War & Peace

The history of Western Sahara is a history of betrayal

In a fresh betrayal, Spain is once again denying the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination.
In a letter addressed to the Moroccan king in March this year — and a subsequent state visit — the Spanish government has made clear that it will not respect its historic obligation to support the self-determination of the Sahrawi people.
In a letter addressed to the Moroccan king in March this year — and a subsequent state visit — the Spanish government has made clear that it will not respect its historic obligation to support the self-determination of the Sahrawi people.

When we speak about Western Sahara, we speak about the final frontier of decolonisation in Africa, a situation for which Spain holds direct responsibility; the rich North African territory was held under its rule for more than 200 years.

We speak also about one of the most entrenched conflicts in the history of the African continent, one fought over a land with a small population but a wealth of natural resources and some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Western Sahara is the “perfect territory to conquer”, a French diplomat remarked in Hijos de las nubes: la última colonia (Children of the Clouds: the last colony), a documentary about the conflict in the territory produced by Javier Bardem.

The diplomat was not far off the mark. The Portuguese were well aware of Western Sahara's bounties, but their early efforts to colonise the territory were stymied by the resistance of the Sahrawi people. The Spanish came next and, through agreements with the main tribes inhabiting the territory, established themselves in Western Sahara, turning it not only into a colony, but also absorbing it into the Spanish state. Western Sahara became the 53rd province of Spain.

The people of Western Sahara, like all the peoples of Africa, rose up to demand an end to colonisation. With the aim of achieving self-governance of their territory, they created their first organised liberation movement, the Polisario Front, in 1973.

This history is long, but, at its most essential, it is one of betrayal. Spain betrayed the people of Western Sahara by not fulfilling its responsibility to decolonise the territory, as stipulated by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice in The Hague. It betrayed Western Sahara by handing over the Sahrawi people and their land to Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for political and economic advantages. It betrayed Western Sahara by standing idly by while its people were invaded, bombed, forced into exile, divided by a wall, and persecuted by a brutal Moroccan occupation. These are crimes for which Spain bears primary responsibility.

The Sahrawi people, led by the Polisario Front, have stood firm throughout these tribulations. Despite Spain’s abandonment and the occupation of 80% of their territory by Morocco, their resistance has now persisted for nearly 50 years. To this day, the Sahrawi people are engaged in a tireless and irreproachable struggle to achieve the objectives of decolonisation and independence.

For those 50 years, the Sahrawi people have endured unimaginable hardships. In the mid-1970s, Sahrawi refugees, fleeing Moroccan bombardments and assaults on the cities of Western Sahara abandoned by the Spanish government, began arriving in camps in southern Algeria. Many others remained in the areas occupied by Morocco. As a result, the Sahrawi people are now divided. Thousands live in refugee camps in Algeria, and thousands more in the clutches of fierce Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara. That separation is maintained by an occupying army and a 2,700-kilometre wall.

On 18 March 2022, betrayal struck again. In a letter addressed to Morocco's King Mohammed VI, Spanish president Pedro Sánchez declared his support for "autonomy of the Sahara but always within Morocco". This was nothing less than an official endorsement of Morocco's illegal occupation of Western Sahara. This decision sent shockwaves throughout Spain, where public support for the Sahrawi people's cause remains high. Spanish society is well aware of their government's responsibility toward Western Sahara. Few expected that, 47 years after its first betrayal, Spain would cede the territory to Morocco once again.

We must be clear: the Spanish government is supporting a military occupation that has committed genocide against the people of Western Sahara. No geopolitical, economic or strategic rationale can justify the duplicity of a government prepared to defend human rights and international law in some parts of the world, while supporting and whitewashing genocide on its doorstep. The time has come to complete the project of decolonization and make good on the promise of sovereignty denied to generations of Sahrawi people.

Taleb Alisalem is an activist and political analyst specialising in Western Sahara.

Photo: Taleb Alisalem

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