An occupation; settlers; a "security wall"; an indigenous resistance: It almost sounds like Palestine, but it is the Western Sahara, officially known by 80 countries as the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Located on the northwest corner of Africa, south of Morocco, West of Algeria, and north (and west) of Mauritania, the Western Sahara resembles a slice of cake. In many ways it is, having been seized by the Spanish in 1884 after the notorious Berlin Conference (1884-1885) divided up the African continent between European rapists.
Although the indigenous people, known as the Saharawis, consistently resisted Spanish rule, in the 1970s during the twilight of the rightwing dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain, a new movement emerged among the Saharawis demanding independence. Known by its acronym as POLISARIO (Frente Popular para Liberacion de Saguia el Hamra y Rio de Oro/Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), the movement began a guerrilla war first against Spain, and later against the Mauritanians and Moroccans, the latter two countries claiming the territory as their own.
Though a peace agreement was signed between POLISARIO and Mauritania, the Moroccans remained steadfast in their insistence on controlling the Western Sahara going so far as to send in more than 300,000 Moroccan civilians to settle and change the population demographics. Additionally the Moroccans built a so-called security wall to divide the country and stop attacks by POLISARIO.
In the early 1990s, POLISARIO agreed to a cease fire and most independent observers have concurred that they have upheld their side. Morocco, on the other hand, has participated in ceasefire violations and repression in the territory it controls. Additionally, Morocco has repeatedly undermined efforts at a mediated settlement, resulting in former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker resigning in frustration from his position as special United Nations envoy for the Western Sahara, where he was attempting to broker an agreement.
This past summer Morocco suggested that the Western Sahara should be an autonomous province of Morocco. Ignoring global demands for Saharawi self-determination and the significant international recognition of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic as the legitimate government of the people and territory of that land, Morocco took this audacious stand as if it were seizing the moral high ground.
Further, and quite cynically, the Moroccan government maneuvered to portray the POLISARIO as terrorists so as to gather more brownie points in the so-called war against terrorism.
Instead of rejecting the Moroccan proposal for the manipulation that it represents, a significant number of Republican and Democratic politicians embraced it as if it were legitimate. Much as President Bush took on the "role" of the alleged spokesperson for the Palestinian people, some members of both the Democratic and Republican parties seem to have stepped away from the role of attempting to broker a settlement of this decades-old conflict and now view themselves as the voices of the Saharawi people.
The Saharawi people deserve self-determination. In fact, the United Nations has insisted upon it. The least the United States can do is to pressure its allies in Morocco to respect international law and agreements. This, however, becomes slightly difficult when the United States reserves for itself the right to decide who is telling the truth, and whose stand is just.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a labor and international writer and activist.