Western Sahara is at the center of one of the world’s most protracted conflicts. Most of the former Spanish Sahara colony is occupied by Morocco, while the Western Saharan liberation movement Polisario has declared the area an independent state. The UN has long sought to hold a referendum on the future status of the territory.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony from the 1880’s. In accordance with a UN resolution, Spain was about to withdraw from the area when Morocco invaded it in 1975. A large proportion of Western Saharans then fled to Algeria. The Algiers government has since been accused by Morocco of being behind Western Saharans’ quest for independence.
In 1973, the Polisario launched an armed struggle for independence and three years later the independent Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was proclaimed. Morocco has built a fortification wall throughout the area. To the east of the dike is the quarter of Western Sahara that Polisario controls. It is an almost deserted desert area; Polisario is based in a refugee camp in western Algeria.
The war lasted until 1991 when a ceasefire agreement was concluded. The parties then agreed that the ceasefire would be monitored by the UN, which was also tasked with organizing a referendum. In it, the Western Saharans would have to choose between independence and integration with Morocco. The referendum has never taken place, mainly due to disagreement over who should have the right to participate. Immigrated Moroccans now make up a majority of the population in Western Sahara. Since 2004, Morocco has also refused to allow independence to be an option, and at most advocates autonomy for Western Sahara.
Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara has not been recognized by any other party. SADR has been recognized by over 80 countries, but almost half of them have later withdrawn their recognition. Sweden has not recognized SADR.
Depression Western Sahara
Morocco claimed the Spanish Sahara after its independence from France in 1956. Ten years later, the UN gave its support for Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. Nationalist forces grew stronger and demonstrations against the Spanish colonial power took place. The liberation movement Polisario took up arms in 1973.
Spain formally accepted the UN resolution on Western Sahara in 1974, but Morocco took the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Now Mauritania also came with claims, on the southern parts of Western Sahara. In a ruling in 1975, the ICJ stated that there were not enough strong historical ties to grant the countries sovereignty over the area. The court concluded that the people of Western Sahara have the right to self-determination. Spain now began preparing for a referendum on independence as a way of meeting the demands of Morocco and Mauritania. A UN investigative delegation found the same year that Western Saharan support for an independent state seemed “overwhelming”.
In November 1975, the Moroccan regime staged the so-called Green March as 350,000 Moroccan civilians marched towards the border. Spain yielded to Morocco’s demands and accepted a division of territory between Morocco and Mauritania. The agreement was condemned by the Polisario, which could now rely on the decisions of both the UN and the ICJ, and by Algeria, which was concerned that Morocco was expanding its territory.
In parallel with the political negotiations, Moroccan troops invaded Western Sahara. Nearly half of Western Saharans fled to Algeria, which has begun to provide strong support to the Polisario. Morocco has since described Algeria as the real force behind the Western Saharan nationalist movement, and has repeatedly sought to open negotiations with the neighboring country. Algeria has always refused, citing that only the Polisario can represent the people of Western Sahara.
The refugees gathered in camps where Polisario recruited virtually all the men and stepped up the fight against the occupiers. By early 1976, the Spaniards had finally left Western Sahara. Morocco had annexed the north while Mauritania had taken over the south. The Polisario countered by declaring independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
Peace with Mauritania
After constant attacks by the guerrillas, Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara in 1978-1979 and concluded a peace agreement with the Polisario. Moroccan troops then also annexed the southern part. Gradually, Morocco built a large mined fortification wall of sand and stone – today a total of 270 miles. This closed Polisario out of the part of the territory, about three quarters, which the Moroccans controlled. The fighting continued at a lower level, but the war tempted Morocco’s economy.
Morocco was financially and militarily supported by the United States, France and the oil states in the Persian Gulf. Polisario was funded and armed by Algeria (until 1984 also by Libya), and received political support from many newly independent states in Africa who saw the Western Sahara conflict as a matter of anti-colonial freedom struggle. SADR joined the Organization of African Unity (OAU, forerunner of the African Union, AU) in 1984, prompting Morocco to leave the organization in protest. It was not until 2017 that Morocco became a member again.
In 1988, the parties agreed to a UN referendum plan that would allow residents to choose between independence and integration with Morocco. A ceasefire came into force in 1991 and has since been monitored by the UN force Minurso, which is also tasked with registering those entitled to vote.
However, the referendum has not been held due to disagreement about who should be counted as “the people of Western Sahara” and thus have the right to vote.