Our Voices

Western Sahara Deserves a Place in Sports Activism

The past few months of African soccer have shown the world that Morocco has no qualms with blurring the lines between politics and soccer—particularly as it pertains to disputes over the self-determination of Western Sahara, a territory Morocco has illegally occupied since 1975, after Spain ended its colonial rule over the Sahrawi-owned area. Morocco and Algeria are on opposite sides of the dispute over Western Sahara due to the latter’s support of the Polisario Front and their fight for Sahrawi independence. And this rivalry has now come to a head in the midst of the ongoing African Nations Championship (CHAN) soccer tournament being held in Algeria. Morocco, the current title holder, has refused to attend unless they are allowed to fly to Algeria using Royal Moroccan Air.

The development comes in the wake of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar which might go down as the most politically charged mundial in modern history even trumping the 1938 competition which followed the outbreak of the Second World War. Unlike past tournaments in which certain games brought together two unfriendly nations and as such transcended sports to become an extension of their rivalry, most aspects of the Qatar World Cup have been associated with politics. Coming on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic, a global recession, protests in Iran and many drastic political shifts across the world, the World Cup has served as a unique insight into the awareness and priorities of the global public.

Beginning with the uproar about the rights of laborers building the World Cup stadium in Qatar, all the way through the collective jubilation at the defeat on the pitch of former colonial powers, it has been undeniably clear that people around the world are looking to this World Cup and its participants, not just as a sports competition, but as a symbol of broader political, social, and human rights issues. But throughout all of the awareness building, activism, protesting, and shows of solidarity, there has been a deafening silence from the international community on the plight of Western Sahara – Africa’s last remaining colony. Many do not even know how the country is relevant to the games. Yet, despite being a country without a national team, the human rights perspective of the 2022 World Cup is incomplete without Western Sahara.

As the games progressed, Morocco, in particular, received an outpouring of support for its representation of many groups often marginalized in the global sphere. Africans across the continent rejoiced when Morocco beat Spain becoming the fourth African team ever to make it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. This victory was soon overshadowed by the team’s subsequent defeat of Portugal earning Morocco a place in the semifinals of the competition – a feat never before achieved by an African country. Speaking about the victory, a Moroccan player described the win as one for the Arab world and all Muslims, and Coach Walid Regragui has said that the team “hope[s] to fly the flag of African football high.”

Furthermore, Morocco was hailed by egalitarians, anti-colonialists, and everyday people all over the world who have been quick to note the symbolism of an African country’s triumph over former colonial powers like Portugal and Spain. And Morocco’s team made even more headlines when they flew the Palestinian flag after their record breaking qualification for the semifinals of the competition, calling attention to the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. But the irony of Morocco’s advocacy for a #freePalestine—a just, valid, and necessary initiative—while remaining silent on their government’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara is not lost on Sahrawis and their supporters around the world.

Morocco’s continued occupation of Western Sahara is in violation of international law and infringes on the Sahrawi people’s human right to self-determination. Africa’s continental court recently denounced Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara noting that all countries, especially in Africa, have an obligation to assist the Sahrawi people in their struggle for self-determination. Furthermore, Morocco systematically targets Sahrawi activists and human rights defenders who speak out against the State by inhibiting their rights to freedom of expression, association, and movement, and regularly carrying out arbitrary detentions and torture. In fact, at the end of last year, Morocco underwent its Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council, during which several states pointed out Morocco’s human rights violations in Western Sahara and recommended that they cease immediately. So, with this in mind, it’s easy to see how Morocco’s World Cup team using their moment of international attention to call out colonial governments past and present while simultaneously staying silent about Western Sahara comes off as quite hypocritical.

The global attention on human rights during the recent World Cup is truly impressive and a hats off moment to the international community. However, it’s important that we shine a light beyond the “mainstream struggles.” The Sahrawi people are entitled to govern themselves and rule their own land. In this moment of global solidarity, it is absolutely necessary that we include Western Sahara in our calls for justice and human rights.