The United Nations established “right” of “distinct peoples” to “self-determination” following the end of colonial rule is the basis of the Polisario and Algerian demand for the conduct of a referendum on independence for what is today commonly referred to in the international community as “Western Sahara.” Despite the seeming simplicity of that “right” there is, in fact, nothing simple about it. As promised in this space a week ago, I would like to return to this subject again – and likely not for the last time.
“Self-determination” under UN norms entails providing these “distinct peoples” a right to choose among the options of independence, integration with another existing state or free association, in some form, within another existing state. In the post-colonial period, there are examples of all three around the world. The limiting factor in this established “right” is the often competing “right” of states to be secure in their “territorial integrity.” These conflicting “rights” between “self-determination” and “territorial integrity” have been the cause of a great deal of civil and political violence in various corners of the globe over the last decades. Some have been resolved peaceably through one of the various formula noted above, and others fester still today. Such is the case in “Western Sahara.”
For this exercise, I would like to examine a bit further what constitutes a “distinct people” within that definition who should be accorded this “right” to “self-determination.”
Algeria and Polisario make the claim that the various Sahrawi tribes of the Sahara constitute such a “distinct people,” but rarely justify this claim by any examination of evidentiary factors that would establish these tribes as fundamentally different in any compelling way from the larger population in which they have been embedded for millennia. That the UN has determined (though perhaps somewhat arbitrarily and perhaps also with insufficient attention) that the Sahrawis are “distinct” for the purposes of providing them a “right to self-determination” should not obscure what seems to be a growing need for a re-examination of this question, and other issues associated with the future of the territory, given the forty-plus years of violence and stalemate in resolving this conflict.
I have spent nearly two decades making regular visits to the region and this is what I observe concerning the identity and distinctiveness of those living there.
On the issue of language, both “Sahrawis” and others in the larger North African region speak some dialect of Arabic as their basic language. The Sahrawi dialect spoken throughout the Saharan regions of Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania is different than the various other dialects of Arabic spoken in those three countries, but only marginally so. The dialect is not a distinct language and is largely well enough understood by others speaking any common dialect or the classical version of Arabic. As a written language, Arabic is basically indistinguishable from one dialect to another, though turns of phrase and particular vocabulary and expressions, etc. may be unique depending on the region. I see no larger difference here that distinguishes “Sahrawis” from other Arabic speakers in the Maghreb any more than what distinguishes the English language of folks in Boston from those in Beaufort, or from those in Birmingham from those in Belfast. Folks in Brest don’t speak the same colloquial French as those in Bayonne, but they understand one another as well as people from Rabat or Algiers understand those in Tindouf or Tifariti. I conclude that there is nothing associated with language that would count as a qualifying factor to make any of the various “Sahrawis” of the Maghreb “distinct” as a “people” from any other of the various linguistic variations of Arabic spoken throughout the region.
On the issue of “ethnicity,” the various Sahrawi tribes of the larger Saharan region are all of the same Arabo-Berber origins. With respect to ethnicity, there is little to nothing that distinguishes members of any of these tribes from any of the many, many other basic tribal groupings throughout the Sahara/Sahel Maghreb. They are all basically of the same Arabo-Berber origins dating back at least 1500 years to the early formation and eventual consolidation of this population as a distinct “people.” The same could be said of the two dozen or so different Taureg tribal groupings that occupy their own geographic space in the contiguous Sahara/Sahel region, which has also continued to fuel decades of violent conflict, especially today in northern Mali and the surrounding geographic space. In short, with the exception of a smattering of sub-Saharan and European genes in the larger North African ethnic pool, we are basically talking about the same Arabo-Berber people throughout the region. There is nothing “distinct” about any of these people along ethnic lines, whether they are what we somewhat arbitrarily refer to as “Sahrawi” or not.
Then there is the habitual question of culture. Culture is a difficult term to define when it concerns distinguishing one set of cultural affinities from another within any given contiguous geographic space among people who otherwise share common features of basic identity. What is most often the case where large enough populations are spread over substantial adjacent territory is that culture tends to have some larger unifying characteristics among the whole population as well as particular cultural markers in certain sub-regions as opposed to others. In this region, the single largest cultural factor that all hold in common is their adherence to Islam and their identity as an Arabo-Berber population. Dress, cuisine, music, poetry, and other common cultural markers show a great variety throughout the Maghreb, but nothing so large as to be so astonishingly unique from one sub region of the Maghreb to another as to say that any define a “distinct people.” The Sahrawis drink their tea differently than those in Casablanca, but both still mix with mint and too much sugar — and it all still comes from China. Their dress is different than those living in the high Atlas, but then people generally dress differently from the mountains to the desert on any continent and within any nation. I am especially fond of the cultural variety of the Maghreb, and I do especially both admire and enjoy the many distinctive features of Sahrawi culture, but cultural variety is not generally “different in kind” within the larger Maghreb than that which exists between Biloxi and Madison or Gainesville and Green Bay where everyone still describes themselves as Americans, even though you cannot find grits anywhere in Wisconsin. Cultural preferences do not make the Sahrawis a distinct “people” even though my Sahrawi friends think of themselves as culturally special. However, for the record, I love their culture and love them for it.
So, to conclude – concerning “who should vote,” I ask, is this population so unique and distinct that it deserves the “right” to “self-determination?” To vote? If it does, despite paltry supporting evidence, then clearly there are other populations in the region with as strong a claim that are not being accorded this “right.” What about the post-colonial Sahrawi population of Algeria and Mauritania.? What about the much more distinct Taureg population of post-colonial Mali? Lastly, what about the also more distinct uniquely Berber populations of the region? Why only the Sahrawis of former Spanish Sahara?
Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP