Thanks to a contact for locating an archived version of the MINURSO information and deployment map describing the terms of the ceasefire in Western Sahara, at webarchive, here: http://web.archive.org/web/20090210055157/http://www.minurso.unlb.org/monitoring.html. This is the old version of the MINURSO website under the umbrella of the UN Logistics Base website (www.unlb.org). You can still find the MINURSO version under the UNLB website, but the MINURSO deployment map and the text on the areas under the ceasefire are missing from the current version.
Following on from my last 2 posts, here are a couple of images that schematically illustrate the division of Western Sahara into different areas under the UN ceasefire agreement of 1991, as enshrined in Military Agreement #1. I think I downloaded them from the MINURSO website some time ago, although did not note the precise origin – presumably as I had no reason to believe that MINURSO would decide to remove this vital and basic information.
In my last post I urged people to contact MINURSO and UN Peacekeeping to ask why vital information on the terms of the ceasefire in Western Sahara has been removed from the MINURSO website, and request that this information be reinstated. Here is the text in question, from Military Agreement (MA) #1, copied from the MINURSO website in October 2008 (from this address, which is now defunct: http://www.minurso.unlb.org/monitoring.html):
“MA#1 divides the disputed territory of Western Sahara into five parts:
• One 5 km wide Buffer Strip (BS) to the South and East side of the Berm;
• Two 30 km wide Restricted Areas (RA) along the Berm. The Buffer Strip is included in the
Restricted Area on the POLISARIO side and the Berm is included in the Restricted Area on
the RMA side;
• Two Areas with Limited Restrictions (ALR), which are the two remaining vast, stretches of
land of Western Sahara on both sides respectively.”
I quoted this text in a Briefing Note I prepared on the partition of Western Sahara, also in October 2008.
I’ve posted all this before, and will keep reposting it until MINURSO reinstates the relevant ceasefire information on its website, and Morocco’s propagandists stop their attempts to mislead the world into believing that Morocco controls all of Western Sahara, and that the Polisario-controlled areas are in fact an empty “buffer strip” set up by the UN for Morocco’s protection (the buffer zone is just 5km wide on one side of the Berm, and there is parity between the Moroccan and Polisario controlled zones, on either side of the Berm, in MA#1). Morocco is misrepresenting the situation on the ground in order to persuade the world that its “Autonomy Plan” for Western Sahara is viable. It is not, as it does not address the issue of partition, or of the Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. The information presented here, downloaded from earlier versions of the MINURSO website, clearly contradicts Morocco’s representation of the situation. Rabat is desperate to obscure the situation on the ground, and it seems likely that this is why MINURSO removed the information relating to the terms of the ceasefire, as a result of pressure from Morocco and its allies France and the United States, which are pushing for a normalisation of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. If this is not the case, all parties should be happy to see this information reinstated – that would be sufficient rebuttal.
Put pressure on UN Peackeeping and MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping force in Western Sahara, to reinstate the text of Military Agreeement #1 and Map No: A4-010 on the MINURSO website. This text and map clearly contradict Moroccan claims that it controls all of Western Sahara and that the Polisario independence movement has no presence there (see this earlier post for a discussion, this schematic representation of the ceasefire terms, and below or here for a relevant map). The absence of this information – removed by MINURSO sometime over the past year or so – plays into the hands of Morocco’s propagandists. MINURSO has not responded to repeated requests for clarification on this matter. Maybe they will take it more seriously if more people contact them.
Please write to UN Peacekeeping operations and MINURSO asking why MA #1 and Map No A4-010 have been removed from the MINURSO website, and requesting that they be reinstated.
You can contact UN Peacekeeping operations at http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/about/contact.asp, and you can email MINURSO at firstname.lastname@example.org [update: some email has bounced back from this address, so make sure you also contact peacekeeping via the web form in the above link]. Suggested text is below, or write you own.
Dear Sir or Madam
I am trying to find official copies of Military Agreement (MA) #1 and Map No: A4-010, relating to the 1991 ceasefire agreement between the Moroccan Armed Forces and the Frente Polisario in Western Sahara. These were available via the MINURSO local website prior to 2010. However, since the website has been redesigned these materials have not been available on the MINURSO site, and do not appear to be available on any other UN websites.
Could you please point me to a publicly available official UN source of this text.
I would also be very grateful for any information as to why this text has been removed from the MINURSO website, and request that these documents be reinstated.
In 1975 Morocco invaded Western Sahara. In 1991 the UN brokered a ceasefire between the Moroccan Armed Forces and the Polisario independence movement. The United Nations MIssion for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established to organise a referendum on self determination for this disputed, non-self governing territory, and to monitory the ceasefire.The terms of the ceasefire were set out in Military Agreement (MA) #1 and Map No A4-010 (see image here), which describe the zones defined under the ceasefire, as follows:One 5 kilometres (3 mi) wide Buffer Strip (BS) to the South and East side of the Berm [the 1500 km wall built by Morocco to secure the areas it has occupied in the north and west of Western Sahara];Two 30 kilometres (19 mi) wide Restricted Areas (RA) along the Berm. The Buffer Strip is included in the Restricted Area on the POLISARIO side and the Berm is included in the Restricted Area on the RMA side;
Two Areas with Limited Restrictions (ALR), which are the two remaining vast, stretches of land of Western Sahara on both sides respectively.
The text of MA #1 is embarrassing to Morocco, which repeatedly claims to control all of Western Sahara. The reality of partition means that Morocco’s plan for limited autonomy for the territory is unworkable. The Autonomy Plan ignores the fact that this “solution” can only apply to the areas of Western Sahara under Moroccan control, and not to the entire territory. It also ignores the plight of some 165,000 Sahrawi refugees displaced by the conflict. Moroccan propagandists claim that the areas to the south and east of the Berm are a “buffer strip” set up by the UN, from which the Polisario is barred. In fact, these are made up of the Restricted Area and the Area of Limited Restrictions, which are equivalent to the areas on the Moroccan controlled side of the Berm.
Sometime in 2010 the text of MA #1 and Map No A4-010 were removed from the MINURSO website, an action that is beneficial to Morocco and prejudicial to the peace process. A peacekeeping force mandated to monitor a ceasefire should be transparent with respect to its mandate and objectives. MINURSO is not, and the removal of this vital information could be interpreted as an action designed to favour Morocco in its propaganda campaign. MINURSO have ignored repeated enquiries regarding this matter.
Is the United Nations suppressing information to support an illegal occupation?
In September 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Frente Polisario, the two claimants to the disputed Non-Self Governing Territory of Western Sahara. Morocco and the Polisario had been fighting a war for control over the territory since 1975, when Morocco sent troops and civilians into Western Sahara during its “Green March”, the aim of which was to establish the former Spanish colony as part of a greater Morocco.
As part of the ceasefire, the UN established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (known by its French acronym, MINURSO), a peacekeeping force mandated with monitoring the ceasefire and overseeing a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara. Some 20 years on, the referendum has still not been held, and there seems little prospect that the ongoing political conflict between Morocco and the Polisario over the status of Western Sahara will be resolved in the foreseeable future.
Currently, Western Sahara is effectively partitioned, with Morocco controlling the bulk (some three quarters) of Western Sahara, and the Polisario controlling the remainder. The Moroccan and Polisario controlled areas are separated by a series of earthworks (variously referred to as the “wall”, “sand wall” or “berm”), constructed by Morocco to secure the territory it has gained through military means during the course of its occupation of Western Sahara.
Under the terms of the ceasefire, a number of zones or areas were defined, and permitted activities inside each area were specified. And this is the crux of this particular blog post.
The various areas defined under the ceasefire, and the activities permitted in each area, were detailed in Military Agreement No. 1 (MA#1) and on Map No: A4-010 (deployment of MINURSO). The text of MA#1, and Map No: A4-010, used to be available via MINURSO’s mission website and local website, located easily by clicking on the links on the latter site’s side bar.
And so back to that crux.
You may have noted the use of the past tense in the above text – these key ceasefire documents “used to be available” via the MINURSO websites. Since at least as early as December 2010, MA#1 and Map No: A4-010 have disappeared from the MINURSO local website (and are not available via the mission website). Given that MINURSO’s principal task (the long-delayed referendum notwithstanding) is to monitor the ceasefire, it seems somewhat bizarre that their website does not include the information on the different ceasefire zones and the permitted activity in each of these zones. This is obviously not simply due to sloppy website maintenance – the MINURSO website has been given a pretty comprehensive overhaul in the past year or so, and now contains lots of information and links to relevant documentation, mostly UN resolutions and letters from the UN Secretary General and the Security Council.
Back in 2010 I contacted MINURSO by email (email@example.com) to ask why the detailed information on the ceasefire arrangements had been removed, and where it could be found. This was followed by emails to other public information personnel at the UN who were concerned with Western Sahara. However, I never received a reply to these emails. When I followed this up informally with a UN source, their response was this. “Somehow I doubt, in present circumstances, that you will get a reply from the mission, or at least a reply that will be of any use.” When I asked my source whether they were able to elaborate on why a reply was unlikely “in the present circumstances”, and what these circumstances were, they replied “Not really”. This correspondence took place in early December 2010.
So, why the removal of important information relating to the nature of the ceasefire, and why the lack of response to an inquiry about its removal? And why the secrecy? I’m certainly prepared to speculate – here goes.
There currently seems to be no resolution in sight to the Western Sahara conflict. This has frustrated key players within the UN and internationally. As detailed in Stephen Zunes’ and Jacob Mundy’s recent, and excellent, book, Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution, key members of the UN security council (France and the United States) have long been enthusiastic (to say the least) in their support of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. In the amoral world of realpolitik, these countries in particular view the integration of Western Sahara into a greater Morocco as a practical solution to the conflict. Accordingly, they support Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan”, which would make Western Sahara part of Morocco and give it some token limited autonomy under a partially devolved administration rubber stamped or appointed by the Moroccan monarchy. I’ve written elsewhere about why this “solution” is dubious at best (also here).
So what has this got to do with the information on MINURSO’s website? Well, first we need to recognise that the UN and its various agencies are not independent bodies, but are expressions of the will of the UN’s member states. Particular UN agencies will be of particular interest to certain countries (e.g. those that provide their funding), and these countries will have an influence over their behaviour. Powerful voices within the UN lobby for their own interests and those of their friends, making the UN a forum in which key players compete with each other for dominance and advantage according to their own agendas. In short, UN agencies are subject to influence from powerful interests, and there is no reason to believe that MINURSO is any different.
Second, the ready availability of information on the terms of the ceasefire is an embarrassment to Morocco and, by extension, to those countries who support Morocco in its continuing (and illegal) occupation of Western Sahara. Morocco likes to give the impression that it controls all of Western Sahara, and that all that needs to be done to resolve the conflict is for the international community to accept Morocco’s claim to the territory. The Moroccan line is that Morocco has already achieved de facto integration of Western Sahara, making its control over the territory a done deal – if only the international community would accept this “fact on the ground” the problem would go away.
The Moroccan line is disingenuous, and its Autonomy Plan does nothing to address the partition of Western Sahara or the issue of the Sahrawi refugees displaced by the conflict and living in camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf. The airing of these issues makes the Autonomy Plan look rather flaky and inadequate, and exposes the Plan as a PR exercise to legitimise the occupation rather than a serious, sincere and workable way of resolving the conflict. Under the Autonomy Plan the territory would remain partitioned (or be subject to further fighting as Morocco sought to control all of Western Sahara), and the refugees would remain in exile (Morocco constantly underplays the number of refugees and is unlikely to welcome them as new subjects). The Plan would also fail to uphold the right of self determination enshrined in so many UN resolutions relating to Western Sahara.
Consequently, it is in Morocco’s interests to manipulate information relating to the conflict in order to marginalise the refugee issue and cloud the issue of partition. Morocco’s propagandists have a habit of telling people that the Polisario does not control any territory in Western Sahara, and that what the Polisario and the exiled Sahrawi refer to as the (Polisario controlled) “Free Zone” is in fact a “buffer zone” set up with the tacit approval of the UN to keep the Polisario out of “Moroccan” territory. This is nonsense. There is a “Buffer Strip” under the ceasefire, but this extends only 5 km east and south of the Berm or sand wall into the Polisario controlled areas. On either side of the Berm, a “Restricted Area” extends for 30 km. On both sides of the Berm, the remaining areas are defined as “Areas with Limited Restrictions”. With the exception of the Buffer Strip, which is present only on the Polisario side of the Berm, there is parity in terms of what the Moroccan armed forces and the Polisario are permitted to do on their respective sides of the Berm.
The above is all set out in MA#1, a reading of which reveals that Morocco’s claims (i) to control all of Western Sahara, (ii) that the Polisario has no active or legitimate presence in the territory, and (iii) that the areas in which Polisario might operate are in fact a buffer zone set up for Morocco’s benefit, are all nonsense. Unfortunately, now that MINURSO has removed MA#1 and Map No:A4-010, it is much less straightforward to challenge Rabat’s nonsense using authoritative sources. Well, I say unfortunately, but this is, of course, rather fortunate for Morocco and its friends.
And this is what is really suspicious. The most likely explanation for the removal of this basic, vital and (to the Moroccan camp) embarrassing information seems to be that Morocco and its friends have leaned on MINURSO to remove this information, in order to eliminate a counter to a key pillar of Morocco’s propaganda campaign. If there is a more innocent explanation, why has MINURSO been so reluctant to provide it. Unless they can allay fears that they have been co-opted by Morocco’s propaganda machine, perhaps we should be renaming them the MINUPOSO – United Nations Mission for the Perpetuation of the Occupation in Western Sahara.
Yesterday I received a request to appear on the BBC World Service’s Newshour programme, to talk about Saharan rock art. This request was precipitated by a story in Algerian journal Ennahar, about a meeting in Smaara, in occupied Western Sahara, aimed at addressing the problem of the looting and destruction of Saharan rock art. The meeting included the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), and Malika Hachid, a big name in Algerian archaeology and cultural heritage, so had at least a modicum of respectability. However, one presumes that an international meeting held in Moroccan-occupied territory must have been organised through collaboration with the occupying Moroccan powers-that-be. Given the well documented abuse of rock art in the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara and the subsequent publicity, perhaps this is another attempt by Morocco to take ownership of the issue. Perhaps not. A quick web search reveals no information about the meeting other that the Ennahar story. Any information on the meeting, or coverage of it, from those in the know is very welcome here.
In the end, the nature of the Smaara meeting wasn’t relevant to my 3 minutes on the BBC. After seeing the Ennahar story as an entry point for talking about Saharan rock art, the Newshour team became fascinated with the vandalism of rock art sites in Western Sahara by MINURSO peacekeepers, that was highlighted in 2007 and 2008, and asked me about that. So the piece essentially became a “news” story about something that happened some 3 years ago, and which received widespread media coverage in early 2008. Prior to the interview I told the BBC that the vandalised sites had actually been restored (more on that below), and sent them links to earlier coverage, but they still ran with the old (and now out of date) “UN peacekeepers vandalise ancient art” story. It was enough to make me feel almost sorry for MINURSO, who were being dragged through the mud again on this topic, when they’d done their best to address the idiotic actions of some of their officers some time ago. I attempted to salvage the interview and do justice to the facts by pointing out that this “bad news” story had become a sort of “good news” story with the restoration, but the original Smaara meeting wasn’t mentioned, and the whole experience was somewhat bizarre. It must have seemed like an odd story to the listeners, although it was right at the end of the broadcast, in the slot that other programmes often reserve for amusing stories about animals. At least it was an opportunity to highlight the wider issues of the Western Sahara conflict and threats to cultural heritage.
Much more interesting than my participation in BBC interviews about old news is what ultimately transpired as a result of the highlighting of the vandalism of prehistoric rock art sites by MINURSO personnel. As those of you who’ve read my earlier posts on this topic will know, MINURSO undertook to ensure that such wanton, destructive stupidity didn’t recur, and to restore the damaged sites to their original condition, or as near as possible, if that proved to be feasible. MINURSO’s responses to the vandalism are briefly summarised in its 2008, 2009 and 2010 reports to the UN Secretary General, the last of which claims that restoration of the sites was carried out in February 2010.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to visit Lajuad, where the most dramatic damage was perpetrated, since 2007, when we first saw the vandalism, so I can’t comment on how complete or successful the restoration has been at this site. However, I can verify that the graffiti at the other heavily damaged site, at Rekeiz Lemgassem, has been removed, and that whoever carried out the restoration appears to have done a decent job, although this is based on a superficial impression formed during a brief visit rather than any systematic or expert assessment, and restoration to the aesthetic status quo ante was obviously impossible. (A visit in 2008 indicated some rather inexpert attempts to “rub out” some of the evidence prior to any formal restoration, and the logical, although unproven, conclusion is that this was done by MINURSO personnel trying to cover their, or somebody else’s, tracks).
Nonetheless, the circumstances of the restoration remain somewhat murky. I visited Rekeiz Lemgassem in October 2009, and the site had been fully restored then – some time before February 2010, when MINURSO claim the restoration was carried out. During my visit to the Free Zone in October 2009 I spoke with MINURSO, the Polisario, and colleagues involved in the restoration process. No-one, including MINURSO, was prepared to take credit for the restoration at Rekeiz Lemgassem. MINURSO said they hadn’t done it, while the Polisario claimed that MINURSO had already carried out the restoration unilaterally – i.e. without any consultation with the Polisario. The Polisario representatives I spoke with seemed quite put out by what they claimed was a lack of coordination and consultation with them on the part of MINURSO.
I’m still not quite sure what to make of the whole process, which remains extremely opaque as far as I’m concerned. However, given the fraught politics of the region, I suspect that MINURSO felt themselves unable to cooperate openly with the Polisario, for fear of upsetting Morocco (which refuses to recognise that the Free Zone, where the vandalism took place, is controlled by the Polisario, preferring instead to pretend that the Polisario-controlled areas are a neutral “buffer zone” or even part of Moroccan territory, rather than the de facto territory of a nascent Sahrawi state, which is closer to the truth). In order to stop the Moroccans making a(nother) petulant fuss about the whole affair, MINURSO would have needed to appear to be carrying out the restoration on their own (and not colluding with the Polisario), and would have felt that they needed to keep their distance from the Polisario throughout. The Polisario no doubt wanted to have a greater say in the restoration process – they have, after all, declared the area that includes the Rekeiz Lemgassem site a national archaeological park. So, the Polisario’s nose is out of joint here, and they are complaining about MINURSO’s “unilateral” actions on what they see as their territory. I’m sure there was some liaison, but this probably was more about MINURSO informing the Polisario of their actions than about MINURSO getting the Polisario involved (although the impression my Polisario contacts gave me was that such consultation was minimal to the point of vanishing). MINURSO are just trying to clean up after the stupid mess left by some of their ignorant, bone-headed officers, and are, as usual, more concerned with keeping the Moroccan wolves at bay than they are about upsetting the Polisario.
The overarching issue here is, as usual, Morocco’s tendency to sabotage any process that might have an outcome that isn’t entirely to its own perceived advantage. Given Morocco’s apparent sabotaging of MINURSO’s attempts to engage UNESCO in the restoration process (no assistance from UNESCO was forthcoming other than the name of a restoration specialist that MINURSO had already obtained from the University of Girona), it’s understandable that MINURSO wanted to do the restoration as quietly as possible. It’s also understandable that the Polisario are annoyed at being marginalised in the process. As usual, it’s all about keeping Rabat happy and ensuring that the number of toys thrown out of the Moroccan pram is minimal.
Nonetheless, at least the mess appears to have been cleared up, and that’s something.
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.