Strange Bedfellows: Spain and the Western Sahara

Spain has always maintained an intrinsic role in the troubled relations between Morocco and the disputed territory of the Western Sahara. The region, which was under Spanish rule from the end of the 19th century, now faces an unresolved territorial conflict that is the result of decolonization. The tension in the region has escalated to previously unheard of proportions, bringing forth an international awareness that with luck will yield long-awaited resolution to this conflict.

After the illegal agreement that Spain signed with Morocco and Mauritania in 1975 in which Spain gave up its claim over Western Sahara territories, Sahrawis were forced to flee to the Tindouf refugee camp in Algeria, where they faced (and continue to face) extremely harsh living conditions. The Sahrawis who remained in Morocco did not fare much better, and were subjected to the cruelties of the Moroccan regime. It is undeniable that Spain, as a post-colonial entity, bears a significant historical responsibility over the Western Sahara region and its occupants. According to international law, Western Sahara is considered a Non Self-Governing Territory, so Spain still holds administrative power over it. Following the recent events of Agdaym-Izik, in which there were more than twenty casualties (among them a Spanish citizen), the question remains: What is the Spanish government’s position with respect to the Laayoune?

There is undoubtedly a double standard on Spain’s part regarding the issue. On one hand, Spain’s ex-foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, was sent by Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero on a mission to Algeria during the middle of the heated crisis. Oddly enough, during all six years of his term as foreign minister, Moratinos did not visit the region even once. Trinidad Jiménez, the current foreign minister, has affirmed that Spain will not explicitly condemn the Moroccan government until they have de facto confirmation of what really occurred in the camps. The following day, however, president Zapatero declared that Spain would always do what was in its best interests in order to maintain the stability of its relationship with the Moroccan kingdom, given that the two countries share mutual economic interests.

Spain is not taking its responsibility towards the Saharawi people despite the tremendous support that Western Sahara people enjoy among the Spanish public. Whether or not Spain continues to hold the administrative power of the territories, it does not change the fact that the country has a moral and ethical responsibility over this issue.

Spain’s failure to resolve the conflict, and its support of Morocco in order to bolster its own economic interests, goes against United Nations initiatives and worldwide efforts to promote peace in the region and prevent human rights violations. Perhaps Spain should be held more accountable for its role, unique among European countries, in the history of the Western Sahara, and as such should pay more attention not only to that which serves its economic interests, but also its role as a democratic country opposed to violence and injustice.

Photo Credit: Saharauiak