Western Sahara

Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963, when it was a Spanish colony.  The Western Sahara boasts phosphate-rich fishing water and is believed to have offshore oil deposits. Morocco has controlled most of the territory since 1975, but this has been controversial. Western Sahara fell under Spanish rule in 1884. When the Spanish left, both Western Sahara’s neighbors claimed the territory – Morocco from the north and Mauritania from the south. On the one hand, Morocco claims Western Sahara as part of its sovereign territory, which had been unjustly severed by Franco- Spanish colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

On the other hand, Western Saharan nationalists, led by the Polisario, claim the right to independence through self-determination, which has been the dominant UN framework on the issue since the 1960s.  Indeed a landmark opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1975 upheld Western Sahara’s right to a referendum on self-determination. The Hague’s opinion, however, had the effect of prompting a Moroccan invasion before Spain could organize a vote. Madrid eventually gave in to Morocco, an act that prompted Algeria to throw its weight behind the Polisario. At the regional level. The Western Sahara dispute then became one side of an interlocking conflict between Morocco and Algeria.

The same year as the ICJ ruling, King Hassan II of Morocco ordered a “Green March” of over 300,000 Moroccans into the territory. Spain backed down and negotiated a settlement with Morocco and Mauritania, known as the Madrid Agreement. Signed on 14 November 1975, the deal partitioned the region. Morocco acquired two-thirds in the north and Mauritania the remaining third in the south. Spain also agreed to end colonial rule.

An estimated 200,000 Saharawi refugees who fled during the Green March are still housed in desolate refugee camps in the Algerian desert. While Algeria maintains no territorial claim on Western Sahara, it has consistently supported Polisario’s drive for self-determination diplomatically, militarily, financially and morally. With only slight aberrations in its Western Sahara policy, Algeria’s positions in the Western Sahara conflict will likely to continue to hold the same general shape it has had for over thirty years.

Despite aid from the United Nations, conditions in the camps are abject with widespread health problems including hepatitis B, anemia and meningitis. A 2008 survey by the World Health Organization suggested that one in five children in the camps suffers from acute malnutrition.  Within occupied Western Sahara, the Saharawi population claim that they face discrimination and human rights abuses. International organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have raised serious concerns over violations of human rights in the territory and a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch found that Morocco had violated the rights of expression, association, and assembly in Western Sahara

In April 1991 the UN established Minurso, the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara. The program was to implement a peace plan outlined in a 1990 Security Council resolution. In September 1991, however, a UN-brokered ceasefire was declared. While the ceasefire held, the mission was never fully deployed and the proposed referendum in 1992 never held. In May 1996 the UN suspended the identification process and recalled most Minurso civilian staff.

A second round of informal talks between Moroccan government and the POLISARIO, conducted under UN auspices and in the presence of Algeria and Mauritania, was held on 10-11 February 2010. Announced as a preliminary, informal meeting, these discussions followed four sessions of direct talks, which began in June 2007.  However, no tangible results were produced after the series of talks.

The Western Sahara conflict is approaching its 35th year. The question has poisoned relations between Algeria, the main sponsor of Western Saharan self-determination, and Morocco, which claims the territory. The land border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed since August 1994.  This has seriously affected economic life and trade in the region, which in turn has had a significant impact on the development of the region. Economic exchange between the Maghreb states represents only 1.3% of their trade, the lowest regional trade in the world.  The dispute has also had international effects as relations between France and Algeria, Spain and Morocco, Spain and Algeria, and the U.S. and France have all been affected.

Agaila Abba Hemeida

Summer 2011 Maghreb Center Intern



BBC . BBC, 9 Nov. Web. 12 July 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/country_profiles/3466917.stm&gt;.

Mundy, Jacob. “Algeria and the Western Sahara Dispute.” The Maghreb Center Journal 1 (2010): 1-14. Print.

Simanowitz, Stefan, and Ken Loach. Independent. Independent, 17 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 July 2011. <http://www.independent.com.mt/news.asp?newsitemid=113889&gt;.

Zoubir, Yahia. Concerned Africa Scholars. Concerned African Scholars, June 2010. Web. 12 July 2011. <http://concernedafricascholars.org/bulletin/85/zoubir/&gt;.

Zunes,Stephen and Jacob Mundy. Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010.

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