The desperate move comes after the Polisario Front threatened, again, to withdraw from the UN-led peace process if the body does not force a referendum.
The Polisario Front has called on Spain to “assume responsibility” in Western Sahara. With Morocco gaining diplomatic traction in the dossier, the Polisario lashed out at Spain on Tuesday in a statement calling for a de facto return to colonial control of the territory in the hopes of forcing a referendum.
The July 14 statement from the Polisario Front’s “National Secretariat” said the group “holds Spain responsible for the suffering and tragedies caused to the Saharawi people.” The statement claimed that Spain remains the “administrative power” in the region and that the European country is responsible for the “decolonization” of Western Sahara.
As the former colonial power in Western Sahara, Spain’s “responsibility remains valid as long as the Sahrawi people do not exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence,” the Polisario Front wrote.
The statement called on Spain to facilitate a referendum in Western Sahara, rejecting the UN-led peace process and refusing to enter into negotiations for a mutually agreeable solution.
The Polisario Front released a second statement on Tuesday, this time directed at the UN. Accusing the UN Security Council of neglecting their duties in Western Sahara, the statement called on the UN to “play their role effectively in this conflict in order to maintain international peace and security.”
The Polisario Front said they “cannot accept the current deadlock in the conflict.” The statement culminated in a threat to withdraw from UN-led negotiations if the UNSC does not organize a referendum, reminding the UN of previous similar threats of non-cooperation if their demands are not met.
Flogging a dead horse
The question of a referendum has long been off the table, for both practical and diplomatic reasons. In the organization of any democratic vote, be it a national referendum or a general election, a census or voter registration process must take place to ensure all those who have the right to vote are given the opportunity to be heard.
For the Polisario Front, only those whose names appeared on the Spanish 1974 census should be given a vote. Morocco, however, argued that all Sahrawis living in the region and those with significant Sahrawi heritage should have the right to vote in a referendum.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government freely admitted that the 1974 census did not include all Sahrawi territories and that, with the omission of nomadic tribes and other communities, thousands of Sahrawis could be missing from the census.
Merely on the basis of voter registration, the idea of a referendum becomes moot.
Despite insisting on a referendum, the Polisario refuses to take the necessary steps to ensure a fair vote. For years, the group has blocked all attempts to conduct a census of Sahrawis or the populations of the Tindouf camps, Algeria, where the group claims to house 90,000 “Sahrawi refugees.”
Both Algeria and the Polisario have opposed any census in the Tindouf camps, despite requests from the UN Refugee Agency in 1977, 2003, 2005, and 2015.
A recent statement from former Polisario member Hamada Al Bihi, who says he survived Polisario oppression in Tindouf for 40 years, revealed the sinister realities of the Polisario-run camps and the breakaway group’s refusal to account for the population.
In an interview with MAP, El Bihi said Sahrawis from Laayoune, Es Smara, or Boujdour represent less than 20% of the Tindouf camp residents.
El Bihi, who is the president of the Laayoune-based Sahara League for Democracy and Human Rights, said 80% of the Tindouf residents are Tuaregs and nationals of neighboring countries, such as Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad.
El Bihi called out Algeria and the Polisario’s ongoing refusal to allow a census of the population in the camps, despite the “pressing calls by several international organizations.”
The former Polisario member argued that as many as 90,000 people, including men, women, and children, are held against their will in the Tindouf camps and exploited by “the gang of separatists who made this a real business.”
For the Moroccan Sahrawi activist, the Polisario has been “selling” lies to perpetuate the conflict to serve its agenda under orders from Algeria.
“These two parties have no will to resolve the Sahara issue because they have no interest in doing so, unlike Morocco which has expressed a serious ambition to close this dispute definitively,” El Bihi said.
‘The referendum is dead’
Despite the Polisario’s fixation, the UN and international diplomacy gave up on the idea of a referendum in the 1990s. Declassified documents from 1999 show that the Bill Clinton administration in the US encouraged Morocco to abandon the idea of a referendum in Western Sahara and “opt for a negotiated solution through direct talks with the Polisario.”
The memoranda, dated July 25, 1999, make up a briefing summary from the US Office of the Executive Secretary to the president. The notes give Clinton an overview of his upcoming visit to Rabat for the funeral of King Hassan II. Clinton’s national security advisor Samuel Berger penned the memoranda.
In the briefing document, Berger emphasizes there is no future in the plans for a referendum in Western Sahara. He adds that Morocco will not “countenance any outcome under which it would lose sovereignty over the area.”
The memorandum then outlines US policy on the territorial conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front. “In quiet approaches over the past several months,” Berger explains, “we had encouraged [King] Hassan to opt for a negotiated solution through direct talks with the Polisario.”
Evidence that the referendum idea is obsolete is not limited to US-Morocco relations. The President of the Sahara Center for Studies and Research on Development and Human Rights, Shaibata Mrabih Rabou, said in 2020 that the UN “has definitively ruled out [a referendum] since 2001.”
He emphasized that recent UNSC meetings and resolutions include no reference to a referendum, focusing instead on the route of negotiations and the search for a pragmatic and mutually acceptable solution to the conflict.
In October 2019, following the UNSC’s adoption of Resolution 2494 to extend the mandate of the UN peace-keeping force MINRUSO, Morocco’s permanent ambassador to the UN Omar Hilale summed up the situation with brevity and clarity. “The referendum is over; the referendum is dead. The members [of the Security Council] have buried definitely referendum.”
‘A real business’
So, if the idea of a referendum has been a thing of the past for at least a decade, why do the Polisario Front and its ally and advocate Algeria remain so openly fixated on following a road to nowhere?
The answer is unfortunately simple: The Polisario Front benefits from keeping the Western Sahara dossier open.
As El Bihi put it, the Polisario Front have made a “real business” out of controlling the Tindouf camps and styling themselves as representatives of the Sahrawis and their cause. Algeria, the country that hosts the Tindouf camps and provides the Polisario Front with arms, financial aid, and a voice in the international community, has completely devolved responsibility of the camps to the Polisario Front.
Over the past decades, regular reports of aid embezzlement and worsening conditions in the camps have surfaced, as the Polisario Front leadership live in relative luxury in Tindouf town funded by the Algerian government and aid sent from abroad.
On June 30, an investigative article by EU Today revealed that the Polisario Front and Algeria continue to divert aid and resources destined for the Tindouf camps.
“Today, … [the camps’] populations [are] political pawns, exploited by Polisario for the humanitarian aid their presence attracts: aid which is too often stolen, and sold to support Polisario’s military and political aims,” the article said.
EU Today interviewed Mohamed Cherif Larossi Ahmed Salem, a former Polisario activist, who witnessed EU food aid on sale in markets in Mauritania. Ahmed Salem explained “how this vitally needed food aid is diverted to build personal fortunes, and to maintain a military arsenal that includes heavy tanks and surface-to-air missiles.”
The Polisario Front’s recent statements, lashing out at the UN, Spain, Morocco, and France, are, it appears, merely a diversionary tactic aimed to block Morocco’s diplomatic progress with the Western Sahara dossier.
The Polisario Front knows full well that neither Spain’s position as a former colonial power nor flogging the dead referendum horse are credible solutions to the conflict. However, as Morocco’s 2007 Autonomy Plan gains credibility and support in the international community and the UN continues to recognize Morocco’s genuine and active engagement in the UN-led process to find a mutually agreeable and lasting solution, the Polisario Front is turning to a strategy of desperation to stop the wheels the progress from turning.