The government announced on 20 August that Switzerland is to send half a dozen military observers to Western Sahara. Stressing that the observers will be unarmed, the government has announced that they will join the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara to reinforce peace-keepers supervising the 1988 ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Polisario has been fighting for independence of Western Sahara since 1973 when the country was under Spanish colonial rule.
The announcement comes amid rising tension and two days after Polisario expressed concern over an alleged continuous campaign by the Moroccan authorities to expel international observers from Western Sahara.
Mohamed Abdelaziz, Secretary General of the Polisario Front, claimed in a letter sent on Monday to UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, that Morocco is maintaining an intense campaign of harassment, intimidation and forced expulsions against human rights activists, lawyers, parliamentarians, journalists. Polisario has requested the UN to take urgent action to stop Morocco’s campaign.
Mohamed Abdelaziz, who is regarded as a secular moderate, issued a statement noting that the expulsion of international observers from a territory under UN responsibility represents a flagrant violation of international law and is an insult to the international community.
While Western Sahara is generally peaceful with Polisario adhering to a policy of non-violence, there is significant scope and potential for foreign extremists to foment trouble in the region. Morocco has a poor human rights record. Its government has weak democratic credentials and has profited through patronage and suppression. The King has been a disappointment to the reform-minded since his coronation in 1999.
There are clear opportunities for Muslim extremists to spread their doctrine in soil increasingly fertilised by Moroccan institutional corruption and political intransigence. The Swiss observer contingent has a much more important brief than we may know. It needs to keep the UN clearly informed of the causes of any trouble and whether the mainly Berber population of the country is being exploited by outside extremists pursuing their own agenda. A de-stabilised Morocco would be unable by itself to deal with extremist violence of the sort being witnessed in countries including Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali and Nigeria. Attacks on Morocco would necessitate western powers having to spread themselves and their resources even more thinly across these regions. It would be yet another front to do costly battle.
The Swiss contingent to Western Sahara brings the total number of Swiss military observers in the Middle East, Africa and Asia to 32. In addition another eight military personnel are to be sent to Mali, at the request of the UN, to advise on a range of issues from mine clearance to logistics.