Morocco’s World Cup success has drawn attention to its ongoing occupation of the Western Sahara
Few football fans have failed to be won over by Morocco during this World Cup, which has seen the Atlas Lions make history as the first African team to make the final four.
Belgium, Spain and Portugal were all beaten before Morocco came up just short against France, their opponents’ history of colonisation adding even more significance to an already odds-defying run.
The Moroccans, who will play in the third-place play-off against Croatia today, also won plaudits from some for using their success as a platform on which to show solidarity with Palestine.
Players, coaches and fans alike have proudly waved the Palestinian flag during post-match celebrations.
But in doing so they have inadvertently drawn attention to and criticism of their own, ongoing, occupation of Western Sahara.
“I welcome all forms of pan-Arab solidarity but if we’re gonna do it and it’s because of Morocco I feel like we should talk about Western Sahara too,” Elias Jahshan, a part Palestinian author, wrote on Twitter following Morocco’s quarter final victory over Portugal.
It was one of dozens of similar messages posted on social media, including in reaction to a video which reportedly shows members of the Moroccan team singing a song including the lyrics “the Sahara is ours.”
Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 amid a chaotic process of decolonisation from Spain, which was at the time itself taking its first steps towards democracy following Franco’s death.
International pressure and an armed uprising had forced Spain into agreeing to a referendum of self-determination but Madrid later reneged on the pledge and handed over the territory to Morocco in return for preferential access to the territory’s plentiful supplies of phosphate and fish.
The ensuing conflict between Morocco and the Sahrawi people, which saw the territory cut in two by the construction of a 1,700 fortified sand bank, was paused in 1991 on the basis of a United Nations plan for a referendum but the ceasefire broke down around 18 months ago.
“There’s no pressure on Morocco to seriously engage with the referendum that they agreed to back in 1991,” said John Gurr, the Ceredigion-based coordinator of the Western Sahara Campaign UK group.
“It’s blocked by Morocco and the UN Security Council has never put pressure on them to comply.
“Morocco now won’t talk about anything that includes the option of independence even though, according to the UN Charter, independence has to be an option for former colonies.”
The lack of progress has meant that Sahrawi people who fled in 1975 have spent a lifetime in exile, while their children and grandchildren were born and raised in refugee camps.
According to the UNHCR, there are now 90,000 Sahrawi people in five refugee camps in the desert of Algeria, where temperatures exceed 50 degrees in summer and fall below zero in winter.
Sahrawi people are now a minority of the 350,000 population of Western Sahara.
Those who remain in their homeland face human rights violations, according to Amnesty International, which reported last November that a well known self-determination activist, Sultana Khaya, was raped during a raid on her home by Moroccan police.
The World Cup has stoked tensions, with reports of independence supporters throwing stones at those celebrating Morocco’s victory against Spain.
But it has also provided an unlikely new source of international interest, which both sides hope to take advantage of.
The performance of the Atlas Lions has strengthened Morocco’s case to stage a major tournament, which is part of its soft power diplomacy strategy to win back international support for their claim to Western Sahara, professor Atik Essaid of Hassan II university in Casablanca told Reuters.
Meanwhile Ceredigion MP Ben Lake, who is the chair of Westminster’s all-party group on Western Sahara, told Nation.Cymru: “We must welcome any opportunity to raise awareness of human rights abuses across the world, be that of those against Palestinians or against those in Western Sahara. The World Cup has certainly provided a platform.
“In the last decade there has been no progress towards holding the referendum in Western Sahara. Meanwhile human rights abuses continue, and Western Saharan resources are exploited without the consent of the Saharawi people.”
Lake’s group has been trying to secure a meeting with the UK Government’s Foreign Office for the past two years without success, but is now scheduled to meet Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad in the new year.
The UK Government says it “support the UN-led efforts to achieve a lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”
Although campaigners recently launched an unsuccessful legal challenge against the UK Government’s trade deal with Morocco, which they said extended to goods produced in occupied Western Sahara.
A similar EU trade deal struck in 2019 was ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice, who said Western Sahara had a separate status couldn’t be included in a deal without the consent of its people.
Lake believes the UK Government should use its £1.5 billion worth of annual trade with Morocco to put pressure on the country to deliver on the referendum they signed up to in 1991.
“The UK could help facilitate progress and to break the stalemate, and in so doing pave the way for a referendum to be held in Western Sahara,” he said.
“The UK Government should use the association agreement with Morocco to secure further progress on this issue and should not use the deal to increase bilateral trade that ignores the illegality of trading in goods from Western Sahara.”
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