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Western Sahara poser for UN

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Morocco serves as the backdrop for such Hollywood blockbusters as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Body of Lies. The country’s breathtaking landscapes and gritty urban neighbourhoods are the perfect setting for Hollywood’s imagination.

Unbeknown to most filmgoers, however, is that Morocco is embroiled in one of Africa’s oldest conflicts – the dispute over Western Sahara. This month the UN Security Council is expected to take up the dispute once more, providing US President Barack Obama with an opportunity to assert genuine leadership in resolving this conflict. But there’s no sign that the new administration is paying adequate attention.

The story of Western Sahara would make quite a movie. There was high diplomatic intrigue when Moroccan troops occupied the territory, after Spain abandoned its long-time colony as Generalissimo Franco lay dying in 1975. The subsequent war between Morocco and the Algerian-supported Polisario Front, which sought Western Saharan independence, furnished plenty of action sequences in the desert. There is also the real human tragedy of the Western Saharan refugees, who have languished in exile for more than three decades.

In 1991, the Security Council created the UN mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO, whose mandate has been ritually reauthorized ever since. MINURSO’s original task was to organise a referendum in Western Sahara in which the residents would vote up or down on self-determination. Morocco, on the other hand, lobbied that tens of thousands of Moroccans be counted, a demand that Polisario resisted. 

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