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How to be Ignored

Depressing lessons in realpolitik from the Western Sahara

by Carne Ross, Slate

Whatever anyone tells you about "values" such as democracy or rights being the organizing principles of Western diplomacy, the world is still run according to the dismal calculus of "interests" and realpolitik.

Tindouf, Algeria—If any part of you wants to believe that the world is fundamentally just, that wrongs are eventually righted, and that those of us in the West are fair and righteous in the way we treat other countries and cultures, consider the story of the people of Western Sahara. Their history proves that you can have right wholly on your side, international law emphatically in support of your cause, be on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council for decades, and still be ignored.

Polisario's camel corps.
Polisario's camel corps.


In 1975, Morocco invaded the former Spanish colony of the Western Sahara. A long and inconclusive guerrilla war followed. The Polisario Front, which represents the people of the Western Sahara known as the Sahrawis, was supported by Algeria. Morocco was supported by France, the United States, and other major powers.

At the cease-fire in 1991, Morocco declared that it would accept a U.N.-supervised referendum on the status of the territory, as an earlier ruling of the International Court of Justice required. At last, the Sahrawis would decide their own future. The United Nations set up a commission to run the referendum. The U.N. Security Council passed scores of resolutions over the years that followed supporting a referendum. But thanks to perpetual obstruction by Morocco, the vote never took place. The United Nations' commission to run the referendum—called MINURSO—still exists, at a cost of nearly $50 million a year. Today, there seems less chance than ever that there will be a vote.

When Morocco first invaded, hundreds of thousands of Sahrawis were driven from the territory. The Polisario Front set up refugee camps in the far southwestern corner of Algeria near the town of Tindouf. Home to some 150,000 refugees, the camps' orderliness and the industry of the inhabitants is striking. The rows of huts and tents are tidy; women and children attend classes. But visitors cannot escape the deep sense of despair and frustration. There are middle-aged people who were born here but have never seen their homeland. Recently the camps, which lie deep in the western reaches of the Sahara desert, were devastated by floods (see this map). To the rest of the world, out of sight is out of mind.

Geography is one reason the Western Sahara is ignored. The suffering of the Sahrawis lies a long, awkward, and expensive journey away, in a country—Algeria—that most Western countries have long warned against visiting because of its own bloody civil war. Reaching the occupied territory itself is even more difficult, thanks to restrictions placed by the Moroccan authorities, who are no doubt reluctant to publicize the recent wave of Sahrawi demonstrations and consequent arrests (described in a recent Amnesty International report). They have also blocked access to Web sites—such as—that cover events in the territory.

"Where's the story?" editors demand of journalists seeking the expensive plane fare to visit Tindouf. And where indeed is the story, except in the tedious, endless denial of justice to an entire population. With no bombs, only occasional killings (a Sahrawi demonstrator was recently beaten to death by the Moroccan police), and an appalling lack of diplomatic action, the story, though rich in tragedy, lacks the immediate drama required to propel it to the front pages.

The attention we give to blood and destruction also helps keep the story off the news agenda. Since the 1991 cease-fire, the Polisario have forsworn violence as a means to further their cause. The Polisario's leaders know that if they were to resume guerrilla action, the Moroccans would be quick to cry terrorism in order to turn their powerful allies against them. Eager for the simplicity of "us" against the "terrorists," the world's press would almost certainly play along. But the paradox of an ugly world is here very evident: Without bloodshed, no one pays any attention to the Polisario. For all the celebration of the nonviolence of Mandela or Gandhi or King, in the real world pacifism has brought the Polisario virtually nothing. 

If you talk to diplomats covering Western Sahara, almost all will admit that right is on the Sahrawis' side. The U.N. special envoy recently told the Security Council that the law clearly favors the Sahrawis. But this means nothing, when, in terms of realpolitik, Morocco has all the countries that matter in its camp. Morocco is a loyal U.S. ally in the war against terrorism (including, allegedly, torturing suspects at Washington's behest). It is equally staunch in fighting illegal immigration into Europe. Morocco is the jumping-off point for many African would-be emigrants, who desperately try to cross the Mediterranean or battle their way into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. To demonstrate its helpfulness, Morocco has begun to dump the migrants it captures into the minefields beyond the fortified sand barrier known as "the berm" that protects its occupation in the Western Sahara. Some have died.

At the United Nations, there is much hand-wringing about finding a "mutually acceptable" solution to the "dispute," which is, in reality, an occupation. But nothing is done. Morocco has sat tight, watched U.N. envoys come and go, and successfully fooled the world into thinking it a "reforming" Arab government. Meanwhile, it suppresses democracy at home and remains in illegal occupation of someone else's land. It has exploited the mineral wealth of the territory and is now in the process of selling—illegally—rights to fish the Western Sahara's waters to the European Union, which is happy to preach about justice and international law in places where it costs nothing to do so.

This is the ultimate and depressing lesson of the Western Sahara. Whatever anyone tells you about "values" such as democracy or rights being the organizing principles of Western diplomacy, the world is still run according to the dismal calculus of "interests" and realpolitik. Morocco is with us, so the Sahrawis can go to hell. And, frankly, hell is a pretty accurate description of those refugee camps in the Sahara.

Carne Ross is a former British diplomat and director of Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit group that is advising the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the government-in-exile of the Sahrawi people.

Photographs by Edward Mason.

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