We are all familiar with the concept of self-determination: the idea that a group of people should be able to govern their own futures. Many cases of it being denied and subjugated are reported daily in the Western media. But the case of Western Sahara is not.
Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara began in 1975 and continues to this day. Many parallels can be drawn between the situation on the north-western tip of the African continent and other illegal occupations, including the ongoing Israel-Palestine situation. In both cases, there is a marginalised group who lived in a place for a long time before outside forces seized control of their land. And both occupations are accepted by the West.
However, two stark points of juxtaposition can be seen: a long-standing ceasefire has been in place in Western Sahara, whereas fighting often breaks out in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Another, very different divergence between the two situations is that, routinely doused in warfare, the Israeli occupation of Palestine receives disproportionately more media attention than the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara with regards to either proximity to the West, or land being seized.
Palestinian refugees sit in camps in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan; Sahrawi refugees only in Algeria. In this way, the Saharan situation is less developed, less ingrained into the narrative of the wider Middle Eastern community. It is for this reason that whilst the first objective for any mediator in Morocco-Western Sahara must be a complete resolution to demands for independence, the second must to be to keep the conflict from spilling into other arenas and grievances, especially potential terrorists seeking to ride on the back of humanitarian demands – as has happened with Palestine’s occupation. This would certainly cause another escalation and stand-off that any peaceable Westerner would not appreciate.
Of course the complexities of both situations require that comparisons drawn between them be carefully choreographed. Indeed, it is possible to say that Israel-Palestine is more popular a story in the Western media because of its inception; in many ways powerful Western nations created some of the conditions that have led to its current state. It could thus be argued that the Left in the West supports Palestine out of collective national guilt. However, we must question the moral legitimacy of the assertion which justifies hierarchising ostracised peoples. Is the plight of one group due more attention and pressure to be resolved than that of the other?
There is, of course, the issue of how exactly to define and delineate the West; homogeneity must not be assumed. However, a broad geographical and political class can be imagined, originating in Western Europe and North America. There always seems to be a chasm between dominant Western thought and dominant Western policies. European political thought dictates support of self-determination and the tackling of illegal occupations for remembrance of its colonial sins, yet Europe has tacitly supported Morocco in its attempts to annex Western Sahara. In no British newspaper or news channel do the words ‘Western Sahara’ ever appear. The hypocrisy of Western media is clear when remembering that it proclaims itself to serve the public by bringing issues to public light. Where is the light on this issue?
It is not even possible to claim that the West should remain uninvolved due to the apathy of neighbouring countries. The African Union contains every country on the continent, including Western Sahara, but not Morocco. Western Sahara, under the name of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, was admitted in 1984, and Morocco left the organisation in protest.
So why is the Western media silent? Simple – they are intensely enticed by violence. An issue of international significance is not worth debating in political and public circles unless violence is a theme. The Guardian only published an article on the issue in January because of talk of a possible renewal of conflict. Imagine you were campaigning for your people’s freedom, and no one even noticed you. Imagine you saw others struggling too, but they had the world’s attention, because there were literally fighting. Their movement was being seriously discussed by those in power. Would violence not seem like an attractive option? In this way, violence is almost grossly encouraged by Western media, oppressed peoples compelled to vie for its attention like enslaved gladiators. It is in the media’s interests for there to be more violence, because that is what drives their profits. Look back to 9/11 – everyone was watching the news. It is barbaric that those who still need to fight for their rights are seduced to stand on a podium and show that they can die. Shehadeh described the treatment of Palestinian people as that of homo sacer; they are portrayed in pornographic way as they are denigrated into “mere objects to which things can be done”. The West’s treatment of any violent struggle as heart-racing news bears a lot of resemblance.
The current situation in Western Sahara is imperialism, pure and simple. It is driven, as imperialism often is, by greed. Morocco wants Western Saharan because of its huge abundance of fishing stocks and phosphate mines. The benefits from these economic resources have given the Moroccan government legitimacy. It is now part of Morocco’s national ideology that Western Sahara is Moroccan. There is genuine theft taking place. Again, parallels can be seen in the Israeli far right’s assertion that Palestine should be fully incorporated into Israeli sovereignty, and by the action in which Palestinian land is appropriated by Israeli settlers. The International Court of Justice has ruled that Sahrawis should have self-determination over Western Sahara.
However, the international community seems willing to intervene only when the public pressures them to do so. Furthermore, public opinion is somewhat correlated to media coverage. Western governments seem ready and even eager to preach self-determination when it suits their specific objectives. Take the Falkland Islands’ referendum in 2014. But when it is simpler to blur the boundaries of the values they claim to hold dear in their own countries, including democracy, corporate interests compel them to capitulate and keep quiet. Take the Saudi monarchy and our good old friend oil.
Part of the terms of the 1991 UN-sanctioned ceasefire agreement between the Moroccan government and Polisario, the major Sahrawi group backing independence, was the promise of a referendum on Western Saharan independence. This still has not happened due to Morocco’s claims of ‘security concerns’ – another reason for violence to seem like an attractive method to achieve independence. Of course violence should not have to be considered a policy, as never in history has it been followed by a definitive peace. Violence sows the seeds for further violence. Yet something needs to happen.
It is clear that Morocco is not interested in a negotiated settlement; it has created tax breaks to encourage Moroccans to move to Western Sahara – such has been the effect that Moroccans now outnumber Sahrawis two-to-one in what should be Sahrawi territory. It is not enough that a remote annual film festival called FiSahara takes place as a tribute to the country’s lack of sovereignty. Nor is it enough that the occasional Spanish film star proclaims their support for the Sahrawi cause. Real pressure needs to be put on Morocco. The suitability of vying for new frontiers and fragmentation into ethnic polities can of course be questioned in an era when the nation-state is becoming an increasingly redundant model for organising societies due both to globalising, neo-liberalising and localising changes. But autonomy must exist for a society to be able to self-define, and the importance of this cannot be sidelined.
The assertion that the situation does not directly affect us is both cruel and erroneous. Human empathy should compel us. We should see how a denial of our rights and our homes would cause pain. We should understand that tacit support for what we explicitly do not want for ourselves is a hypocrisy that demonstrates we do not fully believe in those values. The West needs to follow through on its principles. The suggestion is not for yet more naive neo-conservatism in which the West (America especially) thinks it can reshape the rest of the world in its own mould. Past and current experiences demonstrate that this would not be smart. But just simply starting to talk about it in political and public circles would send a clear message and could be the start of positive change. The fact that this is happening on Europe’s doorstep, with European companies exploiting it, is perhaps indicative of worrying norms in society. It may be uncomfortable for us to digest, but in our ignorance, the West is encouraging horrific imperialism in Western Sahara. We must start speaking out immediately.