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Western Sahara ( ; transliterated: ; ) is a territory in North Africa, bordered by Moroccomarker to the north, Algeriamarker to the north and east, Mauritaniamarker to the east and south, and the Atlantic Oceanmarker to the west. Its surface area amounts to . It is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands. The largest city is El Aaiúnmarker (Laâyoune), which is home to over half of the population of the territory, in total estimated at just more than 500,000.

Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since the 1960s when it was a Spanish colony. The Kingdom of Moroccomarker and the Polisario Front independence movement, with its Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) government, dispute control of the territory.

Since a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire agreement in 1991, most of the territory has been controlled by Morocco, and the remainder by the Polisario/SADR, backed by Algeriamarker. Internationally, major powers such as the United Statesmarker have taken a generally ambiguous and neutral position on each side's claims, and have pressed both parties to agree on a peaceful resolution. Both Morocco and Polisario have sought to boost their claims by accumulating formal recognition, essentially from African, Asian, and Latin American states in the developing world. Polisario has won formal recognition for SADR from 46 states, and was extended membership in the African Union, while Morocco has won recognition for its position from the Arab League. In both instances, recognitions have over the past two decades been extended and withdrawn according to changing international trends.

History

Early history

The earliest recorded inhabitants of the Western Sahara in historical times were agriculturalists called the Bafour. The Bafour were later replaced or absorbed by Berber-speaking populations which eventually merged in turn with migrating Arab tribes, although it is clear from the historical record that the Arabic-speaking majority in the Western Sahara descend from Berber tribes that adopted Arabic over time. There may also have been some Phoenicianmarker contacts in antiquity, but such contacts left few if any long-term traces.

The arrival of Islam in the 8th century played a major role in the development of relationships between the Saharan regions that later became the modern territories of Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, and Algeria, and neighbouring regions. Trade developed further, and the region became a highway for caravan, especially between Marrakechmarker and Tombouctoumarker in Malimarker. In the Middle Ages, the Almohads and Almoravids movements and dynasties both were able to control the area.

Towards the late Middle Ages, the Beni Hassan Arab bedouin tribes invaded the Maghreb, reaching the northern border-area of the Sahara in the 14th and 15th centuries. Over roughly five centuries, through a complex process of acculturation and mixing seen elsewhere in the Maghreb and North Africa, the indigenous Berber tribes adopted Hassaniya Arabic and a mixed Arab-Berber nomadic culture.

Spanish province

After an agreement among the European colonial powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884 on the division of spheres of influence in Africa, Spainmarker seized control of the Western Sahara and established it as a Spanish protectorate after a series of wars against the local tribes reminiscent of similar European colonial adventures of the period, in the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere. After 1939 this area was administered by Spanish Morocco. As a consequence, Ahmed Belbachir Haskouri, the Chief of Cabinet, General Secretary of the Government and Head of the palace for the caliph of Spanish Morocco cooperated with the Spaniards to select governors in that area. The Saharan Lords who were already in prominent positions such as the members of Maa El Ainain family provided a list recommending new governors. Together with the Spanish High Commissioner, Belbachir selected from the list of recommendations. During the prophet's birthday celebration these Lords paid their due respect to the caliph to show loyalty to the Moroccan monarchy. As time went by, Spanish colonial rule began to unravel with the general wave of decolonization after World War II, which saw Europeans lose control of North African and sub-Saharan African possessions and protectorates. Spanish decolonization in particular began rather late, but internal political and social pressures for it in mainland Spain built up towards the end of Francisco Franco's rule, in the context of the global trend towards complete decolonization. Spain began rapidly and even chaotically divesting itself of most of its remaining colonial possessions. After initially being violently opposed to decolonization, Spain began to give in and by 1974–75 issued promises of a referendum on independence. The nascent Polisario Front, a nationalist organization that had begun fighting the Spanish in 1973, had been demanding such a move.

At the same time, Moroccomarker and Mauritaniamarker, which had historical claims of sovereignty over the territory based on competing traditional claims, argued that the territory was artificially separated from their territories by the European colonial powers. The third neighbour of Spanish Sahara, Algeriamarker, viewed these demands with suspicion, influenced also by its long-running rivalry with Morocco. After arguing for a process of decolonization guided by the United Nations, the government of Houari Boumédiènne committed itself in 1975 to assisting the Polisario Front, which opposed both Moroccan and Mauritanian claims and demanded full independence.

The UN attempted to settle these disputes through a visiting mission in late 1975, as well as a verdict from the International Court of Justicemarker (ICJ), which declared that Western Sahara possessed the right of self-determination. On November 6, 1975 the Green March into Western Sahara began when 350,000 unarmed Moroccans converged on the city of Tarfayamarker in southern Morocco and waited for a signal from King Hassan II of Morocco to cross into Western Sahara.

Demands for independence

In the waning days of General Franco's rule, the Spanish government secretly signed a tripartite agreement with Morocco and Mauritania as it moved to abandon the Territory on 14 November 1975, mere days before Franco's death. Although the accords foresaw a tripartite administration, Morocco and Mauritania each moved to annex the territory, with Morocco taking control of the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara as its Southern Provinces and Mauritania taking control of the southern third as Tiris al-Gharbiyya. Spain terminated its presence in Spanish Sahara within three months, even repatriating Spanish corpses from its cemeteries. The Moroccan and Mauritanian moves, however, met staunch opposition from the Polisario, which had by now gained backing from Algeriamarker. In 1979, following Mauritania's withdrawal due to pressure from Polisario, Morocco extended its control to the rest of the territory, and gradually contained the guerrillas through setting up the extensive sand-berm in the desert to exclude guerilla fighters. Hostilities ceased in a 1991 cease-fire, overseen by the peacekeeping mission MINURSO, under the terms of a UN Settlement Plan.

Stalling of the referendum and Settlement Plan

The referendum, originally scheduled for 1992, foresaw giving the local population the option between independence or affirming integration with Morocco, but it quickly stalled. In 1997, the Houston Agreement attempted to revive the proposal for a referendum, but likewise has hitherto not had success. , however, negotiations over terms have not resulted in any substantive action. At the heart of the dispute lies the question of who qualifies to be registered to participate in the referendum, and, since about 2000, Morocco's renewed refusal to accept independence as an option on the referendum ballot combined with Polisario's insistence that independence be a clear option in the referendum.

Both sides blame each other for the stalling of the referendum. The Polisario has insisted on only allowing those found on the 1974 Spanish Census lists (see below) to vote, while Morocco has insisted that the census was flawed by evasion and sought the inclusion of members of Sahrawi tribes with recent historical presence in the Spanish Sahara.

Efforts by the UN special envoys to find a common ground for both parties did not succeed. By 1999 the UN had identified about 85,000 voters, with nearly half of them in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara or Southern Morocco, and the others scattered between the Tindouf refugee camps, Mauritania and other places of exile. Polisario accepted this voter list, as it had done with the previous list presented by the UN (both of them originally based on the Spanish census of 1974), but Morocco refused and, as rejected voter candidates began a mass-appeals procedure, insisted that each application be scrutinized individually. This again brought the process to a halt.

According to a NATO delegation, MINURSO election observers stated in 1999, as the deadlock continued, that "if the number of voters does not rise significantly the odds were slightly on the RASD side". By 2001, the process had effectively stalemated and the UN Secretary-General asked the parties for the first time to explore other, third-way solutions. Indeed, shortly after the Houston Agreement (1997), Morocco officially declared that it was "no longer necessary" to include an option of independence on the ballot, offering instead autonomy. Erik Jensen, who played an administrative role in MINURSO, wrote that neither side would agree to a voter registration in which they were destined to lose (see Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate).

Baker Plan

As personal envoy of the Secretary-General, James Baker (who also had John R. Bolton in his delegation) visited all sides and produced the document known as the "Baker Plan". This was discussed by the United Nations Security Council in 2000, and envisioned an autonomous Western Sahara Authority (WSA), which would be followed after five years by the referendum. Every person present in the territory would be allowed to vote, regardless of birthplace and with no regard to the Spanish census. It was rejected by both sides, although it was initially derived from a Moroccan proposal. According to Baker's draft, tens of thousands of post-annexation immigrants from Morocco proper (viewed by Polisario as settlers, but by Morocco as legitimate inhabitants of the area) would be granted the vote in the Sahrawi independence referendum, and the ballot would be split three-ways by the inclusion of an unspecified "autonomy", further undermining the independence camp. Also, Morocco was allowed to keep its army in the area and to retain the control over all security issues during both the autonomy years and the election. In 2002, the Moroccan king stated that the referendum idea was "out of date" since it "can not be implemented"; Polisario retorted that that was only because of the King's refusal to allow it to take place.

In 2003, a new version of the plan was made official, with some additions spelling out the powers of the WSA, making it less reliant on Moroccan devolution. It also provided further detail on the referendum process in order to make it harder to stall or subvert. This second draft, commonly known as Baker II, was accepted by the Polisario as a "basis of negotiations" to the surprise of many. This appeared to abandon Polisario's previous position of only negotiating based on the standards of voter identification from 1991 (i.e. the Spanish census). After that, the draft quickly garnered widespread international support, culminating in the UN Security Council's unanimous endorsement of the plan in the summer of 2003.

Today

Currently, the Baker II document appears to be a dead letter, and Baker resigned his post at the United Nations in 2004. His resignation followed several months of failed attempts to get Morocco to enter into formal negotiations on the plan, but he met with rejection. The new king, Mohammed VI of Morocco, opposes any referendum on independence, and has said Morocco will never agree to one: "We shall not give up one inch of our beloved Sahara, not a grain of its sand".

Instead, he proposes, through an appointed advisory body Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), a self-governing Western Sahara as an autonomous community within Morocco. His father, Hassan II of Morocco, initially supported the referendum idea in principle in 1982, and in signed contracts with Polisario and the UN in 1991 and 1997; thus engaging to a referendum. However, no major powers have expressed interest in forcing the issue, and Morocco has historically showed little real interest in an actual referendum.

The UN has put forth no replacement strategy after the breakdown of Baker II, and renewed fighting has been raised as a possibility. In 2005, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported increased military activity on both sides of the front and breaches of several cease-fire provisions against strengthening military fortifications.

Morocco has repeatedly tried to get Algeriamarker into bilateral negotiations, based on its view of Polisario as the cat's paw of the Algerian military. It has received vocal support from Francemarker and occasionally (and currently) from the United Statesmarker. These negotiations would define the exact limits of a Western Sahara autonomy under Moroccan rule, but only after Morocco's "inalienable right" to the territory was recognized as a precondition to the talks. The Algerian government has consistently refused, claiming it has neither the will nor the right to negotiate on the behalf of the Polisario Front.

Demonstrations and riots by supporters of independence and/or a referendum broke out in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara in May 2005, and in parts of southern Morocco (notably the town of Assa). They were met by police. Several international human rights organizations expressed concern at what they termed abuse by Moroccan security forces, and a number of Sahrawi activists have been jailed. Pro-independence Sahrawi sources, including the Polisario, have given these demonstrations the name "Independence Intifada", while most sources have tended to see the events as being of limited importance. International press and other media coverage has been sparse, and reporting is complicated by the Moroccan government's policy of strictly controlling independent media coverage within the territory.

Demonstrations and protests still occur, after Morocco declared in February 2006 that it was contemplating a plan for devolving a limited variant of autonomy to the territory, but still explicitly refused any referendum on independence. As of January 2007, the plan has not been made public, even if the Moroccan government claims that it has been more or less completed.

Polisario has intermittently threatened to resume fighting, referring to the Moroccan refusal of a referendum as a breach of the cease-fire terms, but most observers seem to consider armed conflict unlikely without the green light from Algeriamarker, which houses the Sahrawis' refugee camps and has been the main military sponsor of the movement.

In April 2007, the government of Morocco suggested that a self-governing entity, through the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), should govern the territory with some degree of autonomy for Western Sahara. The project was presented to the UN Security Council in mid-April 2007. The stalemating of the Moroccan proposal options has led the UN in the recent "Report of the UN Secretary-General" to ask the parties to enter into direct and unconditional negotiations to reach a mutually accepted political solution.

Politics

The legal status of the territory and the question of its sovereignty remains unresolved; the territory is contested between Moroccomarker and Polisario Front. It is considered a non self-governed territory by the United Nations.

The government of Moroccomarker is a formally constitutional monarchy under Mohammed VI with a bicameral parliament. The last elections to the lower house were deemed reasonably free and fair by international observers. Certain powers such as the capacity to appoint the government and to dissolve parliament remain in the hands of the monarch. The Morocco-controlled parts of Western Sahara are divided into several provinces treated as integral parts of the kingdom. The Moroccan government heavily subsidizes the Saharan provinces under its control with cut-rate fuel and related subsidies, to appease nationalist dissent and attract immigrants – or settlers – from loyalist Sahrawi and other communities in Morocco proper.

The exiled government of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is a form of single-party parliamentary and presidential system, but according to its constitution, this will be changed into a multi-party system at the achievement of independence. It is presently based at the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeriamarker, which it controls. It also claims to control the part of Western Sahara to the east of the Moroccan Wall, known as the Free Zone. This area has a very small population, estimated to be approximately 30,000 nomads. The Moroccan government views it as a no-man's land patrolled by UN troops. The SADR government whose troops also patrol the area regard it as the liberated territories and have proclaimed a village in the area, Bir Lehloumarker as SADR's provisional capital.

Human rights

The Western Sahara conflict has resulted in severe human rights abuses, most notably the displacement of tens of thousands of Sahrawi civilians from the country, the expulsion of tens of thousands of Moroccan civilians by the Algerian government from Algeria, and numerous casualties of war and repression.

During the war years (1975–91), both sides accused each other of targeting civilians. Moroccan claims of Polisario terrorism has generally little to no support abroad, with the USAmarker, EU and UN all refusing to include the group on their lists of terrorist organizations. Polisario leaders maintain that they are ideologically opposed to terrorism, and insist that collective punishment and forced disappearances among Sahrawi civilians [5930] should be considered state terrorism on the part of Morocco [5931]. Both Morocco and the Polisario additionally accuse each other of violating the human rights of the populations under their control, in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara and the Tindoufmarker refugee camps in Algeriamarker, respectively. Morocco and organizations such as France Libertés consider Algeria to be directly responsible for any crimes committed on its territory, and accuse the country of having been directly involved in such violations.

Regions

Three Moroccan regions overlap the territory of Western Sahara:

Dispute

The Western Sahara was partitioned between Moroccomarker and Mauritaniamarker in April 1976, with Morocco acquiring the northern two-thirds of the territory.When Mauritania, under pressure from Polisario guerrillas, abandoned all claims to its portion in August 1979, Morocco moved to occupy that sector shortly thereafter and has since asserted administrative control over the whole territory.The official Moroccan government name for Western Sahara is the "Southern Provinces," which indicates Río de Oro and Saguia el-Hamra.

Not under control of the Moroccan government is the area that lies between the border wall and the actual border with Algeriamarker. (for map [5932] see external links) The Polisario Front claims to run this as the Free Zone on behalf of the SADR. The area is patrolled by Polisario forces, and access is restricted, even among Sahrawis, due to the harsh climate of the Sahara, the military conflict and the abundance of land mines. Still, the area is traveled and inhabited by many Sahrawi nomads from the Tindoufmarker refugee camps of Algeriamarker and the Sahrawi communities in Mauritaniamarker. Both Moroccan and United Nations MINURSO forces are also present in the area. The UN forces oversee the cease-fire between Polisario and Morocco agreed upon in the 1991 Settlement Plan.

The Polisario forces (of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army, SPLA) in the area are divided into seven "military regions", each controlled by a top commander reporting to the President of the Polisario proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The total size of the Polisario's guerrilla army present in this area is unknown, but it is believed to number a few thousand men, despite many combantants being demobilized due to the cease-fire. These forces are dug into permanent positions, such as gun emplacements, defensive trenches and underground military bases, as well as conducting mobile patrols of the territory.



Major Sahrawi political events, such as Polisario congresses and sessions of the Sahrawi National Council (the SADR parliament in exile) are held in the Free Zone (especially in Tifaritimarker and Bir Lehlou), since it is considered politically and symbolically important to conduct political affairs on Sahrawi territory. A concentration of forces for the commemoration of the Saharawi Republic’s 30th anniversary were however subject to condemnation by the United Nations, as it was considered an example of a cease-fire violation to bring such a large force concentration into the area. Both parties have been accused of such violations by the UN, but to date there has been no serious hostile action from either side since 1991.

Annual demonstrations against the Moroccan Wall are staged in the region by Sahrawis and international activists from Spainmarker, Italymarker and other mainly European countries. These actions are closely monitored by the UN.

During the joint Moroccan-Mauritanian control of the area, the Mauritanian-controlled part, roughly corresponding to Saquia el-Hamra, was known as Tiris al-Gharbiyya.

Geography

Western Sahara is located in Northern Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Oceanmarker, between Mauritaniamarker and Moroccomarker. It also borders Algeriamarker to the northeast. The land is some of the most arid and inhospitable on the planet, but is rich in phosphates in Bou Craamarker.

Economy

Aside from its rich phosphate deposits and fishing waters, Western Sahara has few natural resources and lacks sufficient rainfall for most agricultural activities. There is speculation that there may be rich off-shore oil and natural gas fields, but the debate persists as to whether these resources can be profitably exploited, and if this would be legally permitted due to the non-decolonized status of Western Sahara (see below).

Western Sahara's economy is centred around nomadic herding, fishing, and phosphate mining. Most food for the urban population is imported. All trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan government. The government has encouraged citizens to relocate to the territory by giving subsidies and price controls on basic goods. These heavy subsidies have created a state-dominated economy in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara, with the Moroccan government as the single biggest employer.

Exploitation debate

After reasonably exploitable oil fields were located in neighbouring Mauritania, speculation intensified on the possibility of major oil resources being located off the coast of Western Sahara. Despite the fact that findings remain inconclusive, both Morocco and the Polisario have made deals with oil and gas exploration companies. US and French companies (notably Total and Kerr-McGee) began prospecting on behalf of Morocco.

In 2002, Hans Corell, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and head of its Office of Legal Affairs issued a legal opinion on the matter. This opinion stated that while exploration of the area was permitted, exploitation was not, on the basis that Morocco is not a recognized administrative power of the territory, and thus lacks the capacity to issue such licenses. After pressures from corporate ethics-groups, Total S.A. pulled out.

In May 2006 the remaining company Kerr-McGee also left following sales of numerous share holders like the National Norwegian Oil Fund, due to continued pressure from NGOs and corporate groups.

Despite the UN report and the development regarding the exploration of oil, the European Union wants to exploit fishing resources in waters outside Western Sahara and has signed a fishing treaty with Morocco.

Demographics

Town in Western Sahara
The indigenous population of Western Sahara is known as Sahrawis. These are Hassaniya-speaking tribes of mixed ArabBerber heritage, effectively continuations of the tribal groupings of Hassaniya speaking Moor tribes extending south into Mauritaniamarker and north into Moroccomarker as well as east into Algeriamarker. The Sahrawis are traditionally nomadic bedouins, and can be found in all surrounding countries. War and conflict has led to major displacements of the population.

As of July 2004, an estimated 267,405 people (excluding the Moroccan army of some 160,000) lived in the Moroccanmarker-controlled parts of Western Sahara. Many Moroccans have settled the area, and the settler population is today thought to outnumber the indigenous Western Sahara Sahrawis. The precise size and composition of the population is subject to political controversy.

The Polisario-controlled parts of Western Sahara are barren. This area has a very small population, estimated to be approximately 30,000. The population is primarily made up of nomads who engage in herding camels back and forth between the Tindoufmarker area and Mauritaniamarker. However, the presence of mines scattered throughout the territory by both the Polisario and the Moroccan army makes it a dangerous way of life.

The Spanish census and MINURSO

A 1974 Spanish census claimed there were some 74,000 Sahrawis in the area at the time (in addition to approximately 20,000 Spanish residents), but this number is likely to be on the low side, due to the difficulty in counting a nomad people, even if Sahrawis were by the mid-1970s mostly urbanized. Despite these possible inaccuracies, Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed on using the Spanish census as the basis for voter registration when striking a cease-fire agreement in the late 1980s, contingent on the holding of a referendum on independence or integration into Morocco.

In December 1999 the United Nations' MINURSO mission announced that it had identified 86,425 eligible voters for the referendum that was supposed to be held under the 1991 Settlement plan and the 1997 Houston accords. By "eligible voter" the UN referred to any Sahrawi over 18 years of age that was part of the Spanish census or could prove his/her descent from someone who was. These 86,425 Sahrawis were dispersed between Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara and the refugee camps in Algeria, with smaller numbers in Mauritania and other places of exile. These numbers cover only Sahrawis 'indigenous' to the Western Sahara during the Spanish colonial period, not the total number of "ethnic" Sahrawis (i.e, members of Sahrawi tribal groupings), who also extend into Mauritania, Morocco and Algeria. The number was highly politically significant due to the expected organization of a referendum on self-determination.

The Polisario has its home base in the Tindouf refugee campsmarker in Algeria, and declares the number of Sahrawi population in the camps to be approximately 155,000. Morocco disputes this number, saying it is exaggerated for political reasons and for attracting more foreign aid. The UN uses a number of 90,000 "most vulnerable" refugees as basis for its food aid program.

Culture

The major ethnic group of the Western Sahara are the Sahrawis, a nomadic or Bedouin tribal or ethnic group speaking the Hassānīya dialect of Arabic, also spoken in much of Mauritaniamarker. They are of mixed Arab-Berber descent, but claim descent from the Beni Hassan, a Yemeni tribe supposed to have migrated across the desert in the 11th century.

Physically indistinguishable from the Hassaniya speaking Moors of Mauritania, the Sahrawi people differ from their neighbors partly due to different tribal affiliations (as tribal confederations cut across present modern boundaries) and partly as a consequence of their exposure to Spanishmarker colonial domination. Surrounding territories were generally under French colonial rule.

Like other neighboring Saharan Bedouin and Hassaniya groups, the Sahrawis are Muslims of the Sunni sect and the Maliki fiqh. Local religious custom ('urf) is, like other Saharan groups, heavily influenced by pre-Islamic Berber and African practices, and differs substantially from urban practices. For example, Sahrawi Islam has traditionally functioned without mosques in the normal sense of the word, in an adaptation to nomadic life.

The originally clan- and tribe-based society underwent a massive social upheaval in 1975, when a part of the population was forced into exile and settled in the refugee camps of Tindoufmarker, Algeria. Families were broken up by the fight. For developments among this population, see Sahrawi and Tindouf Province.

See also



Notes and references

Cited references

General references
  • Tony Hodges (1983), Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, Lawrence Hill Books (ISBN 0-88208-152-7)
  • Anthony G. Pazzanita and Tony Hodges (1994), Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara, Scarecrow Press (ISBN 0-8108-2661-5)
  • Toby Shelley (2004), Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa's Last Colony?, Zed Books (ISBN 1-84277-341-0)
  • Erik Jensen (2005), Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate, International Peace Studies (ISBN 1-58826-305-3)


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