and McDonald’s have more in common than one might think, namely the role of clowns in their business activities. In the FCO’s case, these activities involve supporting things like the sale of weapons and the provision of military training to, er, Morocco (Shelley, 2004, p. 194; War on Want).


(1) AFP. McDonald’s sorry for wiping Western Sahara off map. 1 Dec. 2008:

(2) 1991 Road Map of the Middle East, published by GEOprojects, PO Box 133.5294, Beirut, Lebanon (purchased in Syria).

Shelley, T. Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Las Colony. Zed Books, London.

UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

Western Sahara page:

Morocco page:

Syria page:

Note: the Morocco and Syria pages are those of the respective British embassies, housed on the UK FCO website.