Jerusalem — How the UN chief waded into a forgotten conflict with no end in sight
Of all of the world's forgotten conflicts (and there are plenty), that of Western Sahara, with its refugees tucked away in a remote desert, ranks as one of the most consigned to oblivion.
But last month, the world's top diplomat, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, brought the issue to temporary attention with a rather undiplomatic move. After visiting part of the disputed territory, which is claimed by both Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, he called Morocco's presence there an "occupation."
What counts as chaos in the land of diplomacy ensued: Morocco angrily ordered civilian members of a UN peacekeeping force out; there were meetings in the UN Security Council that amounted to little and no joint expression of support for the secretary-general; and finally a spokesman tried to walk back Ban's comments, saying it had all been a "misunderstanding" born of his "spontaneous, personal reaction" to the situation of the Sahrawi refugees.
"Without meaning to do so, Ban has awoken a sleeping dog," Marina Ottoway, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank, said of the secretary-general's actions.
But does that mean there could finally be progress in resolving one of the world's most intractable conflicts, one that has rumbled on largely unnoticed for more than 40 years?
Here's a look at the long-neglected Western Sahara dispute and the Sahrawi refugees stuck in the middle.
What is Western Sahara?
Western Sahara's 266,000 square kilometres formed a Spanish colony from the late 19th century until the mid-1970s. Morocco claims the territory as its own, but no country officially recognises its sovereignty and it is countered by the Polisario Front, which has a government-in-exile in Algeria and the backing of many of the indigenous Sahrawi people.
When Spain washed its hands of the area in 1975, a war between Morocco and the Polisarios ensued. In the 1980s, Morocco built a 1,500-kilometre long wall through the territory, placing 82 percent on its side and separating many families.
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