The Fight Over Western Sahara: The Issue of Decolonization

In 1960, the United Nations General Assembly issued the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (commonly referred to as the “Declaration on Decolonization”), declaring,

The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights…. All peoples have the right to self-determination…. [Peoples shall] exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence, and the integrity of their national territory shall be respected…. Immediate steps shall be taken…to transfer all powers to the peoples…without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire…. Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations. All States shall observe faithfully and strictly the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the present Declaration on the basis of equality, non-interference in the internal affairs of all States, and respect for the sovereign rights of all peoples and their territorial integrity. General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) December 14,1960.

This led to the decolonization of many territories subject to the control of European countries. While the Declaration on Decolonization called for “immediate steps,” decolonization is far from being a thing of the past. The territory of Western Sahara is host to the last unresolved issue of decolonization in Africa. The right of self-determination is a principle that is frequently discussed in international law. The principle of self-determination in international law is not clearly defined. For the purpose of this article, the term self-determination will be used to mean the rights of a people to determine their own government and be free of the imposition of rule by another state’s government. The right to self-determination is a legal concept that is supported in the United Nations Charter (hereinafter “UN Charter”), the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and various international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights .

The United Nations Security Council created a peacekeeping mandate for Western Sahara in 1981. The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was created for the purpose of “monitoring the ceasefire, facilitating the exchange of prisoners of war, aiding the repatriation of refugees, identifying and registering qualified voters and eventually organizing and ensuring a free and fair referendum.”  MINURSO was intended to start with a ceasefire and end with the results of the referendum. On April 24, 2012, the Security Council unanimously voted to renew the Mandate of the MINURSO in Resolution 2044. Thirty years after the initial mandate, the referendum for the determination of control over Western Sahara has yet to take place. This raises several issues, including what role the United Nations and the international community has played in the decolonization of Western Sahara, and the future for the territory.

The Land and People
Encompassing an area of over nine million square kilometers, and spanning almost all of northern Africa, the Sahara is the largest tropical and climatic desert in the world. The Sahara is host to the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, and the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Western Sahara is a small coastal territory in the northwest, bordered by Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. Approximately 522,000 people live in the 266,000 square kilometer stretch of land. The dispute over the sovereignty of the Sahrawi people has persisted since the withdrawal of Spain in 1974.

The indigenous peoples of Western Sahara, the Sahrawi—literally “people of the Desert” in Arabic, are nomadic in nature. Prior to Spanish colonization, the Sahrawi traveled from central Mauritania to southern Morocco and eastern Algeria. Ethnically, the Sahrawi are a mixture of Berber, Arab and Black African descent. They speak Hassaniya, a dialect of Arabic and practice Sunni Islam. While tribal affiliation is no longer as important as in the past, the Sahrawi come from twenty-two different tribes. Many Sahrawi are more sedentary than their ancestors. When Spain colonized Western Sahara, they established schools and inexpensive housing near the mines to encourage the Sahrawi to settle near and work in the mines. This was the beginning of the Sahrawi national identity, an identity that further developed under Moroccan rule.

The territory of Western Sahara is predominately low, flat desert with small, rocky mountains in the south and northeast. The climate is hot and dry, water is sparse, and less than one percent of the land is arable. Because of this, fishing is a major source of industry and food. Phosphorus and iron ore are the most important natural resources in Western Sahara. Morocco controls the entire coastline, and has signed an agreement with the European Union (EU) to allow EU members to fish off the coast of Western Sahara.

The Conflict over Western Sahara
Western Sahara is a non-self-governing territory  under the control of Morocco. The Sahrawi are represented by the Frente Popular Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (“Frente POLISARIO”). The Frente POLISARIO declared Western Sahara to be the independent state of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or SADR, in 1976. The SADR is recognized by a handful of countries and the African Union—formerly the Organization of African Unity (OAU). This recognition led to Morocco’s withdrawal from the OAU in 1984.

Morocco has claimed the right over Western Sahara since it was a Spanish colony. After the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Declaration Granting Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, Spain attempted to hold a referendum, on self-determination in 1974. Before this was possible, Morocco and Mauritania persuaded the UN General Assembly to solicit the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion on their respective claims over the territory. The ICJ held that any legal ties that Morocco or Mauritania had to tribes in Western Sahara did not establish territorial soverignty over the land. The ICJ held that any ties the two countries had with Western Sahara would no affect the decolonization of Western Sahara.

Despite the ICJ’s opinion, King Hassan II of Morocco announced that the ICJ had supported Morocco’s claims over the territory and took control over Western Sahara when the Spanish ceded administrative control in 1976. Morocco secured its claim over the northern two-thirds of the land by settling 350,000 Moroccan civilians in a move known as the “Green March” in 1975. During this time, Mauritania occupied the remainder of the territory. Shortly after, the Frente POLISARIO engaged in guerilla warfare against both Morocco and Mauritania. Bombardments of Sahrawi cities by Morocco forced tens of thousands of refugees into Algeria. The Frente POLISARIO suceeded in ousting Mauritania from the territory and signed a peace agreement on August 5, 1979 in which Mauritania renounced all territorial claims.

After the OAU’s summit in Nairobi in 1981, a resolution regarding the implementation of a resolution was established in conjunction with the UN. An immediate ceasefire was to be put in place with a joint enforecment provided by the OAU and the UN. The 1991 UN Security Council passed Resolution 690, establishing the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire and organize a referendum. The purpose of the referendum was to determine the future of Western Sahara as either an independent country or a permanent part of Morocco.

MINURSO’s mission was never fully deployed. While MINURSO has monitored the ceasefire since the operation began, the referendum has never been held. The biggest impediment to the referendum was the question of who was eligible to vote. Between May 1993 and May 1996, MINURSO’s Identification Committee processed potential voters. Voter eligibility was to be based on the 1974 census conducted by Spain before ceding Western Sahara to Morocco, and before the Green March. King Hassan of Morocco submitted 120,000 names of voters that were not included in the 1974 census. Before completing the identification process, the UN suspended the committee and withdrew most of the MINURSO civilian staff.

In an attempt to reach a compromise, UN Special Envoy James Baker proposed a “Framework Agreement” in 2001. This would provide autonomy for the Sahrawi people under Moroccan soverignty during a four-year transition period followed by a referendum. After this proposal was rejected by the Frente POLISARIO, Baker proposed a new resolution where Western Sahara would be a semi-autonomous region of Morocco during a transition period. This time Morocco was the one to object.

Negotiations between Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO have been ongoing and unproductive. While the OAU and several states recognize the SADR as a state, Morocco insists that the Frente POLISARIO is not a legitimate party to the negotiations. After several unsuccessful attempts at negotiations, Christopher Ross, the Secretary General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara suggested informal preparatory meetings in 2009 before holding the fifth round of  negotiations.

Moving Forward
The long-standing struggle of the Sahrawi over their independence has raised several issues that require attention. While Morocco is governing the territory, the Sahrawi are being denied their right to self-determination, an established principle of international law, as well as their right to use their natural resources. The future of the territory is uncertain, with negotiations between Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO gaining little momentum, and the lack of involvement of the international community or the UN. This three-part series will continue with an examination of the rights of the Sahrawi over their self-determination and natural resources, an evaluation of Morocco’s claim over the territory, and an evaluation of the negotiations for the future of the territory.