The case of Western Sahara has just come way up in the headlines, as one of the most disruptive crises this year, or perhaps this decade (as it isn’t over yet). Revealed to some, through the affair, an entity called the Polisario Front, trying to clean its name after several reported cases of human rights abuses, and a string of documented cases of violence and other outrages committed by Polisario ”staff” inside refugees camps on the Algerian territory.  Will the international community let this go on for another thirty years?


A discrepancy between what is said and what is done

The “Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro”, also known as the Polisario Front, is not a newcomer on the international chessboard. But its most recent actions seem not to be in line with their long-term political interests. Just as the United Nations security council was about to re-launch negotiations to find an agreement between the Polisario and Morocco, the former elected to derail the process. The Polisario is the alleged representative body of the Saharawi people (inhabitants of the non-self-governing territory of Western Sahara, effectively under Moroccan jurisdiction). It has been seeking to overthrow Morocco’s jurisdiction on the territory and gain control of the near-billion dollar local economy. In order to pressure Morocco, ahead of the upcoming negotiations, the Polisario front tried its luck asking every courthouse in the world to seize goods transiting through “friendly” jurisdictions, if they originated from Western Sahara, claiming it belonged to the Sahrawi people, and therefore to them. All courts refused, except one in South Africa



Life in refugees’ camps under Polisario jurisdiction

“Good!” many would say. At last, a group which is standing up for Western Sahara. Well, no. First of all, the Sahrawi people stretch across the desert in both Morocco and Algeria. Moroccan companies have been developing the economy in the desert, to a near-billion worth today, so life is rather good for the Sahrawi people on that side. On the Algerian side, they are kept in prisoner camps run by the Algerian Army and the Polisario, and reports are numerous on human rights abuses, such as keeping families as collateral when a Saharawi leaves the camp, to ensure his return. The claims of the Polisario are exclusively economic and on Moroccan soil, but the Sahrawis who need to be defended are in Algeria, where the Polisario runs the camps. Ziad Alimi writes for 360: “it is common knowledge that insecurity is rife in this lawless area which breeds drug and cigarette contraband, human trafficking, thefts by the hundreds, and endless series of rapes”, where the Polisario and Algerian managers are known not to intervene to protect the population. In other words, the true motivation of the Polisario is not to find a political solution to self-determination for the Sahrawis, but to get control of the billion-dollar Moroccan economy.




Fund the fight

Now, a stance of realpolitik would assess this as a purely Moroccan and Algerian security problem, although the Polisario is trying hard to export its causes and activities. But it isn’t local, it’s global.  Because the Polisario has not succeeded so far in gaining the Moroccan industrial apparatus, it needs to find alternate sources of funds. In that necessity, the Polisario turns to financing solutions which it shares with most armed groups in unstable areas : drug trafficking, human trafficking and ransoming. In recent years, many reports of such cases rose to the surface, around the area of Tindouf, the main captive Sahrawi cluster. There were attempts by the international community to investigate, but they were quickly suppressed, namely through the abduction of  Khalil Ahmed Braih, the human rights watchman who was in charge of investigating alleged war crimes committed during the war between the Polisario and the Moroccan forces. Before he could reveal his findings, he was kidnapped by the powerful Algerian intelligence forces and has never been seen again. As a result, the situation in Tindouf has not evolved in the least to this day. In April, the UN released its annual report according to which it “continued to urge Polisario to withdraw from the Guerguerate region, where its militia threatens human life, disturbs trade, and attempts to violate the 1991’s cease-fire agreement”, according to Youssef Igrouane. In the meantime, most negotiations are either inactive or are making limited progress.



Talks to a standstill

Among international organizations, little or no reaction, other than brief and tepid press releases by the European Union or the United Nations, calling all parties to negotiate in good faith and without conditions. Obviously the time to negotiate has come and gone, and the Polisario is now committed to violent or unlawful actions, including in open defiance to the United Nations who had to militarily chase the Polisario out of a demilitarized zone which the Marxist group had recently invaded. Ali Haidar reported“It remains to be seen whether the Polisario will definitively and totally withdraw its troops from the buffer zone, or whether it is using a mere tactical maneuver and planning to reposition its militiamen near Guerguerat once the resolution is adopted.”


Time for action

How long will the international community continue to ignore a problem which is now on its doorstep? The Polisario Front claims to become a trustworthy interlocutor in the concert of nations, mainly within the United Nations political framework, but its methods are less similar to diplomatic representation than mafia networks. These are known to develop human and drug trafficking to finance their activities, and any parties to these trades, which the Polisario keeps under its own protection, and the protection of its Algerian ally, is an active threat to our security. As we have learned since the Jasmine revolution, local instability, be it thousands of miles from our homeland, can have grave consequences for everybody. If our nation-states are indeed committed to reinforcing our security, they must address the problem where it finds its roots. The Western Sahara and Tindouf would be a good start.

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