Areas defined under the UN ceasefire in Western Sahara

November 11, 2011

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.

Ceasefire schematic p1

Ceasefire schematic p2


Text of Military Agreement #1

November 8, 2011

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:

“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.

For a graphical representation of MA#1 click here. For Map A4-010 showing the ceasefire on the ground, see below, or click here for a jpeg version.

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.

Division of Western Sahara under the terms of the 1991 ceasefire agreement. Map from MINURSO.

Show me the text of MIlitary Agreement #1

November 1, 2011

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, and you can email MINURSO at [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.

Suggested text

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.

Yours faithfully


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.

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.

Partition, propaganda and decolonisation

October 6, 2008

This is just a quick heads up to say that today (Monday) saw the opening of the latest meeting of the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization, not that you’d know about it by looking at the UN’s impenetrable website. Perhaps this isn’t surprising as they seem reluctant to let journalists cover the proceedings.

I scribbled a hasty “briefing note”‘ for some acquaintances who will be presenting evidence to the Committee, focusing on my favourite Western Sahara gripe, namely that the reality of partition is rarely discussed, with Morocco managing to hoodwink most people into thinking that it controls all of Western Sahara, and all that is needed is a nod and a wink in favour of its occupation in order to normalise the situation. You can download the briefing note here. I may beef up this document at some point, elaborating a few of the details and inserting more references, if I have time, and if there is a demand from anyone who might find it useful. So do let me know if think this would be at all illuminating.

A handy reference to have on your desk when reading the note is this map of Western Sahara (below), produced by MINURSO and showing how the territory is divided up. Further explanation at the MINURSO website here.

Division of Western Sahara under the terms of the 1991 ceasefire agreement. Map from MINURSO.

Division of Western Sahara under the terms of the 1991 ceasefire agreement. Map from MINURSO.

To my colleagues who are participating in the hearing of the Decolonization Committee, I’d just like to say Good Hunting. Give ’em hell.

Well, it’s a start

February 26, 2008


(Photo courtesy of MINURSO: click for larger image)

MINURSO have responded (fairly promptly, it has to be said) to the complaints and associated publicity about the defacing of archaeological sites by their peacekeeping personal. The results can be seen in the above photo, which shows a sign erected at the heavily damaged (by MINURSO and other graffiti) rock painting site of Rekeiz Lemgassem, in the Northern Sector of the Free Zone of Western Sahara, near Tifariti. Apparently another sign is being erected “at Aguanit” – presumably actually at Lajuad, where the worst examples of graffiti were noted by the Polisario in summer 2007, and then by a research team working with the Western Sahara Project (headed by yours truly) in winter 2007.

It remains to be seen whether these signs will have the desired effect. They will at least remove the excuse of ignorance or general thoughtlessness and, in combination with the negative publicity that previous acts of vandalism have attracted, should make people (particularly MINURSO personnel) think twice before advertising their personal details in six-foot high spray-painted letters on rock faces of archaeological and cultural significance.

The signs are only a start. More needs to be done in the region to foster respect for the cultural heritage of this fascinating and little-known (to the outside world at least) part of the Sahara. Codes of conduct need to be developed, disseminated , understood and acted on, and the discipline threatened in the signs needs to be enforced if future offences are committed by UN peacekeepers.

The issue of the existing graffiti also needs to be addressed. Assessments need to be carried out to see if it can be safely removed, without damaging the rock art underneath (and this may not be possible). If this is feasible, the work will be time consuming and costly. The issues of who pays for, and who carries out any restoration is yet to be resolved. Initial suggestions were that UNESCO might handle, and fund, the restoration. However, UNESCO is being remarkably quiet. The reason might be found in this article in the Moroccan journal l’Opionion, which states that UNESCO has emphasised to Morocco that it does not recognise the Polisario’s authority in the Free Zone, and that UNESCO has promised to seek permission from Morocco before undertaking any restoration work in the Free Zone – for example at Lajuad, where it’s assistance is most needed.

So, UNESCO has apparently promised to seek permission from Morocco to work in an area outside of Moroccan control, in which Morocco has no presence, and which is governed by a political authority completely independent of Morocco. If this is true, UNESCO is colluding with an occupying power in an attempt by the latter to influence activity in an area it covets but does not control, effectively extending the reach of its occupation. Given that the official UN position on the Western Sahara conflict is one of studied neutrality, any such collusion by a UN body with Morocco would be unfortunate. Of course this may be the usual Moroccan propaganda, and may not bear any relation to reality. Morocco has certainly tried its best to take ownership of this issue, as it can’t bear the fact that a story about Western Sahara that focuses on the areas outside of its control has had so much international coverage. It is extremely likely (almost certain in fact) that Morocco has been lobbying UNESCO behind the scenes in order to prevent it operating in the Polisario-controlled areas (1). What is unknown at present is how UNESCO has responded to this inevitable pressure. However, it is worth noting the following, taken from the UNESCO website:

“Morocco maintains a close relationship with UNESCO…… the UNESCO Office Rabat is a cluster office representing UNESCO in Algeria, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia…. Morocco has eight sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List….”

It may well be that UNESCO’s “close relationship” with Morocco means that UNESCO will be reluctant to upset the Moroccan authorities for the sake of preserving archaeological sites in a disputed territory in which it has no existing interests.

I hope to have more news on the UNESCO front soon – I’ve emailed them asking if they could clarify the situation and explain their position. Watch this space.

(1) Morocco tries its best to prevent any foreign activity in the Polisario controlled zone (or “Free Zone”) in order to maintain the fiction that this is actually a demilitarized “buffer zone”, and not an independent region within Western Sahara that Morocco has not managed to acquire, run by a government (the Polisario) with which Morocco is competing for sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Between a spray-painted rock and a hard place

February 5, 2008

It’s difficult to talk about the archaeology of Western Sahara without politics rearing its head sooner or later. For me this usually takes the form of having to explain where Western Sahara is, and that it is a distinct entity that takes the form of a disputed, non-self governing territory, rather than simply a vaguely defined area somewhere in northwest Africa. People usually think I mean I’m working somewhere in Mauritania, Algeria or (eek) Morocco. Once I’ve explained the geography the conversation inevitably turns to the conflict and the partition of the territory between the Moroccan occupied areas and the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone”.

Now I don’t keep my sympathies for the Sahrawi independence cause secret. And I challenge anyone to spend time in the Free Zone with the displaced and politically marginalised Sahrawi without developing some sympathy for their aspirations to an independent state. But politics is politics, and science is science, and we must work hard to keep them as separate as possible in order that the former does not contaminate the latter. In fact this should be pretty easy when the science is dealing with environmental and social changes thousands of years ago, and the politics deals with a contemporary conflict. There is no mileage in using the archaeology of millennia past to say anything about the current political situation, or who has a right to be where.

Nonetheless, the management of archaeological sites must be carried out in existing political contexts, and politics does impinge on the activities of researchers and those concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage. It now appears that the politics of the Western Sahara conflict may present a diplomatic obstacle to the rehabilitation and preservation of archaeological sites damaged by personnel from the UN observer force in Western Sahara (known by its acronym MINURSO), as I will elaborate below.

The vandalism of archaeological sites in Western Sahara clearly warrants some action, in the form of measures to protect sites from future damage, and the rehabilitation of sites that have already been damaged where this is possible. All actors in the region should be cooperating to ensure that the cultural heritage is preserved. MINURSO has a duty to care for it, and Morocco and the Polisario both claim it. There really shouldn’t be too much to argue about (apart perhaps from who pays, which always generates some disagreement).

MINURSO have been very positive about taking action against the perpetrators, cooperating with the rehabilitation of the sites if this turns out to be feasible, and doing their best to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen in the future. Whether action is effective remains to be seen, but the important thing is that the MINURSO leadership is taking the issue very seriously, and seems to be responding constructively to the approach that those of us working in the region have been taking. This is one of constructive engagement coupled with continuing pressure, the idea being to create a climate in which the vandalism of rock art sites is seen as unacceptable by those who might be tempted to perpetrate it, while offering cooperaton to MINURSO in order to help them take sensible actions to protect the archaeology. Julian Harston, the civilian head of MINURSO and the UN Secretary General’s special representative in the region, has pledged to take additional actions to rehabilitate and protect the sites, and has apologised for the damage already done.

So far, so good, you might think. But not everyone approves of MINURSO’s apologetic stance. The Association Sahara Marocain (ASM), a pro-Moroccan, anti-Polisario group based in Casablanca which promotes Morocco’s self-declared “rights” to Western Sahara, has taken great exception to the fact that Mr Harston apologised to some Polisario representatives for the actions of MINURSO staff, after the Polisario representatives had taken up the issue of MINURSO graffiti over prehistoric rock art with him. In fact, ASM has demanded that Mr Harston apologise for the apology. AFP describes ASM’s tantrum as part of a wider “diplomatic incident, and reports that:

“ASM chief Reda Daoujni warned that if an apology was not offered to his group, it would call for a rally outside the Minurso offices in Western Saharaand in Rabat to protest Harston’s “blatant pro-separatist stance.””

ASM claims to be supporting Morocco’s “territorial integrity”, but does not seem to be bothered about vandalism to the important archaeological sites which would, if it had its way, represent an important element of Morocco’s cultural heritage. Instead, the organisation is concerned only with using cultural heritage as a political football and, to mix my metaphors, a stick to beat MINURSO with when it behaves in a way that isn’t convenient for Morocco. I guess this tells us something about ASM and its priorities.

MINURSO haven’t commented on this latest twist to the story, but they do seem to have identified the complaint from ASM as a potential problem. Any measures to protect archaeological sites will require some kind of coordination with the authorities on the ground, and in the areas housing the damaged sites the authority in question is the Polisario. Anything that prevents MINURSO from cooperating with the Polisario on the issue of protection for archaeological sites is likely to have a detrimental effect on efforts to protect the cultural heritage – any such efforts will need to have the support of all the relevant local “stakeholders”.

Having taken MINURSO to task over the actions of some of its personnel, I feel that I should stick up for them, at least on this issue. The MINURSO leadership is at least trying to right the wrongs committed by some of the UN personnel for which it is responsible, and is taking a lot of flack over this issue at present (albeit not without good reason). Julian Harston and his colleagues seem to be genuinely appalled by the actions of some of the MINURSO observer force, and I for one believe that they are serious about making amends and establishing measures to prevent future vandalism. It would be a real pity if their apparently genuine desire to take meaningful action to restore and protect vulnerable archaeological sites was scuppered by the politicking of the pro-occupation lobby.

So what lies behind ASM’s complaint? For one, they (and by inference, the Moroccan authorities) interpret the MINURSO apology to the Polisario as some sort of recognition of Polisario’s legitimacy, and this makes them mad. Never mind that Morocco has no presence in the areas of Western Sahara in which the damage has been recorded, or the fact that these areas are firmly under the control of the Polisario. Never mind the fact that the Polisario are the political representatives of the Sahrawi who inhabit and use these areas, and who endow the damaged sites with historical, cultural and even magical significance. Given this context, it would seem churlish and antagonisitic of Mr Harston not to apologise to representatives of the Polisario when they raised the issue of MINURSO vandalism with him, personally, during the talks at Manhasset. If he is sorry about the actions of MINURSO personnel, why should his apology exclude the authorities in the region in which these actions were carried out? Of course at the bottom of all this lies the fact that Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara is not officially recognised by any government (despite the pro-occupation stance of countries such as France and the US), while the Polisario is recognised as the legitimate government of Western Sahara by around 50 countries (the number changes as countries alternately cave into Moroccan pressure or decide to oppose what they see as Moroccan colonialism). No wonder Morocco is so sensitive and desperate to keep the spotlight away from the reality of an unresolved partition.

ASM’s complaint has deeper roots though. One of the results of the coverage (e.g. 1, 2) of the vandalism is that people are getting to hear about Western Sahara. Crucially, this is a story about Western Sahara that doesn’t mention Morocco, giving the lie to Morocco’s claims to have control or sovereignty over the entire territory. People might realise that this story is rooted in events that occurred in the Free Zone, and come to realise that, rather than being under Moroccan control, Western Sahara is actually partitioned between a Moroccan occupied zone and a Polisario-controlled zone. The reality of partition makes Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan” look like a less durable solution to the Western Sahara conflict, given that the plan does not address the status of the Polisario-controlled or Free Zone, or the status of the 160,000 thousand Sahrawi refugees displaced by Morocco’s occupation and now living in camps in the Algerian desert. Any coverage of events in the Free Zone reveals the inconvenient truth that Morocco’s occupation is not simply a done deal waiting for international endorsement. Such coverage exposes as a fantasy Morocco’s claims of sovereignty, as well as its claims that its occupation of Western Sahara is a stabilising influence in this part of the Sahara. Unresolved partitions of disputed territories and the existence of large numbers of refugees in neighbouring countries is not, as far as my reading of history indicates, conducive to political stability.

Morocco has been quick to try and assert its “ownership” of this story, with the Moroccan director of national heritage condemning the actions of MINURSO personnel in “the demilitarised zone” (i.e. the Polisario controlled zone, in which Morocco has no presence and over which it has no influence). More worryingly, according to accounts heard by this blogger from reliable sources, it appears that Morocco is exerting behind-the scenes pressure on UNESCO to seek Moroccan permission before getting involved in any efforts to clean up existing damage or to prevent future damage to archaeological sites (UNESCO have been approached by Spanish researchers hoping to engage them in the preservation of cultural heritage in Western Sahara). If it is not careful, UNESCO could end up apparently endorsing Morocco’s occupation, if it does indeed seek “permission” from Morocco to work in the areas in which damage to archaeological sites has been recorded. This would cause another diplomatic incident, with UNESCO coming under fire for seeking Moroccan permission to work in an area that is not part of Morocco, in which Morocco has no presence, and which is governed by a non-Moroccan political authority (the Polisario) which is recognised as the legitimate government of the territory in question by dozens of countries. Given the potential for diplomatic upset, the most likely outcome is that UNESCO will be scared off, and its considerable expertise in rehabilitating and protecting archaeological sites will not be available to those seeking to protect Western Sahara’s unique cultural heritage. To put it simply, Morocco is seeking to prevent the protection of cultural heritage which it claims, and the world will be a poorer place as a result.