"We are in front of a forgotten conflict," says Luis De Vega, a 42-year-old Spanish journalist for ABC, a Madrid-based daily, who has closely covered the issue for a decade and visited occupied Western Sahara and the refugee camps a dozen times each. "Ninety-five percent of the time there are no journalists on the ground."
In April, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights released a report detailing cases of summary execution, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and torture in Western Sahara after conducting a visit to the region in August 2012.
"There is near-absolute impunity for human rights violations against the Sahrawi people, who live in a state of fear and oppression under the impassive watch of the UN peacekeeping mission," the report states.
The UN Security Council established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (known by its French acronym, MINURSO) in 1991, with a mandate that included monitoring the cease-fire agreement and the administration of the referendum, but did not include a human rights mandate. MINURSO remains the only contemporary UN peacekeeping mission in the world that cannot monitor human rights.
"I've seen UN forces sit by and watch as the Moroccans beat and arrest us, and they do nothing," says Ahmed el-Mehdi, a 27-year-old activist who fled his home in al-Ayun, the capital of occupied Western Sahara, a decade ago. El-Mehdi says he was being closely monitored by Moroccan security forces and decided to go into self-imposed exile in the refugee camps after his colleagues were arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. "I left in order to expose the gross human rights violations that are happening there," he says.
Earlier this year, the United States — which has long supported Morocco’s position — took the unprecedented step of proposing a draft resolution to task the UN peacekeeping force with human rights monitoring, but the proposal was shot down after aggressive international lobbying by Rabat.
Meanwhile, UN special envoy Christopher Ross — whom Morocco tried unsuccessfully to have replaced last year, accusing him of bias — arrived in the region in October to intensify efforts to break the deadlock over the disputed territory. Bloody clashes erupted in al-Ayun between police and pro-independence protesters as Ross wrapped up his visit.
A variety of factors have contributed to the conflict’s intractability, including powerful economic and strategic interests for Morocco that include Western Sahara's rich natural resources: phosphates, rich fishing waters and the promise of offshore oil. Yet concepts pervasive within Moroccan nationalism that claim the territory as part of a “Greater Morocco” have also played a key part in sustaining it.
"Within Moroccan discourse, we see that it is an article of faith, a cornerstone of the nationalist canon, that Western Sahara is part of the 'real' (i.e. precolonial) territory," write Stepehn Zunes and Jacob Mundy in their book Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.
Foreign powers, particularly France and the United States, have played a large role in bolstering the Moroccan occupation, whether through direct material support during the war or indirect support at the UN Security Council. Washington's ties to Morocco were further strengthened after the September 11 attacks and during the so-called "war on terror," in which the United States viewed the Moroccan regime as an important strategic ally.
"Polisario have the law and a UN resolution on their side, but in reality this amounts to nothing," De Vega says. "Most superpowers don't want a new country in the region, especially with the growth of Al Qaeda in the Sahel, so they actively organize against international law."
The setting sun casts a long shadow on dozens of brightly colored tents nestled on a sand dune overlooking the Dakhla refugee camp. Scores of families sit idly, listening to nationalist Sahrawi music blaring from a set of nearby loudspeakers while children scamper around their parents. At the foot of the hill, half a dozen men dressed in fatigues and holding batons stand together in a tight cluster.
The crowd slowly begins to approach the soldiers, carrying flags and posters bearing slogans for independence and pictures of Sahrawi martyrs and political prisoners. After a brief standoff, the men in fatigues suddenly charge. They run up the hill, batons held high while they tear down the tents, yet they are smiling, as are many in the crowd who yell and shriek in mock panic, turning the scene into one of playful chaos. The "soldiers" are eventually forced to retreat and the crowd march triumphantly past them chanting for a free Western Sahara.
The scene is an annual reenactment in the Dakhla refugee camp of the forcible breakup of a protest encampment set up in 2010 in occupied Western Sahara, several miles from al-Ayun, known as Gdeim Izik. The camp, which began with a group of Sahrawis setting up several tents in the area to protest poor economic and social conditions, grew to as many as 15,000 people calling for independence.
"For Sahrawis, the tent is a symbol of a nation," says Salah Ameidan, a 30-year-old Sahrawi long distance runner who took part in the Gdei Izik protest. "We went outside of the city to refuse life under occupation. I felt free there."
Moroccan security forces stormed the camp a month later, using tear gas and water cannons to force people out of tents, which were then set alight or bulldozed. Polisario reported eleven civilian deaths, while Moroccan authorities say ten police officers were killed. Scores were arrested. A military tribunal condemned twenty-three Sahrawis to sentences ranging from twenty years to life in prison. According to the RFK Center report, those identified as human rights defenders received the harshest sentences.
Gdeim Izik was the culmination of what the Polisario leadership have hailed as a new nonviolent protest movement in the fight for a Western Saharan nation, one that grew out of the failure of the formal UN-led negotiation process.
In the years following the 1991 cease-fire, the promised referendum was repeatedly postponed over fierce disagreements on who had the right to vote. Initially, Polisario wanted to use a 1974 Spanish census of Sahrawis in the territory, while Morocco, which had begun moving large numbers of its citizens into Western Sahara, wanted to include a much higher number, a move viewed by Polisario as an attempt by Rabat to stack the vote in its favor.
In 2003, the peace process all but broke down following the failure of the Baker Plan, spearheaded by then–UN Special Envoy James Baker. It proposed a limited four-year period of autonomy for Western Sahara followed by a referendum polling both native Western Saharans and Moroccan settlers on the choice of continued autonomy, integration or independence.
Even though Polisario, along with Algeria, made the unprecedented concession of agreeing to allow the majority Moroccan settlers to participate in the self-determination process, Morocco flatly rejected the proposal.
With the failure of the talks, occupied Western Sahara eventually erupted in 2005 in the most intense and massive pro-independence demonstrations to date. The protests, known as the "Uprising of Independence," were quickly repressed by Moroccan security forces but have continued in smaller, less-centralized acts of disobedience against the Moroccan administration.
"We are in the fourth stage of our struggle," says Mohammed Abdelaziz, the head of Polisario for the past thirty-seven years and the president of SADR. The 66-year-old former guerrilla leader delineates the first two stages involving armed conflict, first against Spain until 1976 and then against Mauritania and Morocco until 1991. He says the third stage of the postwar peace process broke down in 2003.
"We are now in the stage of peaceful resistance through an uprising, coupled with ongoing talks with the UN and Morocco," he says. "We are in a just struggle for liberation. Like previous struggles in Algeria, East Timor and elsewhere, the logic of history always ends with justice."
Yet there are growing fears of a return to arms.
"The possibility of picking up weapons again is always there," says Akik, the SADR minister. "There are youth who have lost hope in the negotiation process and they are putting pressure on Polisario. They want to fight."