Their struggle for freedom

Malta could play a more constructive role in promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Western Sahara.

Despite its nearly 50-year duration, the Western Sahara conflict receives scant international attention. The Sahrawi people, who are under the brutal oppression and illegal occupation of Morocco, are still fighting for their fundamental rights and for the liberation of their land.

Fittingly, Western Sahara is referred to by many as the last colony in Africa, as the Sahrawi people are still struggling to gain their liberation from Moroccan rule. The gap between the stated values of Western nations and their actions – or lack of them – regarding the Sahrawi people’s situation is disappointing and raises concerns. It is a greater disappointment to see even my own country adopting an unfair stance through its political support to Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. According to international law, the presence of Morocco in the territory is illegal and therefore the Moroccan government does not have the legal right to declare sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Having known occupation and the denial of our rights, shouldn’t we, the Maltese people, stand in strong solidarity with the silenced Sahrawi people in their fight for self determination? As a country that was once a colony, we should continue to embrace the values that guided us in our struggle for freedom. This time these values should underpin our support to another people who, like us, want to live in freedom. Our country should promote a peaceful solution to the conflict in Western Sahara that respects the right of self-determination for the Sahrawi people.

Photo: Fadel SENNA / AFP

Malta’s policy

Back in the year 1979, Malta was among the few countries from the Western world that voted in favour of the granting of self-determination to the Sahrawi people in UN Resolution 34/37, that was presented on this subject in the General Assembly.

In recent years, our country even welcomed informal talks between the representatives of the Saharawi people and the Moroccan government, and continued to consistently declare support for the granting of self-determination to Western Sahara and its people. This position is compatible with that of the United Nations regarding this conflict.

When the tensions between the Sahrawi people and the Moroccan occupiers in the territory started to flare up again in the year 2020, the Maltese Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared in an official statement the following position about the status of the territory of Western Sahara and about our country’s stance regarding this conflict:

“Malta’s position on Western Sahara remains unchanged: a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, in line with international law. In this regard, Malta continues to support the United Nations-led process.”

It seems, however, that this fair and correct position according to international law has now been abandoned and, instead, replaced by a position in favour of the continuation of the Moroccan presence in the Western Sahara. Last year, the same Ministry for Foreign Affairs expressed political support for a proposal put forward by the Moroccan government in order to formally annex the occupied territory to the rest of Morocco.

This proposal, which is known as the ‘Western Sahara Autonomy Proposal’ (Proposal of Autonomy for the Western Sahara) denies the Sahrawi people the possibility of acquiring their full independence, as the Moroccan government is only proposing to provide them with limited autonomy. This proposal is unacceptable to all those who believe in the most fundamental human rights, as it does not recognise the true ambitions and wishes of the Sahrawi people regarding their future.

During a visit he made to Morocco last year in which a number of trade agreements were finalised between Malta and Morocco, our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ian Borg, reiterated Malta’s support for the proposal put forward by the Moroccan government regarding the conflict in Western Sahara. At a press conference he declared the following about the Moroccan proposal:

“Malta considers the autonomy plan presented by Morocco as a serious and credible contribution to the definitive resolution of the Sahara issue.”

Evidently, this statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs differs from what the same Ministry had declared three years earlier. There is a need for the Maltese government to clarify its position regarding the Western Sahara conflict, as the statement of the year 2020 and the statement of the year 2023 are in contradiction to each other. It is unacceptable that the position of the Maltese government has changed in such a way as to deny the Sahrawi people the possibility of acquiring their independence and complete liberation from the illegal occupation by Morocco.

In order to be compliant with the principles of recognising the liberation of colonised nations, the Maltese government has to adopt a fairer position in line with international laws and the position taken by the United Nations. This can be done by:

a) withdrawing its support for the Moroccan government’s proposal;

b) declaring unconditional support for the granting of self-determination to the Sahrawi people;

c) adopting the positions taken by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice;

d) establishing diplomatic relations with the Sahrawi-Arab Democratic Republic;

e) opposing the agreements that the European Union is establishing with Morocco that include the territory of the Western Sahara.

With a genuine will in favour of peace from the international community, this conflict and others like it can end once and for all in the interest of the peoples who are enslaved and oppressed.

The forgotten occupation

Western Sahara is an African territory that is still contested today due to its occupation by Morocco. Western Sahara was one of the colonies that the Spanish Empire had in the African continent. Spanish rule began in the 19th century, and in 1975 Spain withdrew from the territory after the creation of several resistance movements that began to oppose its presence. Among these movements was the Polisario Front, which began to call for the creation of an independent state in the territory, under the name of Sahrawi-Arab Democratic Republic. In 1960, the United Nations adopted Resolution 1514, which implied that the peoples who are conquered by colonial powers in their country should have the right to obtain their liberation from colonial rule through the granting of self-determination.

From that year, the African continent began to experience the liberation of its colonies until in 1975 the only colonial power that still possessed a colony on the continent was Spain, through its rule in the territory of Western Sahara, which was still known as the Spanish Sahara.

Officially known as ‘Frente Popular de Liberacion de Saguia el-Hamra y Rio de Oro’, the Polisario Front is recognised by the United Nations as the only legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. In the year 1976, the Polisario Front founded the Sahrawi-Arab Democratic Republic in the aftermath of the departure of the last Spanish troops from the territory of the Western Sahara that year.

Initially, the Polisario Front was formed as a nationalist movement, but eventually the movement began to get involved in military confrontations with the Spanish troops present in the territory in the aftermath of the Zemla Massacare in 1970, in which Spanish forces massacared Sahrawi activists demanding autonomy. Throughout the following decade, the Polisario Front was established as a liberation movement for the indigenous people of the territory, which are known as Sahrawi.

In 1976, the year which marked the departure of the Spanish military forces from the territory, the Sahrawi formally proclaimed their independence from Spain and the Sahrawi-Arab Democratic Republic was established. However, Spain did not recognise the independence of the territory, as the previously signed Madrid Accords had invoked the division of the territory between two neighboring countries – Morocco and Mauritania – without any consultation with the Sahrawi people regarding their aspirations. This marked the beginning of the Moroccan and Mauritanian occupation of the territory, with the northern part being occupied by the Moroccan forces while the Mauritanian forces occupied the southern part.

This occupation sparked the beginning of an armed conflict between the occupying countries and the Polisario Front, a conflict that is currently ongoing only with Morocco since Mauritania withdrew from its part of the territory in 1979 after a series of military defeats at the hands of the Polisario. Between 1975 and 1991, the Polisario Front and the Moroccan forces were involved in the Western Sahara War, an armed conflict that ceased only after a peace agreement reached between the two sides to stop the military confrontations. However, Morocco continues to this day to occupy the territory of the Western Sahara at the expense of the Sahrawi people, who are still deprived of their aspirations for autonomy.

Following the Mauritanian forces’ withdrawal from the territory in 1979, the Moroccan forces that were occupying the northern part of the territory took the opportunity to invade the land that had previously been claimed by Mauritania. Therefore, Morocco went against what had been agreed in the Madrid Agreements by carrying out an illegal expansion of its territory through the occupation of the southern part of the territory.

Illegitimate “sovereignty” and resource exploitation

Currently, 80% of the total territory is occupied while only 20% is controlled by the Polisario Front. Morocco continues to this day to declare sovereignty over the entire territory of the Western Sahara, even though such a declaration is considered illegitimate by international actors such as the United Nations. The ongoing conflict in Western Sahara has displaced an estimated 180,000 Sahrawi people, who reside in refugee camps in Algeria. The Sahrawi population that lives in the occupied territory is oppressed by the Moroccan forces, so much so that demonstrations and any political activism opposing the occupation are suppressed. It is believed that the conflict has caused more than 20,000 deaths, while thousands more have been injured or declared missing.

Meanwhile, the illegal occupation in the Western Sahara is being financed and supported by the United States, Israel, and even Member States of the European Union. This is the case not only through the sale of armaments and military assistance to Morocco in order to enforce the occupation, but also through the extraction of resources and minerals by a number of Western companies and industries that are established in the territory.

As the presence of these companies and industries gets stronger, Morocco continues to exploit the natural resources of Western Sahara with the support of Western countries. In fact, more than 60% of European funds allocated to Morocco for the development of the fishing sector were spent in the Western Sahara. Currently, Morocco is being helped by American, Israeli, and European energy companies in order to export various resources such as gas and oil from the occupied territory.

Moreover, the Moroccan government has built a number of illegal walls and established ‘check-points’ in order to limit the movements of the Sahrawi people. Allegedly, Morocco is using funds given to it by the European Union in order to consolidate the illegal occupation in the territory by using these funds to finance its military presence.

The United States is among the biggest donors of the occupation in the Western Sahara, with more than 91% of all the armaments that are imported by the Moroccan government being purchased from the United States. Furthermore, it was reported that Moroccan officials have bribed members of the European Parliament to “promote the Kingdom’s interests”.

The West’s blessing

Following years of rising tensions in Western Sahara, military confrontations between the Polisario Front and Moroccan forces resumed in 2020, as the Moroccan presence in the territory continued. That same year, the United States became the first country to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara as part of the normalisation process in relations between Israel and Morocco.

Last year, Israel became the second country to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the territory while, for its part, Morocco began to recognise Israel. Despite the fact that the European Union does not officially recognise this sovereignty, the trade agreements that the European Commission makes with Morocco still include the Western Sahara. Therefore, it is implied that, in practice, the European Union is recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.

In 2016, the European Court of Justice condemned the fisheries agreements that the European Commission had signed with Morocco, as they included the territory of the Western Sahara without the consent of the Sahrawi people. However, the European Commission refused to impose sanctions on products brought from the occupied territory and instead chose to ignore the sentence issued by the court for seven whole years, until the agreement expired in 2023.

Evidently, the Western countries are refusing to take concrete action against Morocco’s illegal occupation of the territory and are instead placing commercial and political interests before the interests of the Sahrawi people. Through the presence of Morocco in the Western Sahara, these countries have the opportunity to exploit the abundance of resources and minerals that are present in the territory, including the largest reserves of phosphates in the world. In 2021, Morocco exported more than 1.1 million tonnes of phosphate resources, which are believed to have a projected value of more than 170.8 million US dollars.

Saharawi activists continue to vehemently resist the presence of foreign companies in the Western Sahara, as they are legitimising the Moroccan occupation and exploiting the territory’s rich resources of phosphates, iron ores, and energy deposits.

The ‘Western Sahara Autonomy Proposal’

In 2006, the Moroccan government announced a proposal to find a solution to this conflict under the name of ‘Western Sahara Autonomy Proposal’. Although this proposal should guarantee the granting of a form of autonomous governance for the Sahrawi people, this autonomy is restricted because the same proposal stresses that the territory should remain under the sovereignty of Morocco.

This proposal, therefore, rejects the granting of independence to the Sahrawi people and does not include the possibility of a democratic referendum so that the Sahrawi people can freely decide their destiny. Instead, the Moroccan government would still manage many crucial areas, including foreign affairs and diplomatic relations, defence and security of the territory, and even the economy, as the currency intended to be used is the Moroccan Dirham. Apart from this, the laws that would apply to the territory would be the same as those of Morocco, and therefore the Moroccan government would still have legal jurisdiction over the territory.

Both the United States and the majority of the member states of the European Union, including Malta, have declared support for the proposal put forward by Morocco, even though it contradicts the solutions that were put forward by the United Nations in 1991 in the proposal known as ‘Settlement Plan’. That proposal stressed the need for the Sahrawi people to be given the opportunity to participate in a democratic referendum that includes the choice of independence. Morocco has consistently blocked the possibility of holding this referendum.

For its part, the United Nations has consistently refused to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory since the beginning of the conflict, as in 1975 the International Court of Justice declared that both Morocco and Mauritania should not be given sovereignty over the Western Sahara. This statement not only confirms the illegality of Morocco’s occupation of the territory, but also implies that the Sahrawi people have the right to be free like the rest of the other former colonies in Africa, in compliance with the United Nations policy on the decolonisation process as set out in resolution number 1415.

In its judgment on the case brought by Morocco and Mauritania, the International Court of Justice Justice stated this about the historical claims of the two countries on the territory:

“On the other hand, the Court’s conclusion was that the materials and information presented to it did not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus, the Court did not find any legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of the General Assembly’s 1960 resolution 1514 (XV) — containing the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples — in the decolonisation of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the territory.”

What about Malta’s credibility?

The past weeks have seen bickering between Malta’s two major political parties regarding the country’s commitment to international peace efforts. However, one might argue that Malta’s current position on the Western Sahara conflict appears inconsistent with its declared commitment to peace.

The ongoing conflict in Western Sahara has created a widespread diaspora and exacerbated regional instability in the Maghreb, potentially contributing to migration pressures in the Mediterranean. Malta’s stance on the conflict may not fully consider the potential impact on regional stability, which is a key Maltese interest.

Genuine collective efforts by the international community can play a crucial role in finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Western Sahara, upholding the rights of all parties involved. This approach can be applied to other protracted conflicts around the world, bringing long-awaited peace and stability to affected regions and peoples.

The international community has a responsibility to ensure that the conflict in Western Sahara does not remain forzen, while an entire nation is deprived of its fundamental human rights.

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