In the northwest corner of Africa, one of the world’s longest-running, yet most-forgotten conflicts continues over the continent’s last colony: the Western Sahara. The Western Sahara is a territory of largely desert land about the size of the U.S. state of Colorado. It is home to large phosphate reserves, rich fishing waters, and potential oil deposits. It is also home to the Saharawi people, who have been struggling against the Kingdom of Morocco militarily and diplomatically for over 35 years to gain self-determination and freedom for their homeland. Tens of thousands of Saharawis wage the now “peaceful” war from refugee camps in neighboring Algeria under the leadership of the Polisario Front, while thousands more oppose the occupation from within the Moroccan-occupied territories of the Western Sahara.
Morocco has advanced an autonomy plan for the Western Sahara, rooted in its de facto control over the region since the 1980s. The Saharawis, however, refuse to accept any solution that does not offer a free and fair referendum – based on a United Nations census – that includes the option of Western Saharan independence. While the conflict, now in its third decade, drags on, over 150,000 Saharawis continue living in inhospitable conditions while thousands more suffer at the hands of the Moroccan security forces. As long asthe conflict endures, stability will continue to evade the area of North Africa known as the Maghreb. At stake in the Western Saharan conflict are the very principles of self-determination, statehood, and freedom upon which the United States and the United Nations were founded.