Western Sahara: A Forgotten Territory

Andoni Hormaza is a 2nd year International Relations student from Spain. His interests include international development, global migration and international law. He is also passionate about music, photography and writing.

2020 marks the end of the ‘Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism’. These last three decades have been a vague attempt by the United Nations at reminding the international community that the process of decolonization is not over, with the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples of 1960 and its adamant commitment to bringing colonialism “to a speedy and unconditional end” firmly in mind.

Nonetheless, the UN has placed greater emphasis in highlighting how the wave of decolonization that “changed the wave of the planet” has led to “fewer than 2 million people [living] under colonial rule in the 17 remaining non-self-governing territories”, as opposed to 750 million people in 1945.

This is indeed a worthy achievement. However, the choice of words and, most importantly, the act of grouping together the 17 remaining non-self-governing territories as if they were all the same, can lead to a natural tendency to see colonialism as a thing of the past. Here one can find territories that have freely expressed their wish to remain part of their respective administrative countries, such as Gibraltar, Bermuda, or even New Caledonia. A very different picture from that of colonial subjugation and exploitation springs to mind.

But this picture can still be found in Western Sahara, which remains partly cut off by the second largest wall in the world, plagued with millions of land mines, and with thousands of children being raised up in refugee camps amidst widespread violations of human rights.

Western Sahara is not like any other currently non-self-governing territory. Its decolonization process started back in 1965, after the UN urged Spain, its administrative power at the time, to ensure the self-determination of the Sahrawi people. In 1974, Spain announced that a referendum of self-determination would be held the following year. The year is 2020, and this has still not occurred.

In 1975, a joint treaty was signed among Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. It explicitly assured that the “opinion of the Sahrawi people would be respected”, precluded Spain’s departure from the territory the following year and seemed to pave the way towards self-determination. Implicitly, it carved up the territory between Mauritania and Morocco and made it possible for Spain to evade responsibility.

Shortly afterwards, the Polisario Front unilaterally declared the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and what had until then been sporadic conflict turned into full guerrilla warfare between the Algerian-backed Republic and Morocco and Mauritania. Although Mauritania signed a peace treaty with the Polisario Front in 1979, war continued with Morocco until 1991, when an UN-brokered ceasefire was achieved.

One of the apparent achievements of the ceasefire was the creation of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). With a political agreement just over the horizon, the way towards self-determination seemed clear once again. The world breathed in relief and Western Sahara disappeared from the front headlines. Almost 30 years later, the situation has still not changed.

The Security Council remains trapped in Groundhog Day, with 21 almost identical resolutions between 1991-2019, all of them welcoming the efforts of all parties involved and encouraging them to find an agreeable political solution that will “provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”. And time after time, its plan of action has simply been to extend the mandate of MINURSO.

But not everyone lives in Groundhog Day. One of the main elements hindering the celebration of the much-promised referendum has been the lack of consensus on identifying who is eligible to vote. Most notably, Morocco has been submitting applications on behalf of individuals with questionable ties to Western Sahara and residing outside of the territory. In this sense, Morocco has been deliberately postponing the voting process until it would be able to ‘legally’ win the referendum by a clear majority, offering incentives such as tax breaks in exchange for its citizens moving to the territory. Moreover, even though the International Court of Justice did not find Morocco to have sovereignty over the territory, Morocco continues to assert this claim under the guise of ‘territorial integrity’, reflecting an underlying interest in the region that cannot be purely explained in legal or historic terms.

Resources seem to hold the answer. Morocco is one of the world’s most energy-poor countries, importing around 95% of its needs. Accordingly, the territory of Western Sahara is rich in phosphates and fisheries, with promising oil explorations being conducted in the region since 2014. In this regard, however, it would be too simplistic to assert that Morocco is acting unilaterally. Not least, the European Union has cut various trade deals with Morocco concerning the territory of Western Sahara. For instance, the EU gives Morocco €40 million annually in exchange for valuable fisheries licences, with ‘90% of the fish being caught in Western Sahara waters’, and Spain being its main beneficiary. And even though the European Court of Justice finally ruled these agreements illegal in 2016, there is still a trend within the EU, particularly among French MEPs, to downplay the colonial element and focus on Morocco’s ‘investment’ to develop the area, as well as describing Western Sahara as ‘no man’s land’. It does not really matter that the ICJ clearly stated back in 1975 that Western Sahara was not, and had never been, a ‘territory belonging to no-one’. As a significant trading partner, Morocco clearly deserves preferential treatment. For now, the EU is content to continue profiting from the same occupation that they deem fit to condemn from time to time.

Thus, we have a colonial administration that chose to bury its head in the ground instead of assuming responsibility for the self-determination of the Sahrawi people, a northern neighbour that pursues its economic self-interest in complete disregard of international law and an EU that has reaped off benefits under closed doors and washed its hands afterwards by condemning occupation. And while the UN has kept on welcoming the efforts made by all the parties involved in the conflict for the past 25 years, an entire generation has grown up knowing nothing more than refugee camps.

Img credit: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/morocco/western-sahara





One comment

  1. […] Note: This series will make numerous references to the disputed region of Western Sahara and the separatist group POLISARIO in the area. The region, however, will not be analysed in detail unless specified, and will only be mentioned in regard to Morocco’s foreign policy vis-à-vis other countries. For a deeper understanding of the geopolitics of the Western Sahara, please read this earlier analysis on KCL IR Today. […]


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