Once a colony of Spain, Western Sahara is Africa’s only remaining colony.
After promising the Sahrawi of Western Sahara their right to self determination, Spain simply left, allowing Morocco and Mauritania to invade. Today, Morocco occupies much of the Western Sahara. It’s been 43 years since the International Court of Justice rejected Morocco’s claims and found that the Sahrawi people living there had a right to self-determination. Yet Morocco continues its brutal occupation, and its king routinely thumbs his nose at international legal and public pressure to free the Western Sahara.
This month marks the 43rd anniversary of the occupation ordered by the Kingdom of Morocco, when King Hassan II organized the infamous “Green March” in response to the International Court of Justice’s ruling. In response, the Sahrawi battled for their homeland. Many elderly, women, and children fled across the Sahara desert for refuge in Algeria, where tens of thousands of them still live in United Nations-run refugee camps. During the conflict, the Moroccan military committed massive violations of human rights ranging from dropping napalm on refugee elderly and children to placing land mines at wells, leading to thousands of civilians being killed and maimed.
Similar human rights violations are still taking place today and have been documented by the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and the World Organization Against Torture. Morocco, intent upon annexing the Western Sahara and exploiting its resources, has not hesitated to use violence and torture to subdue the Sahrawi. The U.N. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights reports that Morocco’s human rights violations are a result of the ongoing denial of the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination.
Despite these violations, the Sahrawi agreed to a cease-fire in 1991 and have since relied on the rule of law and the justness of their cause. Former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described Western Sahara as “one of the forgotten humanitarian tragedies of our time,” and an “occupation” by Morocco that “is unacceptable.”
As a human rights activist for over 25 years, I have never met a more honorable people than the Sahrawi. What they have accomplished in the face of all these atrocities and broken promises is truly remarkable. They formed the Sahrawi Republic, which has been recognized as the legitimate government of Western Sahara by over 70 nations and the African Union. Their constitution, modeled after our own, calls for equal rights for women, the right to vote for everyone 18 years of age and older, freedom of religion, and a free market economy. Even living as refugees in the Sahara desert, they have educated their children leading them to become one of the most educated people in Africa.
Thus far, though all U.S. Presidents have urged Morocco to allow the Sahrawi to determine their own future by letting them vote in a referendum called for by the United Nations, we have not taken concrete steps that could lead to resolving the matter. President Trump could change that by formally recognizing the Sahrawi Republic and calling for the end of its illegal occupation.
If he were to do that, Morocco would have little choice but to at long last live up to commitments it made when it called on the U.N. to get involved back in 1991, when it appeared the Sahrawi might win their independence on the battlefield.
At that point, Morocco asked the U.N. to intervene, and the U.N. promised the Sahrawi they would be allowed to vote on independence. The Sahrawi agreed to a cease-fire and laid down their arms in the belief that the problem could be resolved peaceably. That was nearly three decades ago, and the Moroccans are no closer to allowing a referendum today than they were the day they seized the Western Sahara.
Since then, Morocco has poured millions of dollars into lobbying to block the successful implementation of the referendum. They have even bribed U.N. officials and lawmakers, as detailed by numerous leaked reports including one prepared by the United Nation’s own Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
So now with a U.S. president who won election advocating for the “forgotten men and women” and vowing to fight against corruption and unfairness, this issue is perfect for President Trump.
Resolving this conflict would result in the establishment of a Muslim African democracy in North Africa, which would be a great symbol of hope, while bringing about much-needed stability in the region. Finally, it would help benefit the people of Morocco, who are also suffering as their king has invested so many resources to illegally occupy Western Sahara rather than helping raise the standard of living in Morocco and create more opportunities for the citizens of that country.
Suzanne Scholte, a human rights activist, is a Seoul Peace Prize Laureate.