More than 50 years after the United Nations vowed to ensure the right to self-determination for every occupied territory, Western Sahara is still fighting for its independence.

The current struggle began in early 1970s, when the Polisario Front formed to fight against the country’s Spanish colonizers. Two years later, neighboring Morocco invaded Western Sahara under the auspices of assisting the liberation effort.

When the Polisario Front, aided by Morocco, compelled the Spanish to withdraw in 1976, Morocco stayed in the region and declared itself administrator of Western Sahara. Rejecting this, Polisario declared an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. They have been fighting for self-determination ever since.

Since a UN-monitored cease-fire between Morocco and Polisario began in 1991, Western Sahara’s struggle for independence has moved into the diplomatic sphere. The latest talks took place Aug. 10-11 in Manhasset, N.Y. Delegations from the Polisario Front, Morocco, and neighboring Mauritania and Algeria discussed their latest proposals in the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, Peter van Walsum.

The Moroccan delegation offered an autonomy plan it called an honorable paix des braves — or peace of the brave — similar to a proposal France offered its former colony Algeria during the Algerian War of Independence. Polisario delegation head Mahfud Ali Beiba rejected the proposal, saying that under the UN-monitored cease-fire, elections are required among the Saharawi people to determine their desired form of political administration.

Beiba said “the so-called autonomy” proposed by Morocco could only be one option, along with full independence.

Polisario also objected to Morocco’s continued abuses in the occupied territories, listing frequent occurrences of “practices of torture, arbitrary detention, abduction, unfair trials and forced disappearance.” Morocco has also built a sand separation wall on the border of the disputed territory, complete with landmines and other anti-personnel measures.

Despite Morocco’s participation in the UN-brokered discussions, its king, Mohammed VI, continues to insist that Western Sahara will receive “autonomy and nothing but autonomy.”

On Aug. 9, 27 U.S. congresspersons, including Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), wrote to President Bush expressing opposition to U.S. support for the autonomy plan. They said such a policy “is deeply disturbing,” and that “denying the Sahrawi … the right to self-determination would subvert our broad-based efforts to bring greater tolerance and stability to the Maghreb Region.”

While both the Moroccan and Polisario delegations said the latest talks were fruitful, the lack of consensus continues.

UN Security Council Resolution 1754 (2007) calls for a referendum “which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.” The current negotiations are still working to fulfill that mandate. The Polisario Front has agreed to accept the outcome of such a referendum, be it autonomy under Moroccan rule or complete independence.

All that remains, Polisario’s Beiba says, is for the Moroccan delegation to accept a “free and fair referendum on self-determination” to allow the people of Western Sahara to end one of the world’s last remaining cases of colonialism and determine their own future.

maryslosson @gmail.com

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