Western Sahara: Sheikhs, Soldiers and Sand

The Western Sahara conflict, unresolved for over two decades, must qualify as the world’s most neglected. It has been relegated to the background by higher profile disputes in Bosnia, Kosovo, Angola and Somalia. The recent referendum in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, which led to it being granted independence by Indonesia, as well as current political changes in Morocco, should focus international attention on the similar case of Western Sahara.

The World Today Updated 27 October 2020 Published 1 January 2000 6 minute READ

Adekeye Adebajo

Research Associate, International Peace Academy, New York

Western Sahara and East Timor are both examples of irresponsible Iberian decolonisation. The two were abandoned by their colonial masters, Spain and Portugal, who did not bother to discover the wishes of the people before leaving. This led to military annexation by rampaging neighbours: Indonesia in East Timor and Morocco and Mauritania in Western Sahara.

Independence movements waged guerrilla struggles in both, challenging what they saw as alien occupation. For decades, both Indonesia and Morocco – allies of the West – were considered too important to trouble with issues as trivial as self-determination. The fall of Suharto in Indonesia was followed by a referendum and the granting of independence to East Timor.

The United Nations (UN) supervised vote was not the organisation’s finest hour. Will the death in July of King Hassan II of Morocco give the UN another chance to sample opinions on independence, this time in the Western Sahara?

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