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. For a quarter of a century, the UN has tried in vain to hold a referendum on the future status of the territory.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony from the 1880s. 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 gave its support to the Polisario, which had been formed a few years earlier and 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, from north to south. 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 SADR has been recognized by over 80 countries, but almost half of them have later withdrawn their recognition.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.
Read more about the conflict itself in In- depth study . More general information about geography, history, politics and economics can be found in the section on Western Sahara under Countries / Areas.
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 Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Rio de Oro (Polisario) took up arms in 1973.
It was Western Saharan university students who founded the Polisario, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguía el Hamra and Rio de Oro . Polisario first fought against Spain but soon gained Morocco as its main enemy.
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 some historical links between the Sahrais and Moroccan rulers as well as with the people of Mauritania, but that this was not enough 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 with about 350,000 Moroccan civilians marching 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 the Western Saharans fled to Algeria, which has now 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
Following constant attacks by Western Saharan guerrillas, Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara in 1978-1979 and concluded a peace treaty 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. It 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 then received political support from many newly independent states in Africa, where the Western Sahara conflict was seen 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 adopted a UN plan for a referendum 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. (Minurso is an abbreviation of the French Mission des Nations Unies pour l’Organisation d’un Référendum au Sahara Occidental, in Swedish UN’s efforts to organize a referendum in Western Sahara.)
However, the referendum has not been conducted due to disagreement about who should be counted as “Western Sahara people” and thus have the right to vote (see also Western Sahara: Population and language ).
Disagreement over voting power
The Polisario only accepted in principle that people who had evidently lived in Western Sahara before the invasion and their descendants would be allowed to vote, based on a Spanish census from 1974. Morocco also required participation for Moroccans who moved in after 1975 and during the ceasefire, which now constitutes a majority of the population. Both sides expected to win a vote according to the turnout they preferred. Minurso began a laborious interview process to distinguish “genuine” Western Saharans from immigrant Moroccans with or without Saharan credentials. The basic principle was that only those who could show connection to the territory before 1975 would have the right to vote.
Both parties repeatedly suspended their participation in protest against what they perceived as trampling from the opposite side. The process has picked up again since former US Secretary of State James Baker was appointed UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara in 1997. Through the so-called Houston agreement the same year, Baker clarified which rules would apply to Minurso’s identification process. He persuaded the parties once again to promise that they would accept a referendum on independence, whatever the outcome.
When the Minurso survey was completed in 1999, the result turned out to be close to the old Spanish census, with 85,000 documented Western Saharans in the electoral roll. The majority of the Moroccans who applied for the right to vote had been rejected, as had a number of applicants from the Polisario refugee camp and Mauritania. Since the electoral roll largely corresponded to the Sahrawi people before 1975, who were supposed to sympathize with the Polisario, it seemed likely that such a vote would result in independence. Morocco then came up with 130,000 individual appeals, which effectively pushed the process down.
In 2001, the Polisario was so desperate that it declared that Morocco’s action violated the ceasefire and prepared for a return to armed struggle. The fighting was called off at the last minute, apparently after Algeria clarified its opposition to a new war.
The stalemate led to, among others, the United States trying to find a compromise. The problem had become more burning as several oil companies began to take an interest in Western Sahara’s territorial waters. A UN statement in 2002 stated that the natural resources in Western Sahara belong to the people of Western Sahara, until the issue of self-determination is resolved. These resources must therefore be exploited in accordance with the interests of the people of Western Sahara and with their approval. As a result, Morocco’s right to sell fishing rights off the coast of Western Sahara has also been legally disputed.
James Baker now chose to launch a new proposal. According to the so-called Baker Plan, Western Sahara would be governed as an autonomous Moroccan province for a period before the referendum, where most Moroccan settlers would be allowed to vote. Morocco supported the plan, which would probably result in a Moroccan victory, but the Polisario rejected it. The Security Council left the matter to chance. In 2003, Baker made minor adjustments to his idea. The new old plan, “Baker II”, meant that a referendum on the future of Western Sahara would be held in five years at the earliest, with extended voting rights. In addition to Minurso’s 85,000 documented Western Saharans, Moroccan settlers and residents of the Polisario camps who could not document their Western Saharan identity before Minurso would also be allowed to vote.
The new plan was still unfavorable for Polisario compared to the 1991 agreement, but it was no longer obvious that Morocco would win the referendum. It rather depended on how it was thought that the Moroccan settlers of Saharan origin would act after five years of autonomy. Would they be loyal to the crown or support the independence movement?
After American pressure on Algeria, which in turn pressured Polisario, the movement changed footing and reluctantly accepted “Baker II”. The Security Council then unanimously adopted a resolution in support of the plan, in July 2003.
Now it was instead Morocco that refused. The new King Mohammed VI declared that he no longer intended to include independence among the options in a referendum, which had been a cornerstone of the peace process since 1991. Despite Baker’s proposal receiving the Security Council’s support, both the United States and France chose to respect Morocco’s attitude. come up with a solution. James Baker stated that he could not go any further and resigned in 2004. Thus, the peace process seemed locked, but Minurso remained in the territory and the ceasefire has remained in force.