Page 1

ISSN 2294-1274


Volume 2 - Issue 6, June 2012

In the shadow of the Arab Spring: THE WESTERN SAHARA CONFLICT In the shadows of the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and several other countries, which received worldwide attention, another region in the ‘backyard’ of the Southern Mediterranean is (re-)developing towards a major political and humanitarian crisis - the Sahel region. This region should, however, get more attention from the international community, above all the UN and EU. Mali is currently making headlines because of the cooperation of Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels in the north of the country. The long-standing con-

Signs on the way to the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria (Photo: G. Pellegrini-Bettoli)

flict of the Western Sahara has the same underlying matter: a territorial issue - in this case between the Polisario Front and the government of Morocco.


Both conflicts, however, demonstrate that

Global Pulse: Naval war games in the East Joelle Westlund examines the recent developments in the Yellow Sea, where a series

we need to look beyond the northern rim of

of trilateral naval exercises of South Korea, Japan and the US have triggered new ten-

Africa and actively facilitate solutions to the

sions between these countries and the People’s Republic of China. Will the conflict go

territorial disputes and political conflicts which

beyond words?

threaten to gain a religious-extremist dimension. If Europe does not contribute to a sophisticated conflict-settlement in the Sahel region, the political and humanitarian crisis situation will trigger new waves of migration or even turn the region into a new safe haven for

Security in the Sahel: A forgotten conflict and why it matters Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli examines the long-standing conflict in the Western Sahara, where the Saharawi population is longing for independence while Morocco is claiming ownership of the territory. She warns of the severe consequences of a resumption of the armed conflict for the entire Sahel region.

Islamist terrorists. - Florian Bauernfeind Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


GLOBAL PULSE The transatlantic partnership was forged in war two generations ago and maintained for decades under the looming threat of renewed conflict. With the Alliance now at a crossroads, its future depends on the active engagement of its members’ young citizens. Committed to this endeavor, YATA is proud to partner with Atlantic Voices and help bring the opinions, analysis, and commentary of young Atlanticists to the forefront of international debate. By presenting security, economic, and diplomatic issues through the eyes of future policy and decision makers, Global Pulse aims to build a bridge between the challenges of today and the solutions of tomorrow.

Naval war games in the East By Joelle Westlund

On 21 and 22 June 2012, South Korea, Japan, and the US

Kwoun of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. How-

carried out a series of trilateral naval exercises in the southern

ever, for neighbouring states like China, the renewed engage-

islands of Jeju in the Korean Peninsula. The operation was

ment represents an escalation of enmity in the region already

described as being “of a humanitarian nature” by the Republic

fraught with tension.

of Korea (ROK) Defense Ministry, as it included search and rescue

China’s response to the drill was explicit and blatant in its




along with mari-



time interdiction


drills to improve

Navy admiral Yin



Zhuo claimed that

and communica-

the objective of the


exercises was to


The inclusion

keep a watchful eye

of the Japanese

on China, particu-



larly as a way to



monitor its military

troops in this co-

activity. Zhuo fur-


ther remarked that


Seoul, Washington,

maneuver is unprecedented


South Korean marines corps takes part in the joint military exercise on Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea (Photo: New York Times)

the history of Ja-

and “taken





pan-South Korea relations. In previous US-ROK military

steps towards a ‘mini-NATO’ in Northeast Asia with their

exercises, Japan has played an observatory role, but has re-

joint military exercises.”

mained distant militarily due to historical legacies. The latest

While it is true that the trilateral activities signal a shift in

drill is expected to bolster cooperation between the three

the American military strategy in the Asia-Pacific region,

allies and “will perform as a framework in further improving

China’s accusations must be taken in stride. As a founding

the military relationship,” stated research fellow Park Chang

member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO),

Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


tablished as a non-alliance, intergovernmental institution comprised of key member states China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The organization’s call for peace and security in Central Asia has been accompanied by multilateral counter-terrorism practices. China commanded the latest exercises under the operational name “Peace Mission 2012” that took place days after the 12th SCO Annual Summit at the beginning of June. April’s naval maneuver is yet another expression of BeiAboard the deck of the USS George Washington during the joint naval exercises in South Korea in June 2012 (Photo: epa)

jing’s and Moscow’s strategic partnership to counter the United States’ pivot in the region and boost bilateral relations. Speaking on Russian engagement, the Chinese Presi-

China has spearheaded multiple military drills in the last year

dent Hu Jintao declared: “We will strengthen our strategic

that have contributed greatly to rising tensions in the region.

cooperation on international issues, work together for the

An operation that took place at the end of April 2012 is

revitalization of both our countries, and safeguard the peace,

particularly noteworthy. In conjunction with Russia, China carried out a six-day defensive exercise off the coastal Shandong province in the sensi-

stability and security of the region.”

The rhetorical backlash naval drills frequently trigger is often inflammatory and dramatized.

While naval drills can play an important role in diplomatic affairs, reflecting partnerships and mutual under-

tive Yellow Sea, just west of the Ko-

standing, the rhetorical backlash they

rean Peninsula. The mandate of the

frequently trigger is often inflamma-

drill was comparable to the exercises implemented by South

tory and dramatized. When justifying the Sino-Russian mili-

Korea, Japan and the US, as it included reconnaissance,

tary exercises, Zhang Junshe, Deputy Director of the Naval

search and rescue, and tactical air defense. Under the code

Military Studies Institute, claimed: “Every military needs

name ‘Maritime Cooperation 2012’, China and Russia com-

drills to test its armed forces through exercises, neither China

bined 16 Chinese warships, 13 warplanes, two submarines

nor its neighbors are exceptions. There is no need to specu-

and seven Russian surface ships, one of which set voyage

late about each other’s normal military activities.” If there is

through the narrow Strait of Japan. The Washington Times

indeed “no need” for speculation then there should similarly

called this highly provocative gesture a projection of power

be no need for a double standard regarding these exercises.

that “will become a vehicle of Chinese coercion in the future.”

The consequence of such rhetoric for political relation-

The military drills were particularly significant because

ships and regional diplomacy is the fostering of tensions and

they operated for the first time outside of the framework of

polarity. Ultimately, both the United States and China will

the SCO, which in recent months has focused its mandate on

continue with their military exercises in cooperation with

combating terrorism. Inaugurated in 2001, the SCO was es-

their respective allies, and an intensified discourse surrounding these activities will certainly not defuse relations in the future.

Joelle Westlund is an Asia-Pacific Policy Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. She is currently working towards a Master’s Degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto. Joelle holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from the University of Toronto and has studied at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic as well as the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Chinese officers visit a Russian vessel taking part in the ChinaRussia joint exercises in the Yellow Sea (Photo: China Daily) Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


Security in the Sahel a forgotten conflict and why it matters by Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli


in the west through Mali, Niger, northern Burkina Faso, Chad and southern Algeria (although most studies do not consider

he issue of security in the Sahel has gained mo-

southern Algeria as belonging to the Sahel). However, the

mentum in the agenda of the European Union

region has to be analyzed, in the past and even more so today,

resulting in the 2011 ‘EU Strategy for Security

within the context of its interdependence with Northern Af-

and Development in the Sahel’. This article will focus on the

rica: Algeria and Libya in particular, and to a lesser extent

issue of Western Sahara, recently referred to by Le Monde

Morocco. What characterizes these three nations, at least

Diplomatique as one of Africa’s ‘marginalized conflicts’. The

prior to the Arab Spring and the resulting state of uncertainty

analysis’ main objective is to elaborate on the present percep-

after the demise of Qadhafy, is the presence of state authority

tion which considers this con-

which means high invest-

flict as ‘marginal’ and examine

ments devoted to the defense

the different scenarios that

sector. The core of the Sahel

such a simplistic understand-

region, north and northwest

ing of the issue could lead to,

of Mauritania, north of Mali

both for the Sahel and the EU.

and Niger, in contrast is char-

To avoid putting evidence

acterized by an only nominal

on Procuste’s bed or claiming

central government authority


and comparably low invest-



study will address the context

ment in defense.

of present day Sahel and

Populating the region are

Northern Africa, the origins

Arab, Toubou, Peul, oasis

of the conflict in Western Sahara and the possible sce-

February 27 March, the day of the proclamation of the SADR, a tribute that takes place every year (All photos: G. Pellegrini-Bettoli)

communities of Songhai, Housa and Kanuri as well as Tuareg.

narios resulting from a continued status quo and its repercus-

They have a nomadic lifestyle and are found most prevalently

sions (if any) on the wider region, the potential implications

in northern parts of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, but also in

for the EU, and a caveat on the importance of interpreting

southern Algeria and Libya. The largest Tamasheq speaking

factual evidence (or admit lack of it) in this complex region

populations are in Niger and Algeria and levels of integration

with the nuanced attention it deserves and requires. Ulti-

vary considerably. In Mali in particular Tuareg communities

mately, consideration will be given on how to frame the defi-

were progressively alienated from the national self-definition in

nition of ‘conflict on the margins’ and the dangers of failing to

the 20th century and have sought autonomy numerous times in

identify in it the seeds for ‘full-blown’ conflicts.

the past. However this process has not been linear nor has it

This study does not claim to provide answers to the com-

equally affected all Tamasheq speaking communities. The Arab

plexities of the region but to draw attention to the wave of

Spring in Northern Africa has had a direct effect both on the

discontent among the young Saharawi generation who was

security issues in the Sahel and Europe’s interaction with the

born in refugee camps and where this discontent could lead to

region. Part of the dilemma for Europe has been how to pro-

if a solution to the dead-lock of negotiations is not reached.

mote security in cooperation with the sovereign governments in the region. Strong economic interests tie the EU to North-

Northern Africa and the Sahel

ern Africa but also single bilateral agreements play an impor-

This study will refer to the Sahel region as defined by the

tant role in single member states’ interests. The ousting of

European Union in a narrow approach to include Mauritania

Qadhafi has had its most blatant consequences, resulting in

Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


further destabilization of the entire Sahel. Libya played a vital

Western Sahara

economic and political role for many in the region, one that

In the backdrop of these geographic boundaries and ethnic

now needs to be filled.

and tribal diversities, the last African colonial issue lies semi-

Both Libya and Algeria played a mitigating role in the past

forgotten: the disputed territory of Western Sahara con-

in the Sahel, for example mediating in the numerous Tuareg

tended between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario

rebellions. The Tuareg who used to serve under Qadhafi re-

Front, a Saharawi national liberation movement pursuing the

turning to northern Mali after his demise, have allegedly

independence of the region from Morocco. Western Sahara is

taken with them armaments which have been used to rekindle

a sparsely-populated area located on the Atlantic coast of

the rebellion. While Polisario Front Minister of Foreign Af-

north western Africa. Its natural resources are phosphates and

fairs, Ould Salek, expresses concern for land-to-air missiles that used to belong to Colonel Qadhafi circulating in the region, other experts instead fear the smaller weapons, leading to a

the stretch of sea is rich in fish. The area

The Polisario front defines itself not as a government but as a liberation movement.

Arab tribes, collectively known as Saharawis, notorious for their long history of resistance to outside domination. Western Sahara was under Spanish colo-


general increase in criminality . The falling of the regimes in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt undeniably

was traditionally inhabited by nomadic

nial domination since 1884.

have had an effect on countries such as Algeria and Morocco as well, resulting in them paying close attention to their own

Morocco’s Claim

country’s internal state of affairs. Should either of these coun-

The position of Morocco is that this territory is an integral

tries experience an Arab Spring, chaos in the region would

part of its kingdom, and it is therefore willing to grant a de-

increase even further.

gree of autonomy to the region but refuses any referendum

The Sahel has also become an increasingly important tran-

on independence as it would undermine the integrity of the

sit area for drug trafficking and kidnapping and is home to Al

Moroccan state. Morocco’s claim on the territory is based on

Qaeda of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which is involved in both

the fact that the Western Sahara is part of the Greater

activities. Lastly, the current food crisis in the region risks

Maghreb which was historically allied with the Moroccan

pushing the already delicate equilibrium to a full blown politi-

Sultanate and fought as part of the Moroccan Liberation Army

cal crisis. A recent study on the effectiveness of the EU Strat-

against Spain. According to the Moroccan monarchy, histori-

egy in the Sahel identifies the security threat in the Sahel as

cal, economic, religious, and military ties between the Mo-

‘endemic’ and an opportunity for the EU to assert itself as an

roccan sultan and the Saharawi tribal councils prove that Mo-

international development actor.

rocco always exercised authority on Western Sahara. The International Court of Justice acknowledged such ties but considered them not sufficient to prove Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. Additionally, there are numerous cultural and historic bonds between the people of southern Morocco and the people of the Western Sahara, emphasized by the Moroccans to strengthen their territorial claims. There are now hundreds of thousands (numbers vary according to sources) of Moroccans living in the Western Sahara, many of whom have lived there for a generation.

Polisario Front’s Claim The Polisario Front was founded in 1973, born from a Saharawi student movement in Morocco in 1971 with the aim, Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


February 27 March

at the time, of militarily forcing the end of Spanish coloniza-

while it simultaneously helped to guard the columns of Sa-

tion in Western Sahara. Worthy of note is the fact that the

harawi refugees fleeing from Western Sahara into refugee

Polisario Front (Pour la liberation de la Seguiet el-Hamra et

camps in southern Algeria in Tindouf. According to the Poli-

du Rio de Oro) defines itself not as a government but as a

sario Minister of Culture Khadija Hamdi Abdalahi, during this

liberation movement. In 1975, a special UN mission engaged

flight the civil population was bombed by the Moroccan Air

in an investigation in Western Sahara and its findings were

Force with napalm and white phosphorous.3 In 1979, Mauri-

that the vast majority of Saharawis supported independence under the leadership of the Polisario, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania. When Spain withdrew from the

tania, outnumbered and beaten by the

In 1979, the UN recognized the Polisario Front as the representative of Western Sahara.

territory in 1976, in application of the

guerrilla warfare waged by the Polisario, renounced its claims to the territory. In 1979, the UN recognized the Polisario Front as the representative of the

Madrid Accords, Morocco took over Saguia El Hamra while

people of Western Sahara.4 A cease-fire has been in place

Mauritania took control of Rio De Oro. The Polisario Front,

under the auspices of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUR-

with Algerian backing, proclaimed the Saharawi Arab Democ-

SO since 6 September 1991. According to some sources, by

ratic Republic (SADR) on February 27, 1976 and redirected

agreeing to have the issue of sovereignty conducted under the

its guerrilla war against both Morocco and Mauritania. The

auspices of the UN, Morocco has effectively recognized befo-

International Court of Justice (ICJ) had issued its non-binding

re the international community that it does not hold sove-

advisory opinion on the matter which was interpreted by each

reignty over the territory. MINURSO’s mission of holding a

side as confirming its rights to the disputed territories (ICJ

referendum for self-determination the following year never

Reports 1975).2 The Polisario continued the guerrilla war

translated into reality. The Saharawi population is now living

Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


in what the Polisario defines as the ‘occupied territories’ of Western Sahara. The ‘liberated territory’, with its ‘center’ in Tifariti, east of the Berm wall built by Morocco, is a stretch of land the Polisario won back with its guerilla warfare. This area however is poor in natural resources and almost completely uninhabited. The rest of the Saharawi population lives in south-western Algeria, in the refugee camps near the city of Tindouf. The total population census varies according to the sources, ranging from a total of 200,000 to 400,000.5

The Polisario Front: Internal Structure and Challenges

A woman at the February 27 March, holding a sign requesting the liberation of political prisoners held in Morocco

While the potential consequences of this 21-year stalemate

Western Sahara and to increase communication with the

will be analyzed in detail in the following paragraphs, some

growing civil rights activism in the territory.6

further clarification on how the SADR is organized will yield

In 2004, an anti-Abdelaziz (Polisario President) and anti-

a dimension of the level of internal organization, pressures

ceasefire opposition known as the Front Polisario Khat al-

and conflicts it faces. While some defections and discontent

Shahid announced its existence. Furthermore, defections in

will be addressed here below, it is difficult to assess their real

the hierarchy including former head of Security Services Ahmend Moulay M’Hamed, a Polisario

impact on the internal stability of the Polisario. The Saharawi National Council (SNC) is the legislative branch of the government in exile, its parliament. It has 101 members which are elected at

Could the stalemate break into a renewed armed conflict? How, if at all, would this impact on the Sahel region and ultimately on European interests?

the General Popular Congresses, held biannually. The last one (the xiii), held in December 2011,

founding member Ould Suleim, to cite a few, have shown a level of disconnect or discontent within the movement.

Different from action and inaction



was attended by delegates from the refugee camps of Tin-

Peripeteia in ancient Greek signifies ‘a sudden or unexpected

douf, representatives of the Saharawi’s People Liberation

reversal of circumstances’. After 21 years of negotiations, a

Army and the ‘popular organizations’ UJSARIO (students)

breakthrough in the deadlock of negotiations in Western Sa-

UNMS (women’s organization) and UGTSARIO (labour un-

hara could hardly be considered ‘sudden’. The focus of this


study is to highlight the possibility of an ‘unexpected’ rever-

Between congresses the supreme decision-making body is

sal. Failing to consider the present level of dissatisfaction

the National Secretariat (NS) which is divided in committees

among the young generation who have only known life in the

handling defense, diplomatic affairs, culture, etc. An interest-

refugee camps, coupled with the Arab Spring movement

ing shift in internal policy, which reflects the need for an in-

sweeping the North African continent, might result in a su-

creased level of cooperation and communication between the

perficial and imprecise understanding of the current situation.

free zone, the camps and the ‘occupied territories’/Western

There are two fundamental questions we should address:

Sahara, is the new composition of the NS since 2003. Before

Could the stalemate break into a renewed armed conflict?

this date, political appointments were solely for diaspora Sa-

How, if at all, would this impact on the Sahel region and ulti-

harawis, due to fear of infiltration and complications in com-

mately on European interests?

munications with those in the occupied territories. Twelve of

An interview with Ahmed Lehib Abdi, Secretary General

these 41 members are now from the ‘occupied territories’ in

of UJSARIO, was revealing. According to him the reason

Western Sahara. This strategy, as explained by Prime Minis-

why a peaceful movement will never work in Western Sa-

ter Abdelkader Taleb Omar, is two-fold: to strengthen the

hara, as was attempted in Gdeim Izik in Western Sahara in

movement’s underground network in Moroccan-controlled

2010, is that, while in Egypt and Tunisia the movement was

Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


centralized around the capitals, in Western Sahara the capital

sentative who was tortured in Moroccan prisons for graffiti-

is not El-Ayoun but Rabat. According to Mr Abdi, Morocco

writing in El-Ayoun in Western Sahara, is clearly against vio-

is buying time in the negotiations, the only way to bring Mo-

lence.8 The two men are roughly the same age, both have

rocco to the negotiating table with serious intentions will be to inflict economic losses on it via a resumption of the armed struggle.


This argument begs the question:

received higher education in Libya and

The economic interests explain Europe’s view for the need for an improvement in the security and stability of the region.

with what armaments? As far as open

Algeria yet their outlook is radically different. The one differentiating factor in their background is that while the UJSARIO youth was brought up in the Tindouf camps, the Afapredesa advoca-

source intelligence indicates, the outdated arms the Polisario

te grew up in Western Sahara where most of the resistance

Front receives from Algeria are hand-me-downs from the

(peaceful and violent) has recently played out.

Russian arsenal (old tanks T-55s, T-62s and BM-21s rocket launchers, and it does not dispose of an air force), outdated

Status quo and repercussions on the region

and unreliable. The Saharawi People’s Liberation Army

Historically Algeria has backed the Polisario Front for the

(SPLA) is considered to have manpower capabilities of 6,000

following reasons: to establish its strong commitment to anti-

to 7,000 active soldiers — very few compared to its war

colonialism (due to its history with France), and to act as the




main player in the

sources quote figures

region, with a view to

of 20,000 active men.


However, those num-


bers rise exponen-

blocking the Security

tially when we con-


sider that both male

MINURSO’s mission:

and female refugees in

refusing to include

the camps undergo

human rights moni-

military training at

toring as part of its

18. Furthermore, the


role of women, par-

position is linked both

tially due to the cul-

to its economic inter-

tural Berber heritage,

ests and its colonial

was crucial in the

past with Algeria. The

past, forming auxiliary units protecting

A graffiti wall at Afapredesa, the Saharawi human rights organization, in memory of political prisoners who have disappeared

the camps during war years.

Morocco. has





UN ‘Baker Plan’ II endorsed by the UN

Security Council in 2003, envisioned Saharawi self-rule under

Whether the present generation that has never experi-

a Western Sahara Authority for a period of five years, with a

enced guerilla warfare would be able to repeat the gestures of

referendum on independence to follow. However, Morocco

the older generation remains to be tested. What should not

refused to agree to a referendum that included independence

be dismissed is that, cornered into a situation with no future,

as an option.

the disillusionment over 20 years of negotiations falling on

Algeria’s efforts at present are focused on dealing with its

deaf ears, a generation of highly educated Saharawis might

own internal tensions, which have existed for years (also

well be tempted to try the armed struggle.

among the different generations of generals). Protests, albeit

Not all youth favours resumption of an armed conflict.

fragmented, have taken place even if they have not resulted in

Showing an opposite view from the UJSARIO leader, an

an Algerian Arab Spring (the reasons for this are not the remit

Afapredesa (the Saharawi human rights organization) repre-

of this study). For these reasons, despite the superior defense

Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


drawn to the issue following numerous kidnappings of Europeans, as well as the increased drug-trafficking of cocaine and hashish. Running parallel to these activities was the rise of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and, more recently, the appearance of new splinter groups, such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

Drug trafficking Related to the increased insecurity in the region is the growing drug-trafficking. The Sahel and its underbelly via Guinea Bissau have been the gateway for drugs coming in from Latin America (cocaine). The Sahel has also been the route for hashish of which Morocco is the world’s number one producer. What changed are the routes: a process of diversificaLittle girl in the Tindouf camps going to school

tion has taken place in the past decade. And no reliable data exist on the total amount of hashish traveling through the

capacities of Algeria, and its massive investments in defense

region. Heightened security has also led to a different cocaine

spending, we are unlikely to see military action outside its

route mainly via Guinea Bissau, and via Ghana and Benin.

borders. While this general approach on Algeria’s part is true

From there it proceeds to the European markets via the key

for most of Sahel, given the direct interest and geopolitical

market of Mauritania. The drug-trafficking is closely related

antagonism against Morocco, Algeria has hosted and backed

to a proliferation of weapons and community conflicts to com-

the Polisario since 1975.

pete for access to the drug market. Recent studies have at times tried to implicate the drug-trafficking with the disen-

European Economic Interests

chanted Saharawi youth but while the link is easy to make on

A recent study requested by the European Parliament's Com-

paper, there exists no significant evidence to substantiate this

mittee on Development provides a snapshot of the current


economic interests that tie the EU to the Sahel region. These economic interests explain Europe’s view for the need for an

Implications of inaction in Western Sahara

improvement in the security and stability of the region. The

Recent events in May 2012, when Morocco refused to recog-

ties are both on a bilateral basis for the different member

nize UN special envoy Christopher Ross in his role as media-

states and for the EU as a whole, notably the fishing agree-

tor, would appear to confirm the position expressed by the

ments with Morocco linked to the resources of Western Sa-

Saharawi USJARIO youth: Morocco is doing everything to

hara; Mauritania is an important source of iron and vital for

buy time in the process. The new round of negotiations

European steel industry; Niger provides 12% of the EU’s

scheduled for May and June has now been delayed indefi-

uranium consumption; the Sahel is a critical transit for the

nitely. While the older generation of the Polisario Front in-

Russian Trans Sahara Gas Pipeline project, which should

sists on a referendum that includes the option of total inde-

bring Nigerian gas into Europe (although this project seems to

pendence, which Morocco refuses, the Saharawi leadership

be at a standstill since a few years, there are other schemes such

advocates peaceful negotiations as the only way to get there.9

as the Cameroon/Tchad pipeline into Niger). As witnessed

In the past there have been threats of resumption of conflict,

even prior to the Arab Spring uprisings, the security situation

however Polisario now seems to be more concentrated on

in the Sahel region was shifting from one that local govern-

containing these passions from its youth. Part of this could be

ments considered nuisance, to one of threat. It was during the

due to the realization that an armed struggle would be detri-

French Presidency of the EU in 2008 that attention was

mental to the Saharawis. There might also be political calcula-

Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


tions as most of the protests are now taking place in the in

General assembly UN, 21-11-1979 (accessed 16 June, 2012).

Western Sahara. In either case, to dismiss the possibility that


events will not take a different route simply because they

interview with author, 28 February 2012.

have not for 21 years, would seem near-sited, particularly at a


time when the entire region is being swept by dramatic chan-

view with author, 27 February 2012.

ges. Particularly among the youth, some view failure to act


now as a missed opportunity.10

Lehbib Abdi, interview with author, 27 February 2012.

Interestingly, when asked if the current situation would

Polisario Front Minister of Culture Khadija Hamdi Abdalahi,


Polisario Front Prime Minister Abdelkader Taleb Omar, interSecretary General Saharawi Student Union, UJSARIO, Ahmed Afapredesa representative, interview with author, 28 February

harm the negotiation process by pushing Europe to focus on


maintaining security by endorsing a status quo in the region,


the Polisario Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that this would

with author, 1 March 2012.

be a dangerous miscalculation for the EU which ultimately


will make the situation worse.


UJSARIO Ahmed Lehbib Abdi, interview with author, 27

February 2012. 11


Polisario Front Representative in Italy Omar Mih, interview

Polisario Front Minister Foreign Affairs Mohamed Salem Ould

Salek, interview with author, 27 February 2012.

This study has highlighted the fragmented and, at times, contradictory information presently available. In a rapidly changing geopolitical scenario, with different players and interests,

The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author. They

an a priori characterization of the issue of Western Sahara as a

do not necessarily represent the views of the Atlantic Treaty Association,

frozen or marginal conflict might not be correct or at least

its members, affiliates or staff.

not complete. Sufficient evidence does exist that a growing number of the population both in the Western Sahara and in the camps in Tindouf, is losing confidence in the UN and the EU, and that the negotiation process is growing thin. Al-

About the author

though this forgotten conflict is not considered of prime concern today, should an armed confrontation in the form of

Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli

guerrilla warfare resume, it would exponentially increase the

Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli holds a Master’s Degree in Eco-

already existing chaos and insecurity in the Sahel region with

nomic History from the London School of Economics. She

repercussions on European economic interests. While a clear

authored a reportage in Algeria on the October kidnap-

understanding of the region is difficult because of the conflict-

pings in Tindouf. She has published articles on foreign pol-

ing or at times non-existing evidence, sweeping the dirt un-

icy issues in Corriere della Sera and France24 Observers. Previ-

der the carpet could be counterproductive in the long-run for

ously, she worked at the European Commission.

all players at stake.


Polisario Front Minister Foreign Affairs Mohamed Salem

Ould Salek, interview with author, 27 February 2012. 2

p1=3&p2=4&k=69&case=61&code=sa&p3=5 (ICJ 16 Oct. 1975, summary advisory opinion, accessed 16 June 2012). 3

Polisario Front Minister of Culture Khadija Hamdi Abdalahi,

This study is dedicated to Rossella Urru and her family, an inspiration in courage. In the hope that she, together with Ainhoa Fernandez and Enric Gonyalons may return home soon.

interview with author, 28 February 2012. 4

Point 7, Res. 34/37 -Question of Western Sahara- 34th

Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


Atlantic Voices, Volume 2, Issue 6


ATA Programs On 19 and 20 June 2012, the ATA held its annual Council meeting in Brussels. Based on a busy schedule, delegates from 24 Atlantic Councils discussed pressing issues and prepared the 58th

Atlantic Voices is the monthly publication of the Atlantic Treaty Association. It aims to inform the debate on key issues that affect the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, its goals and its future. The work published in Atlantic Voices is written by young professionals and researchers.

ATA General Assembly, which will take place at Bucharest, Romania, in September 2012. The first day ended with a gala dinner including a keynote address by Amb. Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy. The second day was dedicated to meetings with senior representatives of NATO, above all NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, at NATO Headquarters.

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Atlantic Voices is always seeking new material. If you are a young researcher, subject expert or professional and feel you have a valuable contribution to make to the debate, then please get in touch. We are looking for papers, essays, and book reviews on issues of importance to the NATO Alliance. For details of how to submit your work please see our website. Further enquiries can also be directed to the ATA Secretariat at the address listed below.

In 2011, the ATA adopted a new set of strategic goals that reflects the constantly evolving dynamics of international cooperation. These goals include:

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the development of research initiatives and security-related events for its members.

the expansion of ATA’s international network of experts to countries in Northern Africa and Asia. The ATA is realizing these goals through new programs, more policy

Editor: Florian Bauernfeind

activism and greater emphasis on joint research initiatives. These programs will also aid in the establishment of a network of

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international policy experts and professionals engaged in a dialogue with NATO.

Atlantic Voices Vol. 2, no.6  

Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli examines the long-standing conflict in the Western Sahara, where the Saharawi population is longing for complete ind...

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