14 Oct, 2019
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Conflict Viewpoints

Morocco’s Position

Morocco’s claims on the territory rely on the fact that the Western Sahara is part of the Greater Maghreb – territory in Northern Africa that was historically allied with the Moroccan Sultanate and fought as part of the Moroccan Liberation Army against Spain. The Moroccan monarchy claims that historical economic, religious, and military ties between the Moroccan sultan and the Saharawi tribal councils prove that Morocco has always exercised authority over the Western Sahara. The International Court of Justice acknowledged such ties but determined that they were not sufficient to prove Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.

Additionally, there are numerous cultural and historic bonds between the people of southern Morocco and the people of the Western Sahara. These have been emphasized by the Moroccans to strengthen their territorial claims. Given that there are now hundreds of thousands of Moroccans living in the Western Sahara – many of whom have lived there for a generation – and that the Moroccan government has offered autonomy to the region, Morocco is strongly opposed to possible independence for the Saharawis. Morocco’s position is that any talk of independence is unacceptable, as this would undermine the territorial integrity of the Moroccan state. Morocco believes that the nationalism of the Saharawi people has been exaggerated, and that the conflict springs more from historic Algerian-Moroccan rivalry and the generous support Algeria has provided the Polisario Front than from any legitimate Saharawi desire for freedom or independence.

Those who associate with the Polisario Front in Morocco are considered traitors, as made clear by King Mohammed VI in a public speech made on October 9, 2009, the anniversary of the 1975 Green March:

"One is either a patriot or a traitor. There is no halfway house…. As for the adversaries of our territorial integrity…they know, better than anyone else, that the Sahara is a crucial issue for the Moroccan people, who unanimously support the Throne, which is the guarantor of the nation’s sovereignty, national unity, and territorial integrity…. I think the most fitting tribute we can pay them [Moroccan martyrs] is by remaining true to our pledge not to give up or bargain over as much as a grain of sand from our Sahara."

Because of the primacy given to the Western Sahara by the King and his ministers, for the Moroccan people, the “Moroccaness” of the Western Sahara is unquestioningly accepted. Speech or activities suggesting otherwise are considered crimes against the state, and Moroccans firmly believe that the Western Sahara has always been and should rightfully be a part of their country. In 2007, Morocco submitted its proposed solution to the Western Saharan conflict to the United Nations, calling for a referendum that allowed the residents of the Western Sahara to vote on becoming an autonomous region of the Kingdom. If autonomy were approved – which would be likely under the plan, as it allows Moroccans living in the Western Sahara to vote – Saharawis would be in charge of local administration, education, and health and social programs, while the Moroccans would administer defense and foreign policy for the region. All visible signs of sovereignty – currency, citizenship, and the flag – would be Moroccan. The Moroccan government argues that autonomy is the most realistic solution, based on the control it already exerts over much of the region and its historic claims to Western Sahara.

Moroccan control is well-established over the two-thirds of the Western Sahara it occupies. It has invested in phosphate mines, provided subsidies and tax breaks for Moroccans who move to the territory, it patrols its 1,500-mile long border wall, suppresses any pro-independence activities through the presence of its powerful security and intelligence services, and entices potential Polisario defectors with offers of government positions, houses, and stipends. While no country officially recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, steadfast political support from France in the UN Security Council, a strong lobby in the U.S., the broad backing by the Arab world, and a lack of involvement of the international community has allowed it to continue its occupation.

Polisario’s Position

The Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia al-Hamra and the Rio del Oro [called Polisario, based on its Spanish acronym] has been the unified voice of the Saharawi movement for independence and statehood since 1973. That year, a group of Saharawi university students studying in Morocco began to form a new anti-Spanish movement, focused on armed resistance. Among the Polisario’s founders were the charismatic Ilwali Mustafa Sayid and his brother, Bechir. Ilwali would become the Front’s first secretary general and would retain the position until his death during armed action in 1976. The organization began as a group of a dozen guerrilla fighters, but by the time a UN decolonization delegation arrived in May 1975, it found that the overwhelming majority of Saharawis supported independence and backed the Polisario.

Over the course of its 37 year struggle for independence for the Saharawi people, the Polisario Front has remained the leader of the independence movement largely because it has remained a tolerant and inclusive entity, similar to many of the secular, anti-colonial independence movements that sprung up throughout the Third World during the Cold War. The Polisario is focused specifically on freedom and statehood, and all other identities – of tribe, religion, gender, and age – are relegated to secondary status. Furthermore, the Polisario Front is far from an elite organization; any Saharawi that supports self-determination is welcome under the Polisario banner. Through the meetings of its General Congress every three to four years, the Polisario allows all Saharawis to participate in the directing and organization of the movement. In democratic elections, those in the refugee camps, who have fled the occupied territories of the Western Sahara, and émigrés abroad elect delegates – around 1,400 – who convey the opinions of their constituencies to the General Congress.

Since its founding, the Polisario has focused on the inclusion of women and youth. Today, they participate actively through the National Union of Saharawi Women (UNMS) and the National Youth Union (UJSARIO), who send members to the General Congress and are directly linked to the highest levels of the Polisario leadership. The Saharawis pride themselves on both the advanced status of women within their movement and the prominent role played by young people.

For the Polisario, the Western Sahara is a clear-cut case of decolonization and thus self- determination. Citing UN resolutions and the International Court of Justice’s 1975 decision, the Polisario calls for a democratic referendum that allows the Saharawis themselves to decide their political future. This is the pivot upon which all Polisario arguments revolve. Thus, while the leaders approved of UN Special Envoy James Baker’s Peace Plan – which would have allowed some Moroccan settlers to vote after a five-year transition period – they usually reject any planned referendum that allows the Moroccans in the Western Sahara – some of whom have been there for decades – to vote. So, while the Saharawis submitted some challenges to the UN’s final voter list produced in the late 1990s, the Polisario was largely approving of the list, which ruled out Moroccans.

“We don’t espouse any ideology or try to spread any religion – all we want is freedom.”
-Teeba, Saharawi refugee

In addition, any solution that does not include independence as an option is unacceptable to the Polisario Front. While they usually speak of independence and statehood, the leaders insist that they are willing to incorporate the Western Sahara into Morocco if the Saharawi people decide to do so in a free and fair referendum that also provides the option of SADR statehood. Based on UN principles of decolonization and self-determination, the Polisario maintains that its 16-year armed struggle against Morocco was justified, and that a return to arms would be equally warranted. Nonetheless, because of the UN’s insistence that it would arrange a referendum in the early 1990s, the Polisario continues to put its faith in the United Nations system, to the chagrin of many Saharawis.

The Polisario leadership consistently references human rights violations and natural resource exploitation by Morocco in the occupied territory of the Western Sahara, calling on the international community to step in to end such violations.

Finally, while the Polisario Front is expressly focused on self-determination and gaining independence, it has expanded its rhetoric to address a number of other issues. It is supportive of North African regional integration, economic and military agreements with Morocco, trade and security agreements with Europe and the United States, and the establishment of a multi-party democracy. Of course, all of these points are contingent on a referendum on self-determination.

Despite its continued position as the leader of the independence movement, the Polisario is not without challenges. Its current Secretary General, Mohammed Abdelaziz, has been in power for over 30 years, and many of the other leaders have held positions for decades. The Saharawi youth and much of the refugee population – while still supportive of the Polisario – have begun to clamor for a change in strategy, seeking a return to their homeland by any means necessary after over three decades of conflict and strife.

International Law

While it has been complicated by international actors and a number of additional issues, the Western Saharan conflict is relatively clear-cut in terms of international norms and laws. In 1960, the UN General Assembly [GA] passed Resolution 1514 (XV), the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. According to Res. 1514, “Immediate steps shall be taken, in trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories or all other territories which have not yet attained independence, to transfer all powers to the peoples of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire…in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.”

According to UN GA Resolution 1541 (XV) – also passed in 1960 – colonizing powers were instructed to allow for self-government in their colonies either through the creation of an independent state, autonomy under an existing independent state, or full integration with another state, according to the will of the colonized population. In 1963, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization declared the Western Sahara to be a non-self-governing territory, thus making the provisions of Resolutions 1514 (XV) and 1541 (XV) applicable to the decolonization of Spain’s African protectorate.

“…to transfer all powers to the people of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire, without any distinction as to race, creed, or color, in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.”
- UN General Assembly Res. 1514 (XV) 1960

In 1966, the General Assembly asked Spain to organize a referendum for the Saharawi people that would include the three options for self-government included under Resolution 1541 (XV): autonomy, integration, or independence. With no concrete action on the part of the Spanish, the UN made the same request every year until 1973.

In October 1975, the case of the Western Sahara was submitted to the International Court of Justice [ICJ] for an advisory opinion on its status and Moroccan claims of sovereignty over the territory. The Court determined that “the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.” Despite this clear conclusion, the Moroccans and Mauritanians continued to claim sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

The following month, Spain engaged in negotiations with Mauritania and Morocco, the latter of which had already sent hundreds of thousands of Moroccans into the Western Sahara during the Green March. The three countries signed the Madrid Accords, which created an interim Western Saharan government led by Morocco, Mauritania, and the Saharawi Yema’a, which had been created by Spain a decade before to legitimize its colonial control. Despite the agreement for shared government with the Saharawis, ultimately Morocco and Mauritania sent troops into the territory and divided it into two regions under their direct control, effectively marginalizing the Saharawis within their own land.

Spain, enmeshed in political turmoil resulting from the death of long-time ruler Gen. Francisco Franco in November 1975, pulled out of the Western Sahara and abandoned all of its legal obligations in its former colonial possession. According to Article 73 of the UN Charter, “Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories.” As the UN General Assembly has never given Spain authorization to relinquish its duties related to the Saharawis – and did recognize the Madrid Accords as a legitimate treaty – Spain is technically still the administering power over the Western Sahara. While Morocco exercises de facto control over much of the territory and while MINURSO took on the responsibility of organizing the referendum – albeit without success – it is the Spanish who are ultimately responsible for the self-determination of the Western Sahara, according to UN principles. Thus, under international law, the Saharawis of the Western Sahara should be allowed to exercise their right to self-determination through a democratic referendum, which should technically be arranged by Spain. Unfortunately, as is often the case, geopolitics and territorial ambitions have overshadowed international norms on human rights, political rights, and self-determination.

Regional Law and Norms

Regional norms are also applicable in the case of the Western Sahara, most notably through the African Union [AU], of which the SADR is a founding member. Through the AU and its predecessor organization, the African community agreed that to avoid future conflicts, the borders drawn arbitrarily by European colonizers in the 19th and 20th centuries should be respected as the borders of modern-day states. According to Resolution AHG/Res.16 [1964] passed by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), “[T]he Assembly…solemnly declared that all member States pledge themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence.” Morocco was a founding member of the OAU and remained active in the organization until 1982, when the OAU recognized the SADR as a sovereign government. Two years later, Morocco formally withdrew.

Later, the African Union (AU) included the same concept in its Constitutive Act, Article 4(b) which states that the AU shall ensure the “respect of borders existing on achievement of independence.” Upon its independence in 1956, Morocco’s borders did not include the Western Sahara, which remained under Spanish rule for another two decades. Today, Morocco is the only African country that voluntarily refuses membership in the AU. While AU provisions thus do not technically apply to Morocco, respect for colonial boundaries is a continent-wide principle that is intended to reduce the amount of intra and interstate war in Africa. As founding members of the African Union, the Saharawis argue that respect for colonial borders is yet more proof of their right to statehood and freedom.

International Actors

The United Nations and the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO)

In 1991, a ceasefire sponsored by the UN and the Organization of African Unity – now the African Union – was signed, and the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) was deployed to begin preparations for a democratic referendum for the Saharawi people. MINURSO’s original mandate included – and includes – the identification of voters for a referendum, the organization of said referendum, and the maintenance of the ceasefire. Each year between 1991 and 1996, the UN stated that it planned to hold the referendum by the following year. Nonetheless, because of challenges to the voter lists by both sides, work was painstakingly slow. In 1999 and 2000, MINURSO finally published its lists: 250,000 Saharawis were identified, and just over 86,000 were determined to be eligible voters. Both sides were then allowed to submit appeals – over 130,000 were submitted in one month, causing MINURSO to abandon its referendum preparations. The key issues remain the eligibility of Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara to participate in the referendum process and the participation of the various members of the Saharawi diaspora, both in the refugee camps and beyond.

In 1997, the UN then appointed James Baker, a former U.S. Secretary of State, as the Secretary General’s Personal Envoy, to try to break the impasse with the voter identification process. In 2001, Baker submitted his first Peace Plan, which would have made the Western Sahara an autonomous region of Morocco. This proposal was accepted by Morocco but rejected by the Polisario Front.

Baker submitted a revised plan in 2002, which suggested a provisional government chosen by the voters on MINURSO’s list, followed by a true self-determination referendum for Saharawis on the list and all residents who had lived in the Western Sahara since 1999. To the general surprise of all those involved, the Polisario accepted Baker Plan II, but the Moroccans rejected it – stating that they refused to support any plan that allowed for a vote on full independence. With the failure of his second plan, Baker resigned.

The second Baker Plan was the closest the UN has come to finding a solution to the conflict. In 2007, the UN called for direct negotiations between the Polisario and Morocco. Five rounds of negotiations later, neither side has been willing to compromise on its position. The Secretary General’s new Personal Envoy, Christopher Ross, another former U.S. diplomat, has traveled extensively throughout the region in an attempt to build the political capital needed to resolve the conflict.

Meanwhile, MINURSO remains deployed in the Western Sahara – its headquarters located in the Moroccan-controlled territory and protected by Moroccan security forces. Today, it is the only UN peacekeeping force in the world that does not include a human rights monitoring component in its mandate. While opponents suggest that the force is too small to monitor the well-documented human rights abuses by Moroccan security forces in the Western Sahara and the alleged abuses by the Polisario in the refugee camps, the Saharawis have been adamantly advocating for the inclusion of such a component. Each year the UN Security Council considers the extension of MINURSO’s mandate, and for the past several years, the debate has revolved around the human rights issue. As has happened in the past, France – Morocco’s biggest supporter in the Security Council – refused to allow any wording related to human rights to be included, despite strong backing from the United Kingdom. Political support for Morocco in the Security Council has thus hampered the UN’s role as a credible peacekeeper and negotiator in the Western Sahara.


While Libya was the first country to support the Polisario and provide it with arms, Algeria soon became the Saharawis’ most vocal supporter. The reasons for Algeria’s interest in the conflict are many. First, Moroccan and Algeria are engaged in a power struggle in North Africa, which has resulted in the closing of the Moroccan-Algerian border for almost two decades. The incorporation of the Western Sahara into Morocco would extend Morocco’s territory, threaten Algeria’s influence, and allow Morocco’s advanced military to focus elsewhere along its borders. Second, Algeria may also fear that if it secures control over the Western Sahara, Morocco will go after other territories that were part of the historic Greater Maghreb, including parts of Algeria itself.

According to the Algerian leadership, however, it supports the Polisario Front because of its own history and ideology. The Algerians waged a particularly brutal anti-colonial war in the 1950s and 1960s. The Algerian military and political elite argue that these are the only reasons for their support of the Polisario.

Algeria provides assistance to the Saharawis in a number of ways. First, the Algerian military provided training and arms to the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army [ALPS] throughout the 1970s and 1980s, although such military aid has greatly reduced since the signing of the ceasefire and end of the Cold War. Secondly, the Algerian government provided and continues to provide – although numbers are not public – financial assistance to the Saharawi leadership to run the refugee camps, and continue its active diplomacy campaign, and run the SADR government. Even more importantly, the government granted the Polisario considerable independence in the refugee camps outside of Tindouf, which allowed the Saharawi fighters a safe-haven to recuperate, develop strategy, store ammunition and supplies, and keep Moroccan prisoners of war. The Tindouf refugee camps also provide a much-needed location in exile for the Saharawis who have joined the Polisario against Morocco. In return for inhabitance within Algerian borders, the Saharawi Army helps its Algerian counterpart patrol the huge desert borders of the North African country.

Algeria provides international support in a number of forums. Ambassadors in the U.S. consistently lobby the U.S. Congress and Department of State to support the Saharawis’ right to self-determination. Algeria has also been instrumental in helping the SADR gain international recognition. Finally, its growing economy and power have given it increasing influence in the United Nations and the African Union, despite its loss of status as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. In these organizations, the Algerian representatives constantly encourage the international community to put pressure on Morocco to allow for a referendum on self-determination in the Western Sahara. Because of its proximity and influential role in the conflict, the UN has often allowed Algeria to participate as an observer in negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front, and UN Special Envoy Christopher Ross frequently meets with the Algerian leadership to include them in his efforts to find a lasting solution to the conflict. Despite its continued support, however, Algeria’s enthusiasm in defending the Saharawi cause has been partially diverted to other issues, primarily because it has had to focus inwardly on a long civil war in the 1990s and the growing threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] in the past decade. The Algerian population has begun to challenge its government’s funding of an international movement. Conversely, the Saharawis at times argue that the Algerians could and should be doing more to support their cause. While the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front are the only UN-recognized parties to the conflict, without the continued support of Algeria, it is unlikely that the Polisario Front would be able to sustain the campaign for statehood and freedom in its current form.


Cuba has long been a close supporter of the Polisario Front, going back to the former’s role as a key sponsor of anti-colonial independence movements throughout the Third World during the Cold War. While the Caribbean nation has offered both financial and weapons support to the Saharawis, its most important role has been the education of the Saharawi youth. Primary schooling is mandatory in the Tindouf refugee camps, but no secondary or advanced educational opportunities are available there. Therefore, Cuba has welcomed thousands of Saharawis to the island for continued education, often in technical and medical fields. Many Saharawi refugees – jokingly referred to Cubarawis – have spent up to 24 years in Cuba, receiving degrees in engineering, literature, languages, and medicine in exchange for mild manual labor on the island. In the early 2000s, three disgruntled Saharawis accused the Polisario Front of stealing children from their families and sending them to Cuba for hard labor and communist indoctrination. Hundreds of Cubarawis in the camps today refute such claims, insisting that their time in Cuba was a benefit they received from the Polisario and the Cuban government.


Spain is technically still the administering power of the Western Sahara, as it never complied with the UN’s requests to arrange a referendum for the self-determination of its former colony. The Spanish government has refused to take a clear stance on the issue out of fear of upsetting Morocco, the closest North African country to its borders and a dominant political actor in the region. Spain is concerned with the trafficking of both illegal narcotics and immigrants from Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar and to the Spanish Canary Islands. Furthermore, it is worried that a change in the status of the Western Sahara could spur further Moroccan pressure over its North African enclaves of Spain in Ceuta and Melilla – which are both located on the North African coast, though they are considered integral parts of Spain. Opposition parties in Spain routinely challenge the majority party’s handling of the Western Saharan case, but no party in power has been willing to put real pressure on Morocco.

Spanish civil society, however, actively supports the Saharawis’ right to self-determination. Associations of the Friends of the Western Sahara exist in almost every major Spanish city and arrange frequent trips of solidarity to the Saharawi refugee camps. These associations also arrange for Saharawi children from the camps to spend the unbearable Saharan summers with families throughout Spain. Protests supporting the Saharawis do occur in Spain, but the Spanish government has refrained from taking a significant active role in supporting Saharawi self- determination.


France has been Morocco’s strongest international ally with respect to the Western Saharan conflict. This is partly due to France’s historically tense relations with Algeria, going back to the bloody war for Algerian independence in the 1950s and 1960s. France has supplied Morocco with strong military and diplomatic support. The Moroccan army is equipped with French planes and weapons. Likewise, France has backed Morocco consistently in the UN Security Council, including its refusal to allow human rights monitoring in MINURSO’s mandate.

United States

While the U.S. has never come out with a concrete position on the Western Saharan issue, in 2007, the Bush Administration lent its unofficial support to Morocco’s autonomy plan as the most realistic solution to the enduring dispute. The U.S. government and Morocco are close allies, as Morocco was the first nation to sign a treaty with the independent United States of America. Likewise, the United States has long appreciated Morocco’s positive efforts in attempting to find a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and, more recently, has counted on the close cooperation of Morocco in the Global War on Terror, as each nation seeks to combat the threat posed by violent, radical Islamic extremism. Morocco was named a major non-NATO ally by the U.S. in 2004, opening the Kingdom to increasing military support through the provision of funding, intelligence, and weapons. Thus, the United States’ position can be viewed as one of tacit support of Morocco’s de facto control over the Western Sahara.

“To the United States we ask one simple request – allow a democratic solution to the Western Saharan conflict, on the basis of the great principles on which that country was founded.”
-Mohammed Abdelaziz, Secretary General of Polisario Front - President of the SADR

At the behest of current UN Special Envoy to the Western Sahara Christopher Ross, the U.S. Department of State has ceased to make statements supporting either party in the conflict. President Obama has offered his public support for the UN’s efforts in the resolving of the conflict and has encouraged both Morocco and the Polisario to cooperate with the international organization. Some members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate advocate on behalf of Saharawi self-determination, while others support Morocco’s position.