The photo above is courtesy War on Want.
All territorial disputes, at some level, are silly. Someone is either being a greedy aggressor, or both sides are being obstinate or possibly all of the above. But what has always struck me as one of the silliest disputes of the 20th century has been the battle over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara.
Spain got a hold of the west African territory in 1884 as part of the Berlin Conference which divvied up the continent between various European powers. Spanish control unravelled following the Second World War and the Spanish government eventually abandoned the colony in 1976, going so far as to repatriate Spanish corpses from the territory’s cemeteries.
This is where things get a little weird. Three African countries have had some influence on the state of Western Sahara since the Spanish departure. Morocco and Mauritania both argued that Spanish Sahara had been artificially carved out of the continent, and that the territory should be divided between them. Algeria viewed these demands suspiciously, and eventually backed an organization called the Polisario Front, who represented the local Sahrawi people in demanding full independence. Eventually, as a result of a tripartite agreement, Spain agreed to allow Morocco to claim the northern two-thirds of the country with Mauritania taking the southern third.
The result was a guerilla war. Mauritania eventually gave up its claim on the southern third of the territory, but Morocco tightened its control, moving into Mauritania’s claim and displacing tens of thousands of Sahrawi with Moroccans. Morocco has proven far too strong for Polisario to defeat, meaning that the territory is de facto Morocco’s. Polisario maintains a kind of a David versus Goliath chic in this battle, except that they haven’t made much progress in over thirty years. In the 1980s, Morocco built the Berm, a 2,500 km sand wall which effectively closes off much of the territory. Polisrio sits on the other side of it, in the sparsely populated eastern and southern corners of the country, and calls their territory “the Free Zone”.
And what are they fighting for? “(This) territory of northwestern Africa… is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands” Taken on its own, this quote from Wikipedia oversimplifies things, as there are phosphate deposits and a slight possibility of oil reserves, but from the ivory tower in which I sit, I still have to wonder: what’s the point?
There has been a ceasefire since 1991 (overseen by UN peacekeeping forces), and many promises of referendums that have gone unfulfilled. Over 102,000 Sahrawi refugees are housed in neighbouring Algeria (the country itself has a population of just 382,617). Despite these continuing problems and setbacks, the battle between Morocco and Polisario has now gone to politics, with various skirmishes fought in the media and on the Internet. And, earlier this year, there was even a battle for the Internet.
This brings me to the reason for my post.
Trawling through Wikipedia’s set of articles on country code top level domains, reading up on such strange domains as .aq (Antarctica) and .pm (St. Pierre and Miquelon), I see that there are still three reserved but unassigned top level domains and, recently, the Morocco/Polisario dispute has flared up here.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers wisely follows the practise set up in the early days of the World Wide Web of applying country code top level domains according to their presence on the ISO 3166 list, set up by the International Organization for Standardization to facilitate mail delivery. Western Sahara is on the list as EH (deriving somehow from “S√°hara Espa√±ol”, or ESH in the three letter variant of the ISO code list), and so it’s entitled to the top level domain of .eh. No muss, no fuss, and no nasty political discussions at ICANN about what constitutes a country, right?
But in November 2006, Polisario put together a proposal to administer the .eh domain name. Morocco quickly responded by putting in a proposal of its own.
“Since November 2006, we’ve answered all ICANN’s requests for clarification or further information,” Saharawi MINURSO coordinator and POLISARIO executive Mhamed Khadad told Domaines.info in an exclusive interview. “We’ve talked to both IANA staff and members of the ICANN board and .EH has been discussed at two board meetings, in January and April 2007. We also sponsored the San Juan ICANN meeting to show the Internet community the effort going into the .EH delegation project. And now we are told that Morocco has put in a request. It is obvious Morocco’s real intention in also requesting the .EH domain is to block the delegation process.”
“The Western Sahara territory is administered by Morocco,” Moroccan national telecommunications regulator ANRT’s Hamida BENLEMLIH told Domaines.Info when questioned on the Moroccan .EH claim. “ANRT has sent ICANN a request for delegation of .EH with the support of the Moroccan government, Western Sahara’s people (through several local organisations), civil society and the private sector. The aim of the request sent by ANRT to IANA is to consolidate the Saharawi people’s access to the Internet and to preserve their interests.”
This, of course, put ICANN in a quandary. It’s policy is to hand out the administration of various country code domains to those legitimate agencies best able to enhance Internet service to the affected territory. There is no doubt that Morocco has the resources to do this, but Western Sahara is still recognized as an independent entity by the United Nations and Morocco’s claim on Western Sahara is still questioned. Also Polisario has pointed to a non-profit foundation gathering a number of agencies outside the territory who can manage the .eh domain on their behalf.
It’s a simple question: one domain, two applications to administer. But what’s the right answer?
And, on October 16, ICANN made its decision:
“there are currently two applicants for the delegation of the country code top-level domain (ccTLD) .EH (Western Sahara). Both requests meet the technical criteria for managing a top-level domain. In cases like this, IANA has a long-standing policy of requesting that the two contesting applicants work together to find a mutual solution that will serve the needs of the local Internet community in the best possible fashion. ICANN does not see a way to approve the .EH ccTLD delegation to one of the applicants without violating its long-standing policy unless the contesting parties are able to reach an agreement.”
The poor guys at ICANN. You can almost hear their silent prayers to get this file off their desk as quickly as possible. They’re technological regulators, not diplomatic negotiators. Basically, they’re saying, “we can’t decide between the two of you. We really don’t want the headache. Perhaps you can go off and solve your longstanding dispute that has so far resisted settlement after thirty-one years and come back to us then? Good luck!” I can certainly see where they’re coming from, but I can’t help but chuckle at the obvious wariness of these bureaucrats whose usually calm jobs have suddenly taken them out of their depths.
Mind you, maybe this will help. Certain countries have made a mint selling domains within their country code on the open market, from Tuvalu (.tv) to the Federated States of Micronesia (.fm) to Armenia (.am) to S√£o Tom√© and Pr√≠ncipe (.st). I think there might be money to be had if .eh domain names were for sale. I suspect a large number of Canadians would be lining up for “eh” domain names for their websites. So in addition to the phosphates and the unproven oil reserves, we have a small chunk of change that could be developed, if only both sides could finally come to some sort of agreement.
So, how about it guys? You’ve managed to keep the peace since 1991, after all.
Hey, stranger things have happened. And if it does, then the Internet will certainly have earned its keep.
Notable Top Level Domains
- .um: For the United States Minor Outlying Islands. This top level domain is administered by the University of Southern California. It’s largely defunct and was almost retired, as the University wanted to divest itself of this responsibility. However, an independent company appears to have taken over and while registrations are currently closed, the administrators are “accepting Registrar Accounts and taking expressions of interest”. I’d think “dot, um!” would be a popular enough domain to net a small fortune. Anybody want to buy themselves a country code?
- .bl: Currently unassigned, this may become the newest top-level domain to be assigned. This is for the French overseas territory of Saint Barth√©lemy. ICANN is started moving forward on this two months ago, following the territory’s recent separation from Guadaloupe.
- .so: Representing Somalia, and inactive while the civil war continues. Quoting Wikipedia: “Currently (as of September 19 2007), the .so zone lists three non-functional nameservers. ns1.granitecanyon.com which does not have data for the .so domain, ns2.granitecanyon which does not respond to any DNS request, and mercury.ml.org, which does not exist.”
- .su: For the former Soviet Union. Supposed to be phased out (according to current ICANN documents), but the registrar is accepting new .su domain registrations for $100 US (Further reading)
- .aq: Restricted to agencies and organizations with physical connections to Antarctica.
- .cs: The defunct domain for old Czechoslovakia — the most heavily used domain to be discontinued when the country split apart.