On August 18, 2005 Senator Richard Lugar, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, oversaw the release of the last remaining Moroccan prisoners-of-war by the Polisario, in his capacity as an envoy of President George W. Bush.
The prisoners will be able to see their families and friends after many years of captivity following their participation in the Moroccan war to take over Western Sahara.
When Senator Lugar flew to Morocco with the POWs, 170,000 Saharawi refugees were left behind in the Algerian desert waiting to return home after 30 years of separation from their families and their homeland. We hope the international community will spare a thought for them and for those hundreds of Saharawis who have been suffering in Moroccan jails for over two decades.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony between 1884 and 1975. While the Spanish were preparing to withdraw, the two neighbouring countries, Morocco and Mauritania, invaded and occupied the mineral rich territory. Western Sahara is rich in phosphates and other mineral resources. It has one of the best fishing grounds in the world and a great potential for offshore oil.
Western Sahara is a similar case to East Timor. It is a decolonisation issue that has been on the UN agenda since 1965. The International Court of Justice ruled in 1975 that neither Morocco or Mauritania had sovereignty over Western Sahara before the Spanish colonisation and that its people were entitled to the right of self-determination.
The invasion of Western Sahara provoked a bloody war with the Saharawi people under the leadership of the Polisario Front, the movement that was seeking independence from Spain. Polisario defeated the Mauritanians who have since signed a peace treaty with the Saharawis.
As a result of the conflict over 165,000 Saharawis fled their homeland and have lived in makeshift refugee camps situated in the harsh desert of southwest Algeria for the past 30 years.
In 1991 the Polisario and Morocco agreed to a ceasefire as part of a UN and OAU (Organization of African Unity) settlement plan. For the past 14 years the United Nations has been involved in finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict through the organisation of a referendum on self-determination.
Despite numerous reaffirmations of the referendum proposal by the UN Security Council, and the significant efforts of the former US Secretary of State James Baker III, Morocco continues to prevent the referendum from taking place. The UN mission in the territory has already cost over US$600 million: however, there are no encouraging signs of a speedy resolution to this long lasting conflict. Mr Baker has resigned as Kofi Annan’s envoy apparently to express his frustration at the lack of co-operation from Morocco.
During 30 years of occupation, the Saharawi people have conducted their struggle for freedom within international norms. They have never used terrorism to attract attention to their plight. Many see the Saharawis as an example of a secular Muslim nation that celebrates the role of women and which could be a beacon of hope in the Maghreb region.
Unfortunately, some members of the UN Security Council have been very tolerant of the Moroccan attitude. This makes it seem that Morocco's brutality is being rewarded, while the patience and good attitude of the Saharawi people continues to be ignored.
For us Saharawis, it is hard to fathom why our moderate and pragmatic attitude has not attracted a positive response from the influential powers, when our aim is to establish a modern state, based on democracy and respect of human rights. This is the same objective for which wars were waged to accomplish in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.
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