The Uncertain Future of a Nation: What Will Become of Western Sahara?

The Sahrawi have been under the occupation of Spain and now Morocco. The purpose of the UN involvement in Western Sahara was to establish a referendum for the people of Western Sahara to choose whether they wanted independence, or to be under Spanish rule. Instead of holding a referendum, Spain handed over the territory to Morocco. The UN created the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, abbreviated MINURSO after the French name, for over thirty years.  MINURSO’s mission was to monitor the ceasefire and oversee a referendum on the status of the Sahrawi people and the system of government to take place. During the past thirty years, the UN has provided support for the referendum by determining voter eligibility and registration, and by monitoring the ceasefire to prevent a war between the two parties claiming control over Western Sahara. The UN has also facilitated informal negotiations between Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO, which have had little success in resolving the conflict. Several countries have formally recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as an independent nation. However, almost half of those countries have also frozen or withdrawn their recognition.

Negotiations Between Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO

The United Nations Mission for the Referendum on the Status of Western Sahara (MINURSO) was created with the purpose of monitoring the ceasefire between Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO and to set up a referendum through which the Sahrawi could determine whether they would have autonomy under Morocco, or independence as the SADR. The mandate was made in 1991 through Security Council Resolution 690. The mandate has been renewed annually, with the most recent Resolution 2044 unanimously passed in the Security Council to renew the mandate until April 2013. This mandate has been criticized along with the previous mandates for failing to establish a referendum. However, voter eligibility remains one of the key points of contention between the parties.

The Resolution does little to encourage constructive negotiations between the two parties, and merely calls upon the parties to cooperate with the Secretary-General in negotiations. This resolution also calls upon the parties to reach a resolution that will provide for a lasting solution and self-determination consistent with the principles of the UN Charter.

The original MINURSO mandate was to last approximately thirty-six weeks after it was implemented, and end with the results of the referendum on self-determination. MINURSO headquarters was established in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara in the North, within the territory currently occupied by Morocco. In the beginning, Morocco did not recognize the Frente POLISARIO as a legitimate independent party to the negotiations. Increasing recognition of the SADR, represented by the Frente POLISARIO made it difficult for Morocco to deny the legitimacy of their opposing party and Morocco eventually agreed to negotiate with the Frente POLISARIO.

The International Community: Recognition and Relations

The Frente POLISARIO declared Western Sahara to be the SADR in 1976. The Sahrawi Constitution was most recently ratified in 2007, and establishes a three-branch government, with executive, legislative and judicial branches. The executive branch consists of a president and 18 government ministries, and the legislative branch has a 53-member parliament. The judicial branch applies a mixture of Islamic and western law. Elections for Parliament are by universal suffrage for anyone over the age of 18. The President is automatically named the Secretary General of the Frente POLISARIO. 

The SADR was admitted to the Organization of African States (OAU), the predecessor to the current African Union, in 1982. This led to Morocco leaving the OAU in 1984. Since Algeria’s recognition of SADR in 1976, over 80 countries have recognized SADR’s sovereignty, although approximately 35 countries have since withdrawn their recognition. The countries that have recognized SADR are predominately located in Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. India withdrew its recognition of SADR in 2000.

Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, France is Morocco’s strongest ally with respect to the conflict over Western Sahara. France has supplied Morocco with material support including weapons and airplanes, and has consistently fought against the addition of human rights monitoring into MINURSO’s mandate.
The United States, also a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has never officially taken a position on the conflict. Morocco’s proposal that Western Sahara be semi-autonomous was found to be a “serious and credible proposal” by both the U.S. and France.  The U.S. policy has been supported by three presidential administrations, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and now Barack Obama.  French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe stated that the Moroccan proposal was the only realistic proposal and was a basis for a solution. Both Juppe and Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, have praised Morocco for their advancing human rights reform in the region. 


There are over 100 UN resolutions and a decision from the ICJ that support the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination, yet Morocco is still able to claim that they are the rightful rulers of Western Sahara. Clearly, Morocco is intentionally trying to stall the referendum for fear that the Sahrawi people will vote to be independent and Morocco will lose the natural resources from the land.

The position-based negotiations between Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO hinder the future of negotiations and the resolution of a peaceful settlement.
Christopher Ross, Personal Envoy of the Secretary General, stated in an interview that the cost of continued failed negotiations includes:

possible renewal of military hostilities, the possible outbreak of popular unrest, and the possible recruitment of frustrated young and unemployed Sahrawis into terrorist or criminal groups. The costs include the humanitarian plight of the refugees, increasing questions about human rights, the expense of maintaining significant military forces, and an inability to plan for the use of the natural resources of Western Sahara in a proper way.

In order for there to be a proper resolution of this conflict, both parties must agree to hold a referendum, where all Sahrawis and only Sahrawis can participate. Only then will the Sahrawi people get the justice they deserve.