Can a Spanish heartthrob get anyone to pay attention to Western Sahara?

The Oscar-winning Spanish film star Javier Bardem visited Turtle Bay today to deliver a speech about Western Sahara before an obscure U.N. committee — the 4th committee — responsible for dealing with entities that seek to cast off the shackles of colonialism. The committee’s workload has largely been exhausted, however, as dozens of countries, particularly ...

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FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

The Oscar-winning Spanish film star Javier Bardem visited Turtle Bay today to deliver a speech about Western Sahara before an obscure U.N. committee -- the 4th committee -- responsible for dealing with entities that seek to cast off the shackles of colonialism.

The committee's workload has largely been exhausted, however, as dozens of countries, particularly in Africa, were recognized decades ago as independent U.N. member states.

The Oscar-winning Spanish film star Javier Bardem visited Turtle Bay today to deliver a speech about Western Sahara before an obscure U.N. committee — the 4th committee — responsible for dealing with entities that seek to cast off the shackles of colonialism.

The committee’s workload has largely been exhausted, however, as dozens of countries, particularly in Africa, were recognized decades ago as independent U.N. member states.

But Western Sahara — which was invaded by Morocco and Mauritania almost immediately after Spain hastily ended its dominion over the territory in 1975 — has largely fallen through the cracks. Spain, Bardem said, “left from the backdoor when Morocco was coming” through the front door.

But with the Arab Spring spreading democratic change across the region, Western Sahara’s hope for self-determination seems as “thoroughly stuck” as ever, Bardem told reporters at a press conference at the Millennium Hotel, across the street from U.N. headquarters.

For decades, the Sahrawi people have been trapped in a kind of legal limbo, offered the prospect of an independence referendum by the U.N. General Assembly, but blocked from actually pursuing their own state by Morocco and its powerful patrons, including France. A resolution of the dispute has been complicated by an ongoing dispute between Morocco and Algeria, which has provided financial and political backing for the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario, which is based in Algeria.

The former Spanish colony’s fate has gone largely unnoticed in the United States, but it has long attracted intense interest from Spanish human rights activists, who feel their country owes a historical debt to Western Sahara for abandoning them to Moroccan rule. (The Mauritanians ultimately left.)

Bardem said he was moved by a visit he had taken to a series of Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. He has spent the last two and a half years working on documentary film on the Sahrawis and helping to collect more than 230,000 Spanish signatures for a petition urging Madrid to help resolve the situation.

In his address, Bardem urged the United Nations to monitor the human rights situation in Western Sahara, pressed for the convening of an independence referendum that was promised to the Sahrawis decades ago, and sought to ensure that they don’t get entirely bypassed by Arab Spring.

“People have the right to speak and really be able to decide their own future,” he told reporters. “I feel very honored … to be able to speak at the United Nations. I heard that anybody can be a petitioner, no? So I’m one of them.”

Bardem faulted France, Spain, and the United States for turning a “blind eye” to human rights abuses against Sahawris and for helping Morocco block any action on an independence referendum at the United Nations, saying that they had placed their own economic and political relationships above their commitment to human rights. “They are claiming human rights for their own countries and for the rest of the world but they put a blind eye on Western Sahara,” he said. “It’s so obvious that it hurts.”

He may be a certified international movie icon, but Bardem says that his star power has done little to gain entry into inner circles within the Moroccan government, noting that Moroccan envoys in Spain and officials in Rabat have rejected his invitation to participate in the documentary film. But Bardem has formed a more friendly working partnership with the Polisario, soliciting help from the movement’s U.N. envoy in answering complex questions about Western Sahara.

In the end, Bardem says he’d rather focus less attention on “who are the bad guys and the good guys” in the Western Saharan dispute than in seeing that the various players “sit down and fix the situation” — so the Arab Spring doesn’t pass by the Sahrawis altogether.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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