In 2005, nationalist protests erupted in the capital El Aaiún and other Western Saharan cities, as well as in Saharan areas in southern Morocco. The demonstrations were crushed by police but were the start of a new wave of activism in the occupied territories.
In 2006, King Mohammed appointed a special council for Sahrawi issues, Corcas. This was presented as the start of a self-government-based solution that would bypass Polisario. One year later, in April 2007, Morocco submitted a proposal to the UN on autonomy for Western Sahara. The Polisario opposed with its own proposal, which was still based on a referendum, but promised certain guarantees for Morocco and Moroccan settlers if Western Sahara became independent.
Morocco’s allies France and the United States pushed for the Security Council to welcome the kingdom’s ‘serious and credible’ stance, while Polisario’s counter-plan was not given similar praise. Beyond that, however, the UN has not taken a position on any of the plans, but only continues to generally call for negotiations that will lead to a “fair, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that ensures the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”.
Such negotiations have been organized between Morocco and the Polisario since 2007, mainly as a way of keeping the peace process alive. Until 2012, three rounds of talks were held, without results. In 2018, new talks were initiated, but negotiations have been sluggish.
In 2008, Baker’s successor as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, the Dutchman Peter van Walsum, announced that he considered Polisario’s goal of an independent Western Sahara to be “unrealistic”. The reason was that Morocco refused to accept a referendum where independence was one of the alternatives and the Security Council in turn refused to pursue the issue further against Morocco’s will. To break the deadlock, van Walsum called on the Security Council to propose another way forward, that is, to allow him to explore some form of autonomy solution.
It aroused sharp criticism from Polisario, who declared that they no longer had confidence in the Dutchman as a mediator. He resigned and was replaced in 2009 by the American diplomat Christopher Ross. Ross was careful not to bump into any side. He continued to organize talks between Polisario and Morocco, to no avail. The Security Council, in turn, continued to routinely extend Minurso’s mandate. Despite the fact that Minurso still formally has as its main goal to organize a referendum, for political reasons it no longer conducts any work to realize it, but is content to monitor the ceasefire.
In recent years, several states have supported Polisario’s demand that Minurso be given an expanded mandate to monitor human rights in both Western Sahara and the refugee camps. Since the protests in the occupied territories in 2005, the issue of human rights has received increasing attention. Despite this, Minurso is one of very few UN operations that is not allowed to register and combat human rights violations in its area of work. Morocco opposes an extended mandate and France has blocked proposals in that direction in the Security Council.
Riots in El Aaiún
The issue became more topical after violence broke out in the Moroccan-occupied parts of Western Sahara in 2010. After a few weeks of protests against discrimination and poverty, several thousand Saharans had gathered in a tent camp outside El Aaiún. When the police stormed the camp, riots broke out which quickly took on ethnic and nationalist overtones. Eleven policemen and two Sahrais were killed, hundreds were arrested and injured, and several buildings were burnt down. A military court in Rabat sentenced nine Western Saharans to life in prison in 2013 for involvement in the violence. In the same year, violence broke out in connection with a demonstration for independence in El Aaiún, and even later riots have occurred.
After the United States also backed the demand for the UN to monitor human rights, Morocco withdrew in 2013 from a planned joint military exercise with American troops. Morocco called the proposal an interference in the country’s internal affairs. The United States then backed down on the issue.
In the spring of 2016, Morocco ended up in the most serious dispute to date with the UN since the 1991 ceasefire. The government in Rabat accused Ban of not being neutral and ordered civilian UN personnel to leave Western Sahara.
In August 2016, tensions on the ground intensified when Morocco began building a road south of the buffer zone separating the parties, near the border with Mauritania. According to Morocco, it was an effort to prevent cross-border smuggling, but the Polisario saw it as a provocation. Both parties sent soldiers into the buffer zone and thus, according to the UN, were guilty of violating the ceasefire.
Morocco withdrew its troops from the zone in February 2017. Shortly afterwards, UN envoy Ross resigned, whom the Moroccans accused of being biased in favor of Polisario. After Polisario also withdrew from the zone, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution in April in support of new talks on Western Sahara. The new UN Secretary-General António Guterres has appointed former German President Horst Köhler as the new UN envoy.
UN negotiations between Morocco and Polisario were restarted in 2018, with representatives of neighboring countries present, but they have been slow. In the meantime, both the EU and a number of African states have in practice reached agreements that affect Western Sahara with Morocco. In January 2019, the European Parliament voted in favor of a new trade agreement with Morocco on agricultural products, despite criticism that the agreement would also cover goods from Western Sahara. In February 2019, the European Parliament also approved, to the disappointment of Western Sahara, a new four-year fisheries agreement with Morocco, which also covers waters outside Western Sahara.
In 2020, the parliament in Rabat unanimously adopted two laws, meaning that the waters of the Atlantic from Tangier in the north down to the border with Mauritania in the south, a coastline of about 100 km, belong to Morocco.
With the United States as an active driving force, Morocco decided in 2020 to normalize its relations with Israel. The Trump administration in the United States had then for its part promised Morocco to recognize the Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. From the Western Saharan side, the reaction was sharp, while Sahrawi representatives emphasized that the United States alone does not decide the future of Western Sahara.
The United Arab Emirates decided in 2020 to open a Consulate General in El Aaiún. No less than 15 African countries had established diplomatic missions in the disputed territory since the end of 2019, but the Emirate Consulate was the first to be opened by an Arab. Morocco saw it as a recognition of Moroccan supremacy, while the Western Saharan liberation movement Polisario perceived the consulates as a violation of international law.