In 1960 the United Nations adopted resolution 1514 which stated that all people have a right to self-determination and that colonialism should be brought to a speedy and unconditional end.
Half-a-century later it may come as a surprise to readers to learn that there are still 16 territories around the world that have yet to achieve decolononisation.
Known as “non-self-governing territories” the list of places still ruled by a foreign power contains some familiar names: Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) to name just two.
But while some of these territories, like the tiny Pacific Island of Tokelau, are dependencies that could be said to have rejected independence and democratically chosen to maintain their territorial status, others are more controversial.
Most notable is Western Sahara, known as Africa’s last colony, which has fought for self-determination for more than 35 years against neighbouring Morocco.
In New York the UN’s Fourth Committee on Decolonisation heard petitions from people speaking on behalf of these non-self governing territories.
As on previous occasions, this year’s meeting was dominated by petitions on the conflict in Western Sahara. About the size of Britain, Western Sahara lies along Africa’s Atlantic coast.
In 1976, in a breach of international law, the departing Spanish divided Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for continued fishing rights and partial ownership of mining interests. A 15-year war ensued between the Moroccans and the Polisario Front, with the Mauritanians withdrawing in 1979.
In 1991 a cease-fire was declared and, under the terms of a UN agreement, a referendum for self-determination was promised. Nineteen years later the native Saharawi are still awaiting that referendum.
An estimated 165 000 Saharawi refugees who fled the fighting are still housed in desolate camps in the Algerian desert. Despite aid from the UN, conditions in the camps are abject, with widespread health problems including hepatitis B, anaemia and meningitis. A 2008 survey by the World Health Organisation said one in five children in the camps suffered from acute malnutrition.
Within occupied Western Sahara, the Saharawi population faces discrimination and human rights abuses.
International organisations, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have raised serious concerns about violations of human rights in the territory and a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch found that Morocco had violated the rights to expression, association and assembly in Western Sahara.
Recently the first anniversary of the arrest of several prominent human rights defenders at Casablanca airport after they returned from a visit to the refugee camps was commemorated. Three of the activists — Brahim Dahane, Ali Salem Tamek and Ahmed Naciri — were accused of treason, a charge punishable by death.
Their trial is expected to start in late October.
Against the backdrop of this human tragedy, the European Union has concluded a fisheries agreement with Morocco under which Western Saharan waters are being unlawfully exploited by European fishing vessels.
Many foreign governments and companies are involved in deals with Morocco, which give them access to Western Sahara’s vast mineral resources, most notably phosphates.
In New York recently the UN Fourth Committee heard more than 80 petitions on the subject of Western Sahara, including an impassioned plea from Suzanne Scholte, the president of the Defence Forum Foundation.
“Do not let the [Saharawi people’s] trust in this committee be in vain or you will send a terrible signal to the world that invasion, aggression and violence, as Morocco has employed, are the ways to achieve your ends,” she said.
Despite many attempts to break the long-running diplomatic stalemate, progress towards a resolution has been tortuously slow.
A political solution may seem far off with the parties’ positions being so far apart: the Polisario Front is unprepared to negotiate away its legitimate right to self-determination; Morocco rejects any proposal that contains even the possibility of independence; and the UN Security Council is, so far, unwilling to enforce its own resolutions.
But history has shown that a political solution is the only way forward.
Such a solution is too important to be left in the hands of politicians, however.
It is up to civil society groups, campaigners and individuals to make their voices heard and call on their governments to exert diplomatic and political pressure on those who are ignoring the requirements laid out under international law.
As Martin Luther King said: “The arc of history may be long, but it always bends towards justice.”
There is little doubt that the people of Western Sahara have the tide of history and the force of justice on their side.
Ken Loach is a filmmaker. Stefan Simanowitz is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. The latter attended the Decolonisation Committee meetings in New York on October 5-7