TARA out of her depth

Another story of collusion with the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, by people who should know better.

A year ago I posted an article about the restoration of some rock art sites in the Free Zone of Western Sahara, that had been vandalised by UN peacekeepers, whose inability to live up to their mandate, and indeed their name, is going from strength to strength.

In the same article I mentioned a meeting in the town of Smaara on the preservation of rock art sites, organised by the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) in collaboration with the occupying Moroccan authorities [see here to locate Smaara on a map showing the division of Western Sahara between Morocco and the Polisario independence movement under the terms of the UN ceasefire signed in 1991]. At the time of the post I had very little information on the Smaara meeting, other than that it was reported in the Algerian daily Ennahar and smelt a bit fishy.

The TARA meeting in occupied Smaara, from 19-21 October 2010, was followed by the so-called “Smara Declaration” on the protection of rock art. Despite the publicity about this declaration at the time, the Declaration seems to have disappeared from the web, and specifically from TARA’s website, which describes the outcome of the meeting as a “19-point Declaration that encourages governments and rock art professionals to take proactive conservation measures.” The ostensible links to the Declaration itself (in English and French) now point to a page of “rock art news” and related information. Hovering over the links reveals a ghostly web address to “Morocco_declaration_final.pdf” and “Declaration_du_Maroc_final.pdf”. Calling a declaration made in Smara, an important town in occupied Western Sahara, the “Morocco Declaration”, even in a URL, is a bit like calling something agreed in Glasgow the “England Declaration” (in terms of political ignorance and general daftness), or an agreement made in the West Bank the “Israel Declaration” (in terms of crass insensitivity).

So, what on Earth was TARA doing holding a meeting on the preservation of cultural heritage in a town in an illegally occupied territory, in collaboration with the occupying power? This is insensitive to say the least. In the view of one of my colleagues, an academic who has spent decades carrying out research work in various parts of the Sahara:

“The Moroccan monarchy and government are responsible for the worst case of theft of cultural heritage (and all other resources) after now 35 years of illegal occupation of the Western Sahara. The Moroccan rulers and military are also responsible for vandalism in the largest sense through the bombardments and destructions during the 16-year long war against the Sahrawi resistance, and by the construction of the 2,700 km long wall with its countless landmines. Indirectly, the Moroccan occupants can also be held responsible for the destruction of prehistoric rock art since the armistice in 1991 by members of the United Nations MINURSO that we observed during a mission in the Free Zone in 2007 (http://www.revistaelobservador.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1259&Itemid=1).

Cooperating with a Moroccan ministry to launch declarations against theft and vandalism is therefore sheer mockery. Selecting a venue in an occupied zone is unacceptable…”

In the months that followed the Smaara meeting I had some correspondence with members of the board of TARA, initiated by an email copied to various interested parties including TARA, in which I summed up the situation thus:

“Anyone attending the Smara meeting has, by definition, collaborated with an occupying power in a disputed, non-self governing territory, and has acted to further the cause of colonialism in Africa, against the spirit of the numerous UN resolutions on decolonisation in Western Sahara (and the values that most of us would no doubt claim to hold). This displays an astonishing level of naivety on the part of the international delegates at this conference, who have been used as political pawns in an ongoing process in which Morocco attempts to legitimise its occupation of Western Sahara and mislead the international community about the situation in the territory.

I applaud the wide work of organisations such as TARA. However, more political acumen needs to be displayed in future, particularly when addressing issues in Western Sahara and other disputed territories. Perhaps TARA could redress the balance by organising a similar meeting on the other side of the Moroccan wall that partitions Western Sahara, where the Polisario have taken significant and effective steps to preserve the archaeological sites in the areas that they control.”

While my suggestions about redressing the balance were not taken up, I did receive this response from David Coulson, who founded TARA in 1996:

“Thank you for your welcome and important feedback with suggestions.  The above workshop was planned and considered from the start as a low profile professional and non-political event to be one of about 3 rock art workshops in different parts of the country (next two may be Zagora and Rabat) over the next 3 or 4 years.  The organisers’choice of Smara was mainly dictated by nearby Tazina rock art sites as well as previously well publicized  incidents of damage (caused by UN peace keepers) in the region.  No endorsement of the current political situation in the territory was implied or intended.  Our sole motivation and ambition was to address the serious conservation issues in this part of Africa. TARA regrets any misunderstandings in this regard.”

In the interests of verisimilitude, and more importantly to save me some typing, I’ll simply reproduce my reply to David Coulson here.

“I’m sure TARA did not intend the meeting to reflect or support any particular political position, and that the meeting was intended to be completely apolitical. Unfortunately, nothing to do with Western Sahara remains apolitical for long.  Both sides in the conflict – Morocco and the Polisario front – will turn the activities of foreigners in Western Sahara to their perceived advantage where they can. Anyone undertaking academic work in the territory needs to acknowledge this and decide whether it is a price that is worth paying.

I have been working in Western Sahara since 2002, in the areas controlled by the Polisario. This requires cooperation with the Polisario on a logistical basis, as I am sure the organisation of conferences in parts of Western Sahara occupied by Morocco requires cooperation from the Moroccan authorities or their proxies. Our team believes that cooperation with the Polisario is ethically sound, given that they are recognised as the legitimate government of Western Sahara  by the Africa Union and most individual African governments, and have a decent claim to be the representatives of the indigenous Sahrawi people. We are working with, and for the benefit of, the indigenous people, rather than the occupying power.

Morocco’s position in Western Sahara, while tacitly supported by some Western governments, is at odds with the numerous UN resolutions regarding Western Sahara and the process of decolonisation, and also with the ruling of the International Court of Justice regarding the status of the territory. Morocco will certain use anything it can to further strengthen and legitimise its position in Western Sahara, in its ongoing and vigorous propaganda campaign. This politicking is also played out in the area of cultural heritage, as previous actions by Morocco have demonstrated. Holding a conference in occupied Western Sahara in collaboration with the Moroccan authorities serves the Moroccan agenda, and is a political act whether you like it or not. This is illustrated by the following statement from Moroccan journal Le Soir, which seeks firmly to establish Moroccan ownership of the issue:

“Le Maroc est le leader dans les pays africains en ce qui concerne l’art rupestre, c’est tout à fait normal d’organiser une réunion d’une telle importance chez nous et plus spécialement dans la région du Sud qui regorge de gravures rupestres ”, souligne Abdellah Salah, le directeur du patrimoine au ministère de la Culture.

Perhaps cooperating with Morocco, and thus helping lend the appearance of legitimacy to its occupation of Western Sahara, is a price worth paying if it results in the protection and preservation of rock art. This is a subjective judgment that must be made by individuals based on their personal priorities and beliefs. However, I’m afraid claims that such activities are apolitical are simply misguided, whatever the original intention. You and your colleagues may be apolitical in your views, but actions have political ramifications, rarely more so than in the context of the Western Sahara conflict.

I am not suggesting a boycott of Morocco, or even that you and your colleagues refrain from venturing into occupied Western Sahara. However, it would be prudent in the circumstances to ensure that any meetings likely to receive international publicity were held in Morocco proper, not in the Moroccan-occupied areas of the disputed, non-self governing territory of Western Sahara.

In the event that TARA decides to investigate rock art and related issues of heritage in the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara, where significant assemblages of rock art have suffered vandalism and are still at risk despite restoration efforts, I’d be happy to offer assistance. There is real will to protect the rock art there, but resources and capacity are severely limited, given that we are dealing with what is essentially a refugee population. Of course the political issues remain, albeit in a different form – the Moroccan authorities would surely be furious to see TARA operating on the other side of the Berm and undermining its ‘legitimacy” on the issue of Sahara cultural heritage. But there is a real opportunity for engagement there, in a way that would help foster a truly positive attitude to rock art among the Sahrawi population who are the de facto custodians of the rock art, and help to ensure that the cultural heritage of Western Sahara is preserved for future generations.”

Note: links added.

I should have added that if TARA wanted to speak to the issue of well publicised damage to rock art sites by UN peacekeepers as claimed, they could have held the meeting in the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara, where this vandalism took place.

David Coulson kindly acknowledged this email, and expressed appreciation for the offer of assistance, and a will to be more cautious about such matters in the future, and to seek appropriate advice.

That was all back in November 2010. (Yes, I know, I’m not particularly timely with my posts – blame over commitment and the need to juggle research, blogging and earning a living.) So, how did TARA ultimately respond to the criticism from myself and a number of other members of the academic community? Did they organise a goodwill event on the other side of the Berm, in the parts of Western Sahara controlled by the Polisario, the other party to the conflict? Did they put out a statement fessing up to, or even apologising for, their tacit endorsement of an illegal military occupation?

Well, there is one sentence on the TARA website that addresses this spectacular failure of political acumen, that reads

“Holding the workshop in Smara should not be interpreted as a political statement by TARA or WAC [the World Archaeological Congress].”

I’m afraid that’s it, although perhaps the lack of the text of the Declaration is the result of a surreptitious removal of what might be viewed as embarrassing evidence.

Of course, the TARA-Smaara debacle was followed swiftly by the repression of the Gdaim Izik protest camp by Moroccan security forces, the circumstances and repercussions of which are still quite murky. Needless to say, this overshadowed matters related to rock art and the political acumen of organisations dealing in cultural heritage.

Nonetheless, after my correspondence with David Coulson, I had further correspondence with people who had attended, or been invited to, the Smaara meeting. One invitee who did not attend the meeting had this to say:

“As someone who did not travel to Smara, I feel ashamed that we as a group of truely bona fide scientists (I think of us, who are doing rock art research, as some kind of collective body) did not notice early enough that a meeting in Smara has strong poltical implications. The demand on Morocco to allow the Sahrawi people to decide their own future is not by some obscure political organisation but by the UN and the AU (African Union – of which Morocco is the only African state that is not a member).

The theft of rock art touches our competence, so our voices should be raised. But to be trustworthy this cannot be done in an environment that is characterised by theft of land and opression of people. Ethics is an important element of our work with rock art and if this issue is anything, it is an ethical question. Therefore we should try and correct somehow this unfortunate decision of meeting in Smara, e.g. by placing a respective statement on the TARA homepage.

I hope that despite all uneasiness many of you can support this too.”

Of course this suggestion wasn’t taken up. One of the TARA board members, George Abungu, put it this way: “I feel this matter should be left to rest”. I guess this reflected the view of the board at large.

The last piece of written correspondence on the matter, on 9 December 2010, was from someone who had attended the meeting, who had this to say:

“I agree that we should make some statement on this.  I think few, if any, of us who attended the meeting, had a real understanding of the issues.  I have to admit that I was barely aware of where I was travelling to, much less that this was an occupied area, until I arrived in Morocco.  I must also say that conference some valuable outcomes, some of which drew upon  input from Sahrawi people.  I do not regret going there and meeting these people, and getting to understand their situation.

Of course, we were not aware that the Moroccan government would use our presence to endorse the illegitimate occupation of the area.  We are archaeologists – and we know that cultural heritage is used for political purposes – so we did become aware of this during the meeting.  I can’t speak for TARA, but I imagine that their experience is similar.

I’d be happy to work with people on developing a statement, around making it clear that our presence in Smara did not endorse the current occupation of the Sahara by the  Moroccan government.”

Apparently nothing happened after this, and the issue was indeed “left to rest”. This is a real pity. Through naivety and an unwillingness to address its colossal political error, TARA has given another little bit of support to the Moroccan occupation, and helped to further the cause of colonialism in Africa. For an organisation focusing on Africa and African rock art, an awful lot of which is in the Sahara, this level of naivety (and let us hope it is just naivety) is astonishing, and more than a little bit depressing.


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