Human Rights, Refugees, and the Conflict over the Western Sahara

Facing the Berm, Western Sahara. Image: Michele Benericetti As the Arab Spring continues to draw attention and support from the international community, relatively little consideration has been given to the decades-long conflict in Western Sahara that began to escalate again in recent years. In this politically important region, the most pressing issue today is the actions of the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario) organization.

The Polisario has repeatedly been accused of massive human rights violations against a refugee population that they supposedly manage and protect. Moreover, the group has been complicit in a number of illegal activities that threatens to weaken an already troubled region. Their lack of respect for human dignity and willingness to embrace terrorist organizations have created a powder keg in West Africa, providing a potential catalyst for massive destabilization of the Maghreb and Sahel. Additionally, the Polisario’s presence in the region might create favorable conditions for the reemergence of formidable Islamic extremist factions in the near future.

Historical Background

The Polisario conflict can be traced back to Western Sahara’s original attempt to gain independence from Spain, as it had been a Spanish colony since 1884. Although Spain surrendered the territory in 1975, Western Sahara failed to gain national independence. Instead, Mauritania and Morocco filled the void, and Mauritania ceded its claim to Morocco in 1976. The nationalists in the region responded by forming the Polisario in 1973, and established an independent government in Western Sahara. Supported by the Algerian government, which has a longstanding rivalry with Morocco, the Polisario waged a guerrilla war against Moroccan occupiers until a 1991 cease-fire was called.

During this period, thousands of individuals, mainly of the Sahrawi ethnic group, were displaced. A large number fled to Polisario controlled refugee camps in Tindouf in southwestern Algeria. Many of the original refugees and their families still reside within these camps to this day. Western Sahara was later divided into two areas; Moroccan forces maintain order in 85 percent of the territory, and the Polisario controls the remaining 15 percent. This has led to regional instability, which has been escalating in large part due to the actions of the Polisario.

Human Rights Violations

The actions perpetrated by the Polisario with the aid of the Algerian government against the Sahrawi refugee population as well as the region as a whole are egregiously heinous and hypocritical. What was once an organization founded on the ideas of nationalistic pride and self-governance has since become a militaristic and opportunistic terrorist organization focused on keeping control of its territory and its population. Much of this has been aimed squarely at the Sahrawi refugee camps under Polisario control and Moroccan forces in Western Sahara.

In 2011, a delegation of human rights activists met Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for human rights, in order to bring evidence of Polisario abuses to light. The delegation provided witness testimonies from individuals detained in the Tindouf camps, pictures showing traces of torture, and other documents related to over 800 missing detainees who were taken by the Polisario. The case of Najem Allal, who was tortured for writing songs denouncing the situation within the camps, was also highlighted.

Further evidence of attempts to silence dissidents was also presented in 2012. The U.S. based NGO Teach the Children International called upon the international community to pressure the Algerian government and Polisario leadership to open an investigation into the assassination of Polisario critic Bechri Sid Ahmed Zein. Zein’s corpse was found burned with three other unidentified bodies in Tindouf. He had originally worked for Senior Polisario officials who had known ties to human trafficking elements in and around Tindouf, but later left the organization and was attempting to bring this information to light before he was killed.

As recently as August 2013, the Spanish National Court, after hearing testimony from Sahrawi eyewitnesses, requested the apprehension of over thirty Polisario leaders accused of genocide, torture, forced disappearances, illegal detention, and serious violations of human rights within the Tindouf camps. The witnesses described watching family members being tortured in front of them by Polisario members and even being forcibly deported to Cuba as children for communist indoctrination, prostitution and training as child soldiers. Polisario spokespersons regularly contend that such travel is for educational purposes, but no definitive proof has ever surfaced of their claims.

Illicit Activities and Terrorist Ties

As the political situation throughout North Africa continues to deteriorate, transnational criminal organizations and terrorist elements have begun to take advantage of the lack of institutionalized control methods. This trend has been especially pronounced in areas under Polisario control as the group’s members engage in such actions in ever increasing numbers. A study by the International Center for Terrorism reported that the recent conflict in Mali included numerous Polisario members, which led the Malian foreign minister to publicly announce that Polisario fighters were found among known terrorist groups in the country such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Other fighters have been linked to mercenary work on behalf of the Qaddafi regime during the Libyan uprising.

The growing cooperation between the Polisario and elements of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) is perhaps of the most concern. As North Africa continues to struggle with a history of governmental corruption and ineffectiveness as well as the added burden of recent power shifts in the region, the “Arc of Instability,” which stretches across the entire length of North Africa, has become increasingly lawless and militant. AQIM has taken this opportunity to spread its influence among disenfranchised groups and use their desperation as tools for recruitment. Given the compliance of Polisario members, as well as the lack of forward mobility for the Sahrawi refugee population, AQIM has found a perfect location to garner new recruits and support.

This partnership has already proven to be extremely effective; AQIM and general terrorist attacks in the Maghreb and Sahel have risen 500 percent from only two to three years ago. Malian security services have stated that Polisario members are regularly involved in kidnapping attempts, with the help of AQIM in Mauritania and Algeria. Other reports directly implicate Polisario members in the 2011 abduction of three western aid workers from a Polisario headquarters camp. While AQIM militants abducted the workers, Polisario members were responsible for providing arms and maps to AQIM in order to complete the operation, thereby creating a measure of plausible deniability.

Moving Forward

While progress towards a definitive solution in Western Sahara has been gradual at best over the past several years, the Moroccan government has noticeably been pushing towards autonomy for the region. A plan presented in 2007 would grant territorial autonomy within the Moroccan state. According to the majority of the Sahrawi population as well as world powers such as France and the United States, this is currently the best course of action, given that complete independence would most likely lead to a weak state incapable of supporting itself and malleable to the will of powerful entities such as the Algerian government, the Polisario and AQIM.

Predictably, the main opponents to this plan have been the Polisario and the Algerian government. Autonomy for Western Sahara would mean the complete dismantling of the Polisario power base, which is dependent on gaining recruits from the Tindouf camps and using the aid provided for their own purposes. If the Sahrawi have a recognized area to return to, any hope for Polisario dominance in the region is gone. In addition, Algeria continually utilizes the Polisario as a buffer between itself and Morocco. It funds the organization in order to undermine Moroccan influence in ways which a legitimate national government never could, namely intimidation, illegal activities and terrorist actions. Autonomy would mean a loss of this extremely useful tool and acceptance of a Moroccan accomplishment towards a peaceful solution to this decades old problem.

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