Background: Western Sahara

Background: Western Sahara

Read more about the Western Sahara conflict and why SAIH wants to focus on these issues in this year's campaign.

Did you know that...

  • Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1975. Prior to this, the area was a Spanish colony.
  • In 1991 the UN negotiated a ceasefire. The parties agreed on a referendum regarding the future status of the territory and a UN operation (MINURSO) was created. The referendum has never been conducted.
  • About half of the Sahrawi people live in refugee camps in Algeria.
  • Morocco controls all economic activity in Western Sahara, in addition to the country's rich natural resources.
  • The United Nations, the African Union and the International Court of Justice support the Sahrawi's right to self-determination.
  • The UN operation MINURSO has no mandate to report on human rights violations that occur in Western Sahara.

About half of the Sahrawi people live in refugee camps in Algeria. Photo: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

2015 marks 40 years since the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara began. Before the Spanish colonial powers had withdrawn from Western Sahara, Moroccan forces moved into the country in autumn 1975. In 1991 Morocco and the Sahrawi independence movement Polisario signed a ceasefire agreement. This agreement implied that there would be a referendum in Western Sahara in 1992 on the question of whether the country should become independent or become part of Morocco. To monitor the ceasefire and ensure the implementation of the referendum, the UN operation MINURSO was created. To this day, no referendum has been held. MINURSO is the UN's only operation without a mandate to report on human rights violations.

Western Sahara is very rich in natural resources such as fish, oil, gas and phosphate. All economic activity is controlled by Morocco, and almost nothing benefits the Sahrawi people. In the occupied territories the human rights situation is very serious, with severely restricted freedom of expression, arbitrary arrests and disappearances. Most of the Sahrawi people live in refugee camps by Tindouf City in Algeria. Here the lack of resources is great and people are completely dependent on humanitarian aid for survival.

Vest-Sahara, Minurso-styrker

The UN operation MINURSO has no mandate to report on human rights violations that occur in Western Sahara. Photo: UN Photos/Martine Perret

The UN treats Western Sahara as Africa's last colony and over 100 UN resolutions require that the Sahrawi people's right to self-determination must be met. Nevertheless the situation remains deadlocked. An extension of MINURSO to include human rights in its mandate is crucial to improve the situation in Western Sahara. But every year when the mandate is under consideration in the Security Council France, which has close relations with Morocco, uses its position to stop such inclusion.

The Government has prioritized human rights in its development budget for 2015, and this makes Western Sahara very relevant. Western Sahara is also the only country in the world where Norway discourages Norwegian businesses to operate. Nevertheless, there are several examples of cooperation between higher education institutions in Norway and companies doing business in occupied Western Sahara.

This cooperation takes place through, for example, career days and scholarships for students, and helps to legitimize the occupation. Many SAIH local chapters have worked to establish ethical guidelines in higher education in Norway, and several have managed to do so. This work is what is being followed up in this year's campaign.

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