Our Voices

Modern Decolonization: The Role of the UN and the Responsibility of All of Us

In December 1960, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution, Resolution 1514 XV, better known as the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. Resolution 1514 proclaims “the necessity of bringing to a speedy and unconditional end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations” and asserts that colonialism “constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights.” This resolution came at the close of the year known as “The Year of Africa,” during which 17 African territories achieved statehood. The year 1960 ignited a wave of African decolonization that lasted nearly two decades: between 1960 and 1977, 44 African states gained independence from European colonial governments.

However, despite this awe-inspiring era of decolonization and self-determination, today, more than 60 years later the Sahrawi people continue under colonial rule and Western Sahara maintains the moniker of “Africa’s last colony.” The United Nations (UN) has many mechanisms tasked with monitoring non-self-governing territories (NSGTs) and mitigating the colonial practice of violating peoples’ fundamental right to self-determination. Western Sahara, and its colonial occupier Morocco, are subject to the mandates of the UN Charter, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, all of which recognize the right to self-determination; the Special Committee on Decolonization which monitors and gives recommendations on NSGTs; the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) which was established to facilitate a transition to Sahrawi self-determination; and the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara tasked with “achiev[ing] a mutually acceptable political solution.” The African Union recognizes Western Sahara’s statehood – a decision which led Morocco to leave the Union for more than three decades – and its Charter, which is ratified by Western Sahara but not by Morocco, also grants all peoples “the unquestionable and inalienable right to self-determination.” Yet, even under the attention of so many UN and regional bodies and mechanisms, Western Sahara remains an NSGT. This begs the question of whether or not the UN, regardless of previous impact, is really an effective tool for modern decolonization.

When Spain conceded control of Western Sahara in 1976, the country and its people were subject to a power struggle between Algeria, Morocco, and the indigenous, pro-independence Polisario Front. After years of conflict, the territory was effectively under Moroccan control and a ceasefire was established in 1991. At the same time, MINURSO was established, but the mechanism has had limited success and is one of the few UN missions that lacks a human rights monitoring component. Since then, all Sahrawis, and particularly Sahrawi human rights defenders who speak out against Morocco’s illegal occupation, have been subject to systematic human rights abuses, including the violation of the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.

The plight of Western Sahara is proof that the UN no longer has the same efficacy in fostering decolonization as it did in the decades following its establishment. In recent years, the phrase “decolonize decolonization” has made headlines and hashtags in recognition of the reality that colonial structures are inadequate tools in the struggle for decolonization. In the words of writer Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Whether or not the UN is a master’s tool, or even the master’s house itself, is debatable, and a debate which won’t be held here. However, the evolution of modern decolonization movements around the world to be more human centered and grassroots has taught us of the absolute necessity of decentering bureaucratic mechanisms in favor of following the lead of those most affected.

Indigenous peoples from across the globe advocated before the UN for over two decades to ensure their rights were correctly outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), making them the first group of people to actively participate in the establishment of their own international legal rights. For almost two decades, thousands of Indigenous Brazilians have annually gathered and protested in Brasilia to ensure the protection of their sacred lands; Maasai people in Tanzania are protesting the leasing of their ancestral lands and have commenced legal proceedings before the East African Court of Justice; Palestinian families are standing up to corrupt courts as Israeli authorities evict them from their homes. And Sahrawis are doing the same, facing harassment, arbitrary detention, and the threat of death in the struggle for their freedom and the decolonization of their country. It is the responsibility of civil society around the world, particularly those who benefit from the privileges of former and current colonizing powers, to support the peaceful efforts of Sahrawis and other colonized peoples, both within the framework of the UN and similar institutions, and through more grassroots advocacy.

In November, Morocco’s compliance with human rights obligations will be examined by the UN Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review. Sahrawi organizations ISACOM and Nushatta Foundation, along with Right Livelihood, and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights have submitted a report detailing human rights abuses by the Moroccan State and calling for the end to Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara. ISACOM and the Nushatta Foundation are Sahrawi organizations that face daily State-imposed challenges in their struggle for human rights and self-determination, and the very least we can do to support them is follow and share their work.

It is all of our responsibility to use all the tools at our disposal, both grassroots and institutional, to work toward the full decolonization of Africa and the world.