The simmering 46-year-old conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, a Northwest African area of around 252,120 km2 (some 97,000 sq. miles), has recently taken an ominous turn after decades of stalemate. In mid-November 2020, the Polisario Front, a movement seeking independence for the territory, declared an end to a 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire agreement and a return to armed struggle against Moroccan forces that had entered the Guerguerat coastal border point with Mauritania—a UN-patrolled buffer zone—in contravention of the 1991 deal. Rabat sought to disperse unarmed Sahrawi protesters blocking the crossing point linking Morocco to Sub-Saharan Africa. In reaction, the Polisario Front declared that the clash was no longer about protests but about a complete Moroccan withdrawal from Western Sahara.
A Short History of the Western Sahara Conflict
Formerly a Spanish colony, the territory of Western Sahara was invaded and occupied by Moroccan and Mauritanian troops in 1975 following what has come to be known as the Madrid Accords, when Spain unilaterally withdrew from its colony. Through this act, both countries violated the 1975 International Court of Justice (ICJ) declaration that neither Morocco nor Mauritania have territorial sovereignty over the Western Sahara. The United Nations did not recognize the Madrid Accords, and a 2002 opinion of the UN Office of Legal Affairs made clear that colonizing powers cannot simply hand over the keys of one country to another. In 1976, the Polisario Front, recognized by the United Nations as the only legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, announced (from exile in Algeria) the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as an independent state.
In 1976, the Polisario Front announced (from exile in Algeria) the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as an independent state.
In 1979, Mauritania signed a peace treaty with the Polisario Front, withdrew from occupied Western Sahara, and recognized the SADR. Morocco then annexed the Mauritanian portion of the territory that had been ceded by Spain. To prevent further attacks, Morocco’s armed forces eventually built a heavily mined and patrolled 2,700-kilometer berm, one of the largest military infrastructure projects in the world. By the time of the cease-fire in 1991, Morocco had asserted its control over more than two-thirds of Western Sahara in its western part along the Atlantic Ocean. The United Nations promised a referendum on the status of the territory, including the options of independence, autonomy, or integration with Morocco. The referendum was to be organized and conducted by the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), but it has yet to take place. The planned referendum has been repeatedly delayed due to a dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front over who is eligible to vote on the status of the territory.
Polisario Front Returns to Active Resistance
Dissatisfied with decades of political stalemate and gridlock, the Polisario Front decided to return to active resistance after the Guerguerat incident in 2020. Since the Polisario Front is aware of the disparity of military power, one can deduce that its armed escalation is a tactical move rather than a concrete solution to end the occupation. Its aim is to exert pressure to push for a change in political course by bringing about renewed international attention to the forgotten cause and ending popular frustration.
Sahrawis have grown deeply frustrated by the lack of movement on their quest for national self-determination and Morocco’s impeding the referendum and exploitation of the territory’s natural resources.
Sahrawis have grown deeply frustrated by the lack of movement on their quest for national self-determination and Morocco’s impeding the referendum and exploitation of the territory’s natural resources. Occupied Western Sahara holds under its sand some of the largest phosphate reserves. It provides access to rich fishing waters that run along its 690-mile shore and contains vast offshore oil and gas resources. In addition, Western Sahara is a target of western renewable energy companies such as Siemens and Enel. Ali Salem Tamek, the vice president of Codesa, a Sahrawi human rights collective, said that “Multinational companies are dividing our country’s natural resources without consulting or benefiting the Sahrawi people.” Indeed, systematic exploitation of these resources is seen by the Sahrawis as the underlying reason behind the Moroccan occupation.
Enter the Trump Administration
The state of affairs became more complicated after former US President Donald Trump’s unilateral recognition of Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara in December 2020, in a quid pro quo for Morocco’s normalization with Israel (and in contravention of international law). Trump’s proclamation was promptly rejected by the United Nations, the European Union, and the African Union (AU), pitting the United States against most of the world on this issue. The Polisario’s armed escalation, coupled with Trump’s decision, have returned the Sahrawi issue to international attention.
Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s claim—which President Joe Biden has yet to reverse—violates international law and all UN resolutions that affirm Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. Such a unilateral recognition has no impact if the EU and Morocco’s close neighbors, Spain and Algeria, reject it, which they did. Algeria attempted to lobby the Biden Administration to reverse Trump’s recognition, and Spain and Germany coordinated with European countries to prevent the EU from following the US move. Germany’s firm position on the issue caused a diplomatic spat with Morocco and resulted in Rabat’s suspension of diplomatic ties with Berlin.
Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s claim—which President Joe Biden has yet to reverse—violates international law and all UN resolutions that affirm Western Sahara’s right to self-determination.
The United Nations continues to list Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory awaiting decolonization—an international legal status enshrined in the UN General Assembly’s 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. It also reminds that self-determination of peoples is protected in the United Nations Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a right of “all peoples.”
Morocco and Western Sahara
Morocco considers Western Shahara an integral part of its territory and sovereignty due to historical ties. The ICJ recognized those ties but adjudicated that this does not amount to ownership over the territory. Nevertheless, Morocco continues to insist that it has the full right to defend its territorial integrity and its sovereignty over the Western Sahara. On this basis, Morocco has dismissed Sahrawi calls for independence and has insisted only on offering Sahrawis autonomy, a plan that dates back to 2007 and has the support of the United States and France. Doubting the level of the promised autonomy, considering Morocco’s long history of highly centralized government, the Polisario Front promptly rejected the plan and insisted on full independence for the Sahrawis.
In this context, the long-awaited US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory exhilarated Moroccans. It also emboldened the monarchy to take a more forceful approach with the European Union to follow suit with the United States. In January, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said that the EU should leave its “comfort zone” and “back Rabat’s offer of Western Saharan autonomy within the Moroccan state.” As if to exert some pressure on the EU, Morocco recently allowed some 12,000 people to cross its border with Spain’s Ceuta enclave, considered Europe’s southern boundary. Those included 2,000 unaccompanied children, prompting the EU and Amnesty International to accuse Morocco of putting migrant children’s lives at risk to pressure Spain, Morocco’s biggest trading partner, and the rest of the EU countries in order for them to recognize its sovereignty over Western Sahara. In April, Spain had admitted Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, to a Spanish hospital on humanitarian grounds to be treated for COVID-19, an act Morocco was not shy about using as an excuse for its dangerous play in Ceuta.
The African Union and Western Sahara
The African Union, of which SADR is a founding member, backs the right of Sahrawis to self-determination. After Trump’s move, the AU emphasized the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi People and the decolonization of the territory while urging Morocco to respect colonial borders, as they existed at the time of independence, as enshrined in article 4 (b) of the AU Constitutive Act. At its 547th meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in March, the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) urged the UN Security Council to fully assume its responsibilities and “take all necessary measures to rapidly resolve the Western Sahara conflict.” In other meetings, the PSC also decided to actively reengage in the search for a political solution of the long-standing conflict by reopening their office in Laayoune, in Western Sahara, and arranging a field visit to the territory to gather firsthand information on the developing situation.
Despite the AU’s firm position on the decolonization of Western Sahara and its commitment to the rights of Sahrawis to self-determination, Morocco has been able to achieve some gains with several African countries.
Still, despite the AU’s firm position on the decolonization of Western Sahara and its commitment to the rights of Sahrawis to self-determination, Morocco has been able to achieve some gains with several African countries in convincing them to open consulates in the occupied Western Saharan cities of Dakhla and Laayoune. This is an implicit acknowledgment by these countries of Morocco’s claims to the territory. The PSC of the AU called on the UN Secretary General to request the UN legal counsel to provide a legal opinion on the opening of consulates in the non-self-governing territory of Western Sahara. Those achievements came as a result of Morocco’s rejoining the AU in 2017 after a 33-year absence in protest of the African Union’s recognition of SADR as a member state. Morocco realized that its isolation in the African continent did not help in attaining its goal in legitimizing its claim over Western Sahara. Morocco has been expanding its political and economic footprint on the continent to achieve more support.
Algeria’s Support of the Polisario Front
Algeria, the Polisario’s main backer and unwavering supporter, has undermined Morocco’s drive to completely bring Western Sahara under its sovereignty. Algeria gave some limited support to the Polisario when it was founded in 1973 to fight for independence against Spain’s colonial rule. It was not until Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara in 1975 that Algeria threw its full weight behind the Polisario. The Moroccan-Algerian rivalry predates the issue of Western Sahara; in fact, the two countries were involved in 1963 in a border war, dubbed as the Sand War, over the areas of Tindouf and Bechar, precipitating a geopolitical rivalry and distrust between the two Maghrebi powers. Cold war geopolitics further exacerbated these tensions and divisions since Algeria aligned itself with the Soviet bloc and anti-colonial camp and the conservative Moroccan monarchy allied with the West.
To this day, Algeria promotes itself as a champion of the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. In his recent interview[i] with Al Jazeera, the president of Algeria, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, unequivocally reasserted that Algeria’s “firm” position on the Western Sahara issue has not changed and that Algeria will not accept the fait accompli that Morocco is trying to impose in the last African colony. He also reminded Morocco of Algeria’s military superiority. It is noteworthy that Algeria and Morocco are competing for domination over the Maghreb region and the Western Sahara issue is key to achieving that objective.
The Western Sahara Is the World’s Responsibility
The collapse of the 30-year UN-brokered cease-fire in Western Sahara and the escalation that followed came as a result of the United Nations’ failure to implement the referendum, thus ushering in a three-decade political stagnation of the situation on the ground. This means that the organization as well as the EU should actively work toward resolving the long-standing conflict. Diplomatic inaction has been compounded by the absence of a UN personal envoy; it has been over two years since the most recent appointee, Horst Köhler, resigned in May 2019. It is urgent to appoint a new envoy to ensure a durable and mutually acceptable political solution that will allow the self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara. Amnesty International (AI) is urging the UN Security Council to strengthen MINURSO, the UN peacemaking mission, to carry out the referendum in Western Sahara. AI requested from the UN to add a human rights component to its next mandate due to the lack of independent organizations and journalists to monitor human rights abuses in the territory, since they are denied access by Moroccan authorities.
Amnesty International is also requesting the same for the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria for further human rights monitoring. While the Moroccan authorities have denied access to independent human rights groups, the Polisario Front has allowed them to monitor the camps and appears to have posed no obstacles to visits by Human Rights Watch (HRW), as stated in the 2014 HRW report of a two-week research mission to the camps in late 2013. In addition, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has an office in Tindouf camps to safeguard the rights of Sahrawi refugees.
In March 2021, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International exposed the heavy police surveillance outside the house of the Sahrawi human rights and pro-independence activist, Sultana Khaya, since November 19, 2020. Khaya and several members of her family have been held under house arrest. With videos as documentation, the two human rights organizations exposed the abuse to which she and her family were subjected by Moroccan security forces. By the same token, forces of the SADR under the Polisario’s command have also arrested activists and critics and accused them of treason. To be sure, the Western Sahara issue is not only a national liberation struggle but also a rights concern for the international community.
Despite its recent diplomatic gains, Morocco has so far failed to decisively advance the Western Sahara dossier in its favor. The Western Sahara remains the last colony in Africa that requires decolonization. Solving the conflict should be under the auspices of the United Nations. It would safeguard the North African region from further turmoil and destabilization and help protect Europe’s southern border. Indeed, any violation of international law in the Western Sahara would lead to drastic consequences globally.
Houda Chograni is a Tunisian writer and activist.
* Photo Credit: Flickr/United Nations
i Source is in Arabic.