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Western Sahara: Forgotten Conflict

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jun 29, 2010 (100629)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The Western Sahara conflict, notes analyst Yahia Zoubir, is now in the 35th year, with no sign of resolution. While the United Nations is ostensibly responsible for its resolution, France and the United States provide implicit support for Moroccan occupation of the territory, failing to support a referendum which might include the option of independence. The issue continues to poison relations between Algeria and Morocco, blocking hopes of regional economic integration in the Maghrib.

Recently France and the United States again blocked the inclusion of human rights monitoring in the UN peacekeeping mission for Western Sahara, the only UN peacekeeping mission lacking such a mandate. And although U.S. policymakers were reported to have successfully pressured for release of Saharan human rights activist Aminatou Haidar last December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stressed that there is no change in U.S. policy. And 54 U.S. senators have signed a letter endorsing Moroccan occupation.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from an article by Zoubir, as well as a report by Stephen Zunes on the U.S. Senate resolution.

The article by Zoubir is part of a special issue of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Bulletin on "U.S. Militarization of the Sahara-Sahel". The issue also includes analytical articles by editor Jacob Mundy, Stephen Harmon, Caroline Ifeka, Alex Thurston, Konstantina Isidoros, Vinjay Prasad, Anne McDougall, Daniel Volman, and Jeremy Keenan, covering a range of countries and aspects of the security situation in the region. See

For pervious AfricaFocus Bulletins on Western Sahara, see

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The Western Sahara conflict: regional and international repercussions

By Yahia H Zoubir

June 2010

Concerned Africa Scholars Bulletin (ACAS) Bulletin 85:

US militarization of the Sahara-Sahel: Security, Space & Imperialism

[Excerpts: Full article with references available on]

A second round of informal talks between Moroccan government and the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO) conducted under UN auspices and in the presence of Algeria and Mauritania as observer countries, was held on 10-11 February 2010. Announced as a preliminary, informal meeting leading to the fifth round of direct negotiations between the Western Saharan independence movement and Morocco, these discussions followed four sessions of direct talks, which began in June 2007, without producing any tangible results.

At least for the informed analyst, the latest meeting would likely hold few differences from the previous rounds -- which was indeed the case -- even if the international context has changed somewhat since the arrival of Barack Obama to the White House one year prior. The Western Sahara conflict, defined as a 'forgotten conflict' or 'frozen conflict' (Zoubir 2010) is approaching its 35th year; it has had significant damaging effects. A proposed regional trading bloc, L'Union du Maghreb Arabe (UMA, Arab Maghrib Union), inaugurated with great fanfare in February 1989, has been in hibernation since 1996, precisely because of this dispute. The question has poisoned relations between Algeria, the main sponsor of Western Saharan self-determination, and Morocco, which claims the territory it has illegally occupied since 1975.

Even if the issue very rarely makes the headlines, the Western Sahara conflict has had a significant impact on the development of the region. Indeed, the lack of regional integration is a serious consequence: economic exchange between the Maghrib states represents only 1.3% of their trade, the lowest regional trade in the world. Economists in the United States have shown that an integrated Maghrib market and free trade area would produce highly beneficial results for the populations of the region (Hufbauer & Brunel 2008).

In addition, the land border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed since August 1994, seriously affecting the economic life of the city of Oujda, which depended heavily on trade with and tourism from Algeria. ...Furthermore, not surprisingly, the tension between Algeria and Morocco has led to a rather costly and dangerous arms race.

In addition, the dispute has generated other consequences. It has affected relations between France (defending the Moroccan monarchy's irredentist claims) and Algeria, as well as relations between Spain (the former colonial power in Western Sahara) and, on the one hand, Morocco, and, on the other, Spain and Algeria. The United States, which during the Cold War allowed the occupation of the former Spanish colony by Morocco (Mundy 2006a/b), has also suffered some of the consequences in its policy in the Maghrib: Its repeated calls for Maghrib integration have proven fruitless.

Only a geopolitical perspective can explain the stalemate that has persisted in the Western Sahara conflict. The alleged technical difficulties to ensure a referendum have been mere pretext to allow Morocco to continue its colonization of the territory. If today powers like the United States, France and Spain, support, albeit to different degrees, the concept of 'autonomy for the Sahrawi people', they have failed to impose it because international law is on the side of the Sahrawi people (Chinkin 2008).

The conflict has increased even more as a younger generations of Sahrawis have resorted to active, continued peaceful resistance, which has succeeded in alerting the international community on human rights issues. The case of the activist Aminatou Haidar is a perfect illustration. In fact, her hunger strike, triggered in November-December 2009 and the diplomatic reaction that ensued, have had such reverberations that the Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, asked the UN Security Council on January 28, 2010, during a closed-door meeting, to include human rights monitoring in the prerogatives of the Mission des Nations Unies pour l'Organisation d'un Référendum au Sahara Occidental (MINURSO, UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) -- the only United Nations peacekeeping force that does not include, as part of its mandate, the protection of human rights. The same request had been made in 2009 but France opposed it.

On 30 April 2010, France once again, opposed the inclusion of the protection of human rights in MINURSO's mandate. Therefore, UNSC Resolution 1920, which has extended MINURSO's mandate for another year, does not contain any mention of human rights. In the meantime, the violations of human rights in occupied Western Sahara have in fact amplified despite their denunciations by respectable human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.

The lack of resolution of the Western Sahara conflict boils down to two main points: the conflicting positions of Morocco and Western Saharan nationalists, on the one hand, and geopolitical considerations, on the other hand. These geopolitical interests have been the main impediment to the resolution of the conflict because they strengthened the obstinate position of Morocco, which argues, thanks to external support, that it will only negotiate on the basis of 'autonomy' within Moroccan sovereignty. This proposal currently enjoys the implicit consent of France, the United States, and Spain, regardless of UN resolutions that refute any preconditions for the current negotiations.

Morocco and the Sahrawi: Irreconcilable Positions

Despite the acceptance of the original UN Settlement Plan by Morocco and Polisario in 1991, all attempts to organize the referendum on self-determination of the last colony in Africa have failed. Since 2001, Morocco has continuously opposed the inclusion of the option of independence to any referendum process based on self-determination. Today, the Moroccans consider the referendum process altogether as an 'obsolete practice'. Moroccans are comforted in their position owing to the backing they receive from France and the United States in the Security Council.

The Security Council has refused to impose a solution that includes the option of independence, as inscribed in UN resolutions. ...Recently, France, the United States (under George W Bush) and Spain have made no doubt as to their support for the proposal Morocco made in 2007 to supposedly grant Western Sahara 'autonomy' within the Moroccan Kingdom. Implicitly, these countries have recognized Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara, while adopting an official position that indicates otherwise.

Thus, since the adoption on 30 April 2007, of UN resolution 1754, Moroccans have reiterated their position that they will not negotiate anything other than their own proposal, insisting that they have garnered support from France and, more importantly, from the George W. Bush administration and the current Barack Obama Administration, following Hillary Clinton's declarations in Morocco in December 2009. During all the recent negotiations, Moroccans refused to discuss the Polisario's counter-proposal, thus ignoring recent UN resolutions which insist on 'negotiations without preconditions and in good faith [...] with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara'.

Polisario's counterproposal submitted to the United Nations in 2007, which conforms to international legality, does not reject outright the Moroccan 'autonomy' option, but insists that the any proposal be considered only as a third option (independence and integration being the others) as part of talks between the two parties. Polisario is also committed to accepting the results of the referendum whatever they are and to negotiate with the Kingdom of Morocco, under the auspices of the United Nations, the guarantees that it is prepared to grant to the Moroccan population residing in Western Sahara, as well as to the Kingdom of Morocco, in terms of Morocco's political, economic and security interests in Western Sahara, in the event that the referendum on self-determination would lead to independence.

The perpetuation of this impasse is inevitable, despite the optimism of former US diplomat, Christopher Ross, formally appointed in January 2009 to serve as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's Personal Envoy to Western Sahara. Prudently, Ross first arranged for an informal meeting between the two parties in Dürnstein, Austria, on 10-11 August 2009. Unsurprisingly, no progress was made despite a fairly positive statement issued at the end of the meeting. The two parties however agreed to pursue yet another informal round of discussions in Armonk, near New York. ...

But the talks produced little headway because reality on the ground was and still is favorable to Morocco, not only because Morocco has consolidated its colonization of the territory, but it also exploits illegally, with no fear of punishment, the natural resources of Western Sahara, primarily phosphates and fisheries. The European Union is complicit in this exploitation through the fisheries agreement with Morocco, which includes Western Saharan waters, notwithstanding the doubts that the European Parliament has expressed on the reasonableness of EU policy; in fact, it deemed EU fishing in Western Saharan waters to be illegal. ...

Geopolitics as Impediment to Resolution of the Conflict

The United Nations is responsible for the decolonization of Western Sahara, but the key to breaking the stalemate and implementing the legal solution lies in the hands of France and the United States, which, even if they do not recognize Morocco's sovereignty over the territory, have allowed Morocco to consolidate its control over Western Sahara. ...

France, regardless of its 'official' position, considers Western Sahara as an integral part of Morocco. Since 1975, successive French governments have never hidden their opposition to an independent Sahrawi state that would purportedly fall under Algeria's influence. In addition, the emergence of an independent Sahrawi state is seen as a destabilizing factor for the Moroccan Kingdom, in which France has considerable political, economic, military and cultural interests. With nearly 70 percent of total Foreign Direct Investments in Morocco, France is the largest trading partner and major investor. ...

The United States, too, supports the position of Morocco, a reliable ally in the Arab world (Zoubir 2009a). A priori, the U.S. does not oppose the right to self-determination of peoples, but in the case of Western Sahara, geopolitical considerations are the driving force in the US attitude toward this particular question. There were times, as under the George HW Bush administration, in the late 1980s, when the United States was open to the idea of an independent Sahrawi state. Then in 2003, the United States, supported the second Baker Plan, under which the Sahrawis were to enjoy autonomy for a period of five years before holding a referendum on self-determination that would include the three options, of which independence was one, as inscribed in UN resolutions. Moroccans have objected to such referendum in spite of the numerical advantage of Moroccan settlers in the territory, who would have been allowed to vote under the 2003 proposal. At the time, the George W Bush administration had promised Algerians that if Algiers and Polisario accepted the plan, the United States would impose that solution at the Security Council. However, perhaps not wishing to aggravate the rift with the French over the issue of Iraq, coupled with the threat of veto from France, the United States was pushed to renege on its promise. The Bush administration then supported the 2007 Moroccan autonomy proposal despite its illegality -- for what gives Moroccans the right to offer autonomy to Sahrawis? -- and its utter ambiguity (Theofilopoulou 2007).

It would be naőve to believe a reversal of the US position in this conflict under the current Obama Administration despite the seeming shift in attitude towards the autonomy proposal. There have been some indications that the Obama administration may not be decidedly biased in favor of Morocco. Indeed, in June 2009, it appeared that the U.S. no longer supported unequivocally the Moroccan autonomy plan; Obama evaded mentioning the autonomy plan in his letter to King Mohamed VI, which was interpreted as a reversal in US policy on the question. ...

Undoubtedly, by referring to international legality, which in the case of Western Sahara would include the option of independence, Obama seemed to abide by the values he promised to uphold.

However, as UNSC Resolution 1920 demonstrates, the United States does not seem to have undertaken any shift in policy toward Western Sahara. What is certain is that the administration is torn between continuing to support a traditional ally and setting a new course that would contradict the interests of that ally. The conflicting pronouncements in Obama's letter and those issued by Hillary Clinton during her visit to Morocco in November 2009 highlight the policy constraints of the new administration. During her visit to Marrakesh in November 2009 to attend the Forum for the Future, Hillary Clinton responded to the question as to whether the Obama administration had changed its position on the autonomy plan by saying that, 'Our policy has not changed, and I thank you for asking the question because I think it's important for me to reaffirm here in Morocco that there has been no change in policy' (Clinton 2009a). In another interview, she was asked, what she meant by her affirmation that there was 'no change in the Obama Administration's position as far as the Moroccan autonomy plan in the Sahara is concerned'. Her response was:

"Well, this is a plan, as you know, that originated in the Clinton Administration. It was reaffirmed in the Bush Administration and it remains the policy of the United States in the Obama Administration. Now, we are supporting the United Nations process because we think that if there can be a peaceful resolution to the difficulties that exist with your neighbors, both to the east and to the south and the west that is in everyone's interest. But because of our long relationship, we are very aware of how challenging the circumstances are. And I don't want anyone in the region or elsewhere to have any doubt about our policy, which remains the same." (Clinton 2009b)

This being said, the U.S. displayed a tougher stand toward Morocco during the hunger strike of Haidar. The U.S. was instrumental in resolving the case (Jamaő & Rhanime 2010), thus making it possible for Haidar to return to Western Sahara.

One of the major questions to be asked is whether the White House, despite the seemingly evenhanded approach, will succumb to the Senate's pressure to endorse Morocco's illegal annexation of Western Sahara (Zunes 2010), at the risk of alienating Algeria, a major actor in the war against terrorism in the region (Zoubir 2009b).

About the Author

Yahia H. Zoubir is a professor of international relations and management and director of geopolitical research at the Euromed School of Business and Management (Marseille). He is the co-editor with Amirah-Fernandez Haizam of North Africa: politics, region, and the limits of transformation (Routledge 2008).


This article was originally published as 'Le conflit du Sahara occidental : enjeux régionaux et internationaux', in Luis Martinez (ed), Changement et continuité au Maghreb (Centre d'études et de recherches internationales, February 2010), It has been revised and updated for publication in the Bulletin.

For notes and references see the web version of the article at

U.S. Lawmakers Support Illegal Annexation

Stephen Zunes, University of San Francisco

April 7, 2010 /
Direct URL:

In yet another assault on fundamental principles of international law, a bipartisan majority of the Senate has gone on record calling on the United States to endorse Morocco's illegal annexation of Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony invaded by Moroccan forces in 1975 on the verge of its independence. In doing so, the Senate is pressuring the Obama administration to go against a series of UN Security Council resolutions, a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice, and the position of the African Union and most of the United States' closest European allies.

More disturbingly, this effort appears to have the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and principal author of the recent Senate letter supporting Moroccan aggrandizement, claims that the two "are on the same wavelength" on the issue.

The letter, signed by 54 senators, insists that the United States endorse Morocco's "autonomy" plan as the means of settling the conflict. As such, the Senate opposes the vast majority of the world's governments and a broad consensus of international legal scholars, who recognize the illegality of such an imposed settlement. More than 75 countries recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which represents the people of Western Sahara under the leadership of the Polisario Front. The SADR is also a full member state of the African Union, and has governed nearly half of the people in liberated zones in Western Sahara as well as refugee camps in Algeria for nearly 35 years. The majority of Congress, however, wants the United States to pressure Polisario to surrender the Western Saharan people's right to self-determination and accept the sovereignty of a conquering power.

How Much "Autonomy"?

The autonomy plan is based on the assumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco rather than an occupied territory, and that Morocco is somehow granting part of its sovereign territory a special status. This is a contention that the United Nations, the World Court, the African Union, and a broad consensus of international legal opinion have long rejected. To accept Morocco's autonomy plan would mean that, for the first time since the founding of the UN and the ratification of the UN Charter nearly 65 years ago, the international community would be endorsing the expansion of a country's territory by military force, thereby establishing a very dangerous and destabilizing precedent.

If the people of Western Sahara accepted an autonomy agreement over independence as a result of a free and fair referendum, it would constitute a legitimate act of self-determination. Outstanding UN Security Council resolutions explicitly call for such a referendum (which the Senate letter ignores). However, Morocco has explicitly stated that its autonomy proposal "rules out, by definition, the possibility for the independence option to be submitted" to the people of Western Sahara, the vast majority of whom favor outright independence.

International law aside, there are a number of practical concerns regarding the Moroccan proposal. For instance, centralized autocratic states have rarely respected the autonomy of regional jurisdictions, which has often led to violent conflict. In 1952, the UN granted the British protectorate of Eritrea autonomous status federated with Ethiopia. In 1961, however, the Ethiopian emperor revoked Eritrea's autonomous status, annexing it as his empire's 14th province. The result was a bloody 30-year struggle for independence and subsequent border wars between the two countries. Similarly, the decision of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to revoke the autonomous status of Kosovo in 1989 led to a decade of repression and resistance, culminating in the NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

Moreover, the Senate-backed Moroccan proposal contains no enforcement mechanisms. Morocco has often broken its promises to the international community, such as its refusal to allow the UN-mandated referendum for Western Sahara to go forward. Indeed, a close reading of the proposal raises questions about how much autonomy Morocco is even initially offering, such as whether the Western Saharans will control the territory's natural resources or law enforcement beyond local matters. In addition, the proposal appears to indicate that all powers not specifically vested in the autonomous region would remain with the kingdom. Indeed, since the king of Morocco is ultimately vested with absolute authority under Article 19 of the Moroccan constitution, the autonomy proposal's insistence that the Moroccan state "will keep its powers in the royal domains, especially with respect to defense, external relations and the constitutional and religious prerogatives of His Majesty the King" appears to give the monarch considerable latitude in interpretation.

In any case, the people of Western Sahara will not likely accept autonomy rather than independence. For years, they have engaged in largely nonviolent pro-independence protests only to be subjected to mass arrests, beatings, torture, and extra-judicial killings. The Moroccan authorities would not likely change their ways under "autonomy."

That did not stop Clinton from apparently endorsing Morocco's "autonomy" plan during a visit to Morocco last November, a controversial statement cited by the Senate letter's authors to bolster their case. Just days after Clinton's visit, the emboldened Moroccan authorities expelled Aminatou Haidar, Western Sahara's leading pro-independence activist. Haidar's resulting month-long hunger strike nearly killed her before President Barack Obama pressured Morocco to allow her to return.
The Senate Letter

There has long been concern that Morocco's ongoing illegal occupation of Western Sahara, its human rights abuses, and its defiance of the international community, has jeopardized attempts to advance the Arab Maghreb Union and other efforts at regional economic integration and security cooperation. However, the Senate letter turns this argument on its head, arguing that the international community's failure to recognize Morocco's annexation of the territory is the cause of the "growing instability in North Africa." The letter ominously warns that "terrorist activities are increasing" in the region, ignoring the fact that the Polisario Front has never engaged in terrorism, even during the years of guerrilla warfare against Moroccan occupation forces between 1975 and 1991. The Polisario has scrupulously observed a ceasefire ever since, despite Morocco breaking its promise to allow for a UN-sponsored referendum. Furthermore, Islamist radicals have little sympathy for the secular Polisario and the relatively liberal version of Islam practiced by most Western Saharans.

The letter's signatories included 24 Republicans, including ranking Intelligence Committee member Kit Bond (R-MO), Assistant Minority Leader Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and John McCain (R-AZ). There were also 30 Democratic signatories of the letter, including such erstwhile liberals as Ron Wyden (D-OR), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Mark Udall (D-CO). Not surprisingly, most of the signers have also gone on record defending Israel's occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory, and previously supported Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. A majority of the signatories also voted to authorize the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. When a majority of the Senate goes on record calling on the administration to pursue a policy that fundamentally denies an entire nation its right to self-determination, undermines the UN Charter and other basic principles of international law, and challenges a series of UN Security Council resolutions, it shows just how far to the right this Democratic-controlled body has become.

U.S. support for Indonesia's occupation of East Timor didn't end until human rights activists made it politically difficult for the Clinton administration and members of Congress to continue backing it. Similarly, voters who care about human rights and international law must make it clear they won't support any lawmaker who favors the right of conquest over the right of self-determination.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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