Laayoune =/= Morocco’s
Laayoune is the largest city in Western Sahara, a territory situated below Morocco and along the African coastline. Recently, on the 23rd of June, three Spanish Lawyers landed in Laayoune to observe the trial of Nazha El Khalidi, a Sahrawi journalist charged by Moroccan authorities for “professional usurpation” or practicing journalism without a degree. According to the crown prosecutor, Nazha El Khalidi was confirmed of her guilt during the trial on July 8th when she invoked Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, affirming her right to freedom of expression. The three Spanish lawyers who had flown in did not witness her trial though, because the Moroccan authorities had not allowed them off the plane.
Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara as a colonial power in 1975. The then Moroccan King, Hassan II, seized upon this as an opportunity to solidify his power base. Hundreds of thousands of Moroccan citizens were escorted by troops into the Western Sahara, in a tactical move which aimed to distract from failed palace coups and democratic opposition in Morocco. It was called ‘The Green March’, and it led to the annexation of Western Sahara. From this point onwards the Sahrawi people were made stateless and a decade long war began, one which cost thousands of lives.
Today, the main cities in Western Sahara are administered by Morocco, and so Google maps images like this one shows them to be in Morocco. The ongoing human rights abuses in these cities are well documented. Nazha El Khalidi and those others who document these abuses suffer from an extremely arbitrary judicial system. Nazha El Khalidi’s punishment could have ranged from a fine of 120 Dirhams to two years in prison. This time, she received a fine of 4,000 Dirhams.
The Moroccan authorities use many tactics to prevent foreigners from reporting on social and political issues in the Western Sahara. Sometimes, as was the case with the trial of Nazha El Khalidi, they refuse to let foreigners off the airplane. In 2015, as part of the celebrations of the 40th Anniversary of the Green March, journalist Nicolás Castellano travelled to Laayoune to cover the festivities, but was denied entry. In 2017, journalist Roger McShane was forcibly transferred from Laayoune to Casablanca after interviewing political dissident Mohamed Dahani. Reporters Without Boarders have reported that, in recent years, twenty other foreign journalists have also received similar treatment.
The height of journalistic expulsions from Western Sahara occurred in 2010, when scores of predominantly Spanish reporters were deported to the Canary Islands, following the dismantlement of the camp called Gdeim Izuk. Gdeim Izuk was a protest camp, an organised and peaceful way of challenging human rights abuses. Chomsky has suggested that the aggressive dismantlement of Gdeim Izuk should be considered the original spark of the Arab Spring. But whereas the Arab Spring exploded violently in other North African countries and continued to spread violently across the Middle East, it did not in Western Sahara. As Hamza Lakhal, a student present at Gdeim Izuk, said: “we saw the occupation wanted us to be outside the world.”
The curtailment of foreigners from the region has played a key role in maintaining the status-quo in the Western Sahara. Without investigators, journalists, lawyers, and humanitarian workers, the conflict has fermented within a UN paradigm whereby a successful conclusion will only be delivered through an amicably negotiated UN peace accord. In 1991 the UN promised an independence referendum through the ‘Settlement Plan’, and in doing so turned what had been an equally matched guerrilla struggle into a much more asymmetric demographic battle. Morocco simply expanded the franchise in Western Sahara to include more Moroccans and denied the UN Commission free access to the region. The referendum never happened.
In 2003, the UN endorsed the ‘Peace Plan’. This new referendum would have delivered, instead of an independence vote, a vote on a four-year trial period of self-governance whilst Western Sahara remained under Moroccan sovereignty. According to political scholars Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy: “Morocco’s steadfast refusal to accept the Peace Plan led most observers to make the inference that Morocco does not trust its own settlers to vote for integration.” In other words, the very people who were sent into Western Sahara to keep the region tied to Morocco when the Settlement Plan was threatened, were now feared enough by Morocco to justify Morocco’s opposition to the new proposal. By using every means possible to prevent a full separation, Morocco had found itself in a situation where it had to use every means possible to prevent ceding any local autonomy. This referendum never happened either.
Despite having failed in five rounds of negotiations, the UN Security Council are extremely unlikely to use their powers of enforcement. The UN recognises the Western Sahara as a non-state governing territory – a sign that the conflict is now seen as an insoluble one. This is not the case. The reason Morocco lock-out foreigners from the region is because they know that foreigners could be the key which unlocks the region, and that as long as these foreign cases remain few and far between, Western governments are likely to remain tolerant of intolerance. On the same day as Nazha El Khalidi’s trail, which happened on July 8th, French citizen Claude Mangin Asfari, wife to Saharawi political prisoner Naama Asfari, was expelled from Western Sahara. In some respects, Claude Margin Asfari’s case is more important than Nazha El Khalidi’s case, because if Morocco’s extra-judicial expulsions are not punished by other nation-states, then how can we ever expect Google to apply the same standard to places in Western Saharan as they do to places in Palestine (Google ‘Jabalia’, and mark the difference). From international disinterest, Morocco will continue to isolate Western Sahara, as, like in Google maps like in people’s minds, the two places are one and the same.