Friday, May 20, 2011

Around Africa: Western Sahara

So far we've gone from Northwest to North east Adrica, starting at Morroco, then Algeria, Libya, and stopping with Egype, which abuts the Mediterranean sea to its north and the Red Sea to its East.

Now we're going back to the West and will begin with Western Sahara.

The Western Sahara (al-Gharbīyah, Berber: Taneẓṛuft Tutrimt, Spanish: Sahara Occidental) is a disputed territory in North Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Its surface area amounts to 266,000 square kilometres (103,000 sq mi). It is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands. The population of the territory is estimated at just over 500,000, over half of whom live in El Aaiún, the largest city in Western Sahara (also called Laayoune).

A Spanish colony since the late 1800s, the Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963.

In 1965, the UN General Assembly adopted its first resolution on Western Sahara, asking Spain to decolonise the territory. One year later, a new resolution was passed by the General Assembly requesting Spain to organise a referendum on self-determination.

In 1975, Spain relinquished the administrative control of the territory to a joint administration by Morocco, which had formally claimed the territory since 1957, and Mauritania.

A war erupted between those countries and the Sahrawi national liberation movement Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) (exiled government in Tindouf, Algeria). Following the withdrawal of Mauritania in 1979, Morocco eventually secured effective control of most of the territory, including all the major cities and natural resources.

Since a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire agreement in 1991, most of the territory (including the entire Atlantic coast line) has been controlled by Morocco, strongly backed by France, and the remainder by the SADR, strongly backed by Algeria.

Internationally, major powers such as the United States and Russia have taken a generally ambiguous and neutral position on each side's claims, and have pressed both parties to agree on a peaceful resolution. Both Morocco and Polisario have sought to boost their claims by accumulating formal recognition, essentially from African, Asian, and Latin American states in the developing world.

The Polisario Front has won formal recognition for SADR from 81 states, and was extended membership in the African Union, while Morocco has won recognition or support for its position from several African governments and from most of the Arab League.

In both instances, recognitions have over the past two decades been extended and withdrawn according to changing international trends.

Human rights
The Western Sahara conflict has resulted in severe human rights abuses, most notably the displacement of tens of thousands of Sahrawi civilians from the country, the expulsion of tens of thousands of Moroccan civilians by the Algerian government from Algeria, and numerous casualties of war and repression.

During the war years (1975–91), both sides accused each other of targeting civilians. Moroccan claims of Polisario terrorism has generally little to no support abroad, with the USA, EU, AU and UN all refusing to include the group on their lists of terrorist organizations.

Polisario leaders maintain that they are ideologically opposed to terrorism, and insist that collective punishment and forced disappearances among Sahrawi civilians should be considered state terrorism on the part of Morocco. Both Morocco and the Polisario additionally accuse each other of violating the human rights of the populations under their control, in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, respectively. Morocco and organizations such as France Libertés consider Algeria to be directly responsible for any crimes committed on its territory, and accuse the country of having been directly involved in such violations.

Morocco has been repeatedly criticized for its actions in Western Sahara by international human rights organizations.

Aside from its rich phosphate deposits and fishing waters, Western Sahara has few natural resources and lacks sufficient rainfall for most agricultural activities. There is speculation that there may be rich off-shore oil and natural gas fields, but the debate persists as to whether these resources can be profitably exploited, and if this would be legally permitted due to the non-decolonized status of Western Sahara.

Western Sahara's economy is centred around nomadic herding, fishing, and phosphate mining. Most food for the urban population is imported. All trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan government. The government has encouraged citizens to relocate to the territory by giving subsidies and price controls on basic goods. These heavy subsidies have created a state-dominated economy in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara, with the Moroccan government as the single biggest employer.

The indigenous population of Western Sahara is known as Sahrawis. These are Hassaniya-speaking tribes of mixed Arab–Berber heritage, effectively continuations of the tribal groupings of Hassaniya speaking Moorish tribes extending south into Mauritania and north into Morocco as well as east into Algeria. The Sahrawis are traditionally nomadic bedouins, and can be found in all surrounding countries.

War and conflict has led to major displacements of the population.

As of July 2004, an estimated 267,405 people (excluding the Moroccan army of some 160,000) lived in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara. Many people from parts of Morocco outside of the Southern Provinces have come to live in the area, and these latest arrivals are today thought to outnumber the indigenous Western Sahara Sahrawis. The precise size and composition of the population is subject to political controversy.

The Polisario-controlled parts of Western Sahara are barren. This area has a very small population, estimated to be approximately 30,000 in 2008. The population is primarily made up of nomads who engage in herding camels back and forth between the Tindouf area and Mauritania. However, the presence of mines scattered throughout the territory by the Moroccan army makes it a dangerous way of life.

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