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Western Sahara

Picture Credit: UN Photo/MINURSO

In 1975, after a century of colonial rule in Western Sahara, Spain agreed to partition the colony between Morocco and Mauritania without consulting the local popluations. The pro-independence Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, opposed the secret deal. It launched an armed liberation struggle and declared the independent Saharan Arab Democratic Republic.

In 1978, weary of fighting the insurgents, Mauritania renounced its territorial claims but Morocco then took control of the entire territory. Polisario continued to fight against Moroccan forces until 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire and outlined a settlement plan, calling for a referendum on independence. The UN also established MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara, to monitor and implement the peace plan.

Although both Morocco and the Polisario accepted the plan, the referendum did not take place due to disagreement over voter identification. Eyeing Western Sahara's rich phosphate mines, fishing resources and potential oil reserves, Morocco insisted that some of its nationals be allowed to vote in the referendum and it delayed talks aimed at resolving the issues. Strong economic and security relations of both the US and France with Morocco prompted these two big powers to adopt pro-Morocco positions.

In 2001, UN special envoy James Baker, a former US Secretary of State, proposed a new "Framework Agreement," giving five years of autonomy to Sahara within Morocco, followed by a referendum. While the US and France backed the proposal, the Polisario rejected it. In 2004, the UN Security Council reaffirmed its support for the 1991 UN settlement plan, allowing the people of Western Sahara to determine the future of the disputed territory in a referendum.

May 2005 saw Sahrawi demonstrations openly calling for independence. The Security Council passed Resolution 1720 in October 2006 reaffirming commitment to self-determination but stopped short of coercing Morocco to grant independence. In February 2007, Morocco advised France, the US, Spain and Great Britain on its plan for autonomy and submitted a written proposal to the Security Council in April 2007. UN-mediated talks outside of New York during the summer of 2007 ended inconclusively, with Polisario rejecting any solution short of a referendum for independence.

UN Documents | Articles 

UN Documents

Security Council Adopts Resolution 1871, Extending UN Mandate in Western Sahara

A report by the Secretary General on the situation in Western Sahara states that “consolidation of the status quo is not an acceptable outcome.” On April 20, 2009, the Security Council extended the mandate for the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) for another year. The unanimously backed Resolution 1871 calls for continued negotiations surrounding a lasting political solution, including self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. Since Morocco took over Western Sahara in 1978, the Polisario Frontas has struggled for the territory’s independence.

Security Council Resolution 1813 on Western Sahara (April 30, 2008)

Although there has been a lack of progress in negotiations between pro-independence Polasario Front and Morocco on the future of Western Sahara, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1813 extending the UN referendum mission (MINURSO) until April 30, 2009. The Resolution reiterates the Secretary General's demand that the two sides negotiate "without precondition and in good faith" to implement an independence poll for the people of Western Sahara.

Report of the Secretary General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara (April 14, 2008)

Despite the presence of a UN referendum mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO), there has been little progress towards the implementation of an independence poll in the country, says Ban Ki-moon. Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front remain deadlocked in negotiations over rival claims for the resource-rich region. Ban recommends that the Security Council extends the mandate for the peacekeeping mission, and urges the two parties to enter intensive and substantive negotiations over the details of implementing the poll.

Report of the Secretary General on the Status and Progress of the Negotiations on Western Sahara (January 25, 2008)

This report by Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon states that Morocco and the rebel group Frente Polisario remain deadlocked over rival claims for resource-rich Western Sahara. Ban notes that their positions remain "far apart" on ways to implement proposed Security Council resolutions, which call for a negotiated political solution to provide "self-determination of the people of West Sahara."

Report of the Secretary General Concerning the Situation in Western Sahara (April 19, 2006)

In this report, Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledges that the UN – after spending US$ 600 million in the last 15 years in Western Sahara - has failed to broker a peace deal between Morocco and the Frente Polisaro rebels over the West African territory. Annan believes that the only way to break the deadlock is for the UN to halt its efforts to revive a peace plan and instead push for Morocco to negotiate directly with the region's rebels. Despite the lack of progress, Annan urges the Security Council not to give up on Western Sahara, saying it must now focus on pushing the two sides to negotiate.

Report of the Secretary General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara (October 16, 2003)

This report highlights interaction between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Polisario and Morocco. The report praises long-overdue confidence-building measures, such as family visits between refugee camps and the Western Saharan territory.



Africa Should Slap Sanctions on Morocco (October 7, 2011)

The Pan African Parliament called on African Union members to impose sanctions on Morocco until it respects the UN mandate that affirms the right of the Saharawis to self-determination.  Morocco has recently proposed the region’s autonomy while keeping it under Moroccan sovereignty. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) rejects this plan and asks instead for full independence. The conflict between Morocco and the SADR, ongoing since 1975, has displaced many Saharawis and led to human rights violations. (Inter Press Service)

Demands for Autonomy Spread (September 14, 2011)

In 2007, Morocco offered autonomy to Western Sahara to prevent the region from asking for full independence. This has been rejected by the Polisario Front, which has opposed the Moroccan occupation since 1991. But this autonomy offer has triggered movements for independence and autonomy in other Moroccan regions, mainly in northern Rif and Sousse. Some argue that regionalisation could be a means to promote development as well as democratisation if it emanates from the citizens. (Inter Press Service)

Western Sahara: Appeal for Human Rights Monitoring in MINURSO Mandate (April 5, 2011)

The US-Western Sahara Foundation sent a letter to Security Council President Nestor Osorio of Colombia asking for human rights monitoring when the MINURSO mandate is extended. The group believes that adding a human rights mandate will stop the ongoing violence against the Saharawi people. (All Africa)


The Polisario Front leaders have asked for UN involvement in Western Sahara against what they claim is Moroccan aggression. UN-mediated talks have begun between Sahrawis and Moroccans, but have not yet produced a new plan that will satisfy both sides. The Sahrawis consider the most recent outbreak of Moroccan  violence against Sahrawi demonstrators a method of distraction from the real issue of self-determination.  The Polisario Front continues to be critical of the lack of involvement of the UN, specifically the Security Council, over the issue of Western Sahara. The Sahrawis believe that the reason Morocco will not leave Western Sahara is because the region is rich with natural resources.(Inter Press Service)

Polisario Blasts UN over W.Sahara Human Rights (May 3, 2010)

Mohamed Abdelaziz, head of the Polisario Front, has called the recent Security Council Resolution on Western Sahara "a scandal for the credibility of the United Nations and the Security Council." Council members had debated amending the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force (MINURSO) to allow it to monitor human rights violations in Western Sahara. Under the leadership of France, however, the Council had excluded any mention of "human rights" in the unanimously-approved final resolution. Abedlaziz claims that Moroccan human rights abuses in Western Sahara could lead to a renewal of armed conflict. (AFP)
Five prominent Western Saharan human rights defenders are on hunger strike for being detained without trial by Moroccan authorities. The five Sahrawi were arrested last October for crimes of treason, and await trial by military tribunal. If convicted, they could all face the death penalty. These revelations come in the wake of a toothless UN report on Western Sahara, which failed to address human rights violations in non-self governing territories; an obligation laid out by Article 73 of the UN Charter. (Guardian)

US Lawmakers Support Illegal Annexation of Western Sahara (April 5, 2010)

The US Senate has stated, with a bipartisan majority, that the United States should endorse Morocco's illegal annexation of Western Sahara. The Senate supports the Moroccan proposal of Western Saharan autonomy not independence. The Senates statement pressures the Obama administration into ignoring numerous UN Security Council resolutions, a landmark decision from the International Court of Justice and the position of the African Union.


Western Sahara: Geopolitical Tug-of-War (September 2, 2009)

Western Sahara is at the centre of a geopolitical struggle for influence between regional powers and their respective international allies. The recent talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front have highlighted the geopolitical ramifications of the dispute. The negotiations are putting to the test the UN's capacity to resolve low-intensity conflicts. (International Relations and Security Network)


Human Rights in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf Refugee Camps (December 19, 2008)

Western Sahara's occupying power Morocco combines repressive laws, police violence and unfair trials to punish Sahrawis who fight for an independent Western Sahara. France and the US, both allies of Morocco, provide the country financial aid and do not criticize its human rights abuses against the people of Western Sahara. (Human Rights Watch)

Permanent Resistance in Western-Sahara (December 12, 2008)

Thirty-three years ago, Morocco invaded Western Sahara and has occupied the territory ever since. The International Court of Justice legally confirmed the territory's indigenous Saharawis' right to self-determination, and they have been fighting for their independence ever since. But Morocco tries to silence the protests of Saharawi activists like Aminatou Haidar by arresting, torturing and imprisoning them. (Le Monde diplomatique)

Africa's Last Colony (November 15, 2008)

Citizens of Western Sahara, Africa's last unofficial colony, have been struggling for self-determination for thirty-four years. Spain decided to grant the right to self-determination to the Sahrawi people in 1974, but secretly made an agreement with Morocco and Mauritania to share Western Sahara. Morocco has occupied the territory since then, in spite of a judgment by the International Court of Justice and resolutions by the UN Security Council and General Assembly, affirming Western Sahara's right to independence. (Forbes)

French Hand Seen in Western Sahara Impasse (October 22, 2008)

Ahmed Bouhkari, Western Sahara's ambassador, claims that the UN fails to enforce his countries right to self-determination because Security Council member France supports Western Sahara's occupier Morocco. Instead of reaffirming the General Assembly's resolutions that recognize Western Sahara's independence, the Council pushes for an "acceptable solution" for Western Sahara as well as Morocco. The occupying country refuses to leave Western Sahara because it contains many natural resources like uranium, gold and diamonds. (Inter Press Service)

Haidar's Struggle (October 9, 2008)

This Huffington Post article states that the US and France support Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara by providing it with military and security assistance. Security Council members also back Morocco's proposed autonomy plan, which only recognizes Western Sahara as a part of Morocco instead of giving it independence. The author argues that Morocco's plan endorses territorial expansion through force and enables the country to control Western Sahara's natural resources.

Sahara's Long and Troubled Conflict (August 28, 2008)

Peter van Walsum, former UN envoy for Western Sahara, blames both Morocco and the Security Council (SC) for the current impasse in the conflict between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario front. Morocco does not accept Western Sahara's independence and the SC continues to seek a consensual solution between Morocco and Polisario. Van Walsum does not deem this realistic because both the parties in the conflict do not want to make concessions. (El Pais)

Western Sahara's Conflict Traps Refugees in Limbo (June 4, 2008)

Morocco uses Sahwari refugees to enhance its claim to sovereignty over oil-rich Western Sahara, according to the New York Times. Morocco and a US-based lobbying firm brought five refugees to the UN in June 2008 to talk of their suffering at the hands of the opposition Polissario Front in the region. However, rather than a genuine humanitarian concern, the article shows that the "Moroccan American Centre for Policy" represents the Moroccan government and promotes US business opportunities in Western Sahara.

How Autonomous Is Autonomy? The Western Sahara Dispute in a Bind (April 2008)

This Middle East Institute paper offers differing perspectives on the dispute between Morocco and the pro-independence Polissario Front over Western Sahara. One commentator, Robert Holley, argues that limited autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan rule is the only solution. In contrast, Stephen Zunes states that Morocco wishes to claim rich natural resources in the area, and that support from the US and France at the Security Council allows Morocco to renege on the promise of an independence referendum for Western Sahara.


W. Sahara Independence Movement to Review Strategy (December 5, 2007)

Western Sahara's rebel movement Polisario, wants independence from Morocco. Since 1991, this resource-rich territory has been has been under UN peacekeeping oversight (MINURSO) due to the Polisario struggle against Moroccan rule. The Security Council has discussed the issue, but remains divided. While the US and France support Morocco, the majority of Council members does not. (Reuters)

UN Security Council Extends Peacekeepers Mandate in Western Sahara, Urges Negotiations (November 1, 2007)

Since the 1991 UN-negotiated cease-fire in Western Sahara, the Moroccan government and Polisario Front (PF) rebels have held two rounds of peace talks without reaching any agreement. Morocco only agrees to give the Saharawi people limited autonomy. But, the PF rebels want independence, or at least greater autonomy. The UN Security Council extended its peacekeeping force in Western Sahara until April 2008, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked for greater productive negotiations. Inside the Council, South Africa defends the right to self-determination of the Saharawi people, while the US and France support the Moroccan government. (Associated Press)

The Future of Western Sahara (July 20, 2007)

The UN Security Council, the General Assembly, the International Court of Justice and the African Union have long recognized Western Sahara's right to self-determination. In order to avoid granting independence during ongoing talks, Casablanca has proposed an autonomy plan to Western Sahara. This plan would keep the region under Moroccan sovereignty. The people of Western Sahara are unlikely to accept the proposal, but US and French support for Morocco prevents the UN Security Council from taking any effective action. (Foreign Policy in Focus)

UN Appears to Backtrack on Western Sahara Autonomy (June 30, 2007)

The United Nations has reissued a report on Western Sahara negotiations, omitting Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's endorsement of an autonomy proposal. The report focuses on the issue of sovereignty as the root of the decades-old dispute between Morocco and Polisario Front. (Mail and Guardian)

UN Sahara Talks Stay Alive, More Planned in August (June 20, 2007)

According to this Reuters article, Washington's interests motivate UN pressure on Morocco and Polisario Front to decide the Western Sahara's status. The US believes that the Western Saharan conflict obstructs cooperation from North African states on resisting terrorist groups near the Sahara. But talks in Manhasset, New York led only to the promise of more talks in August. Polisario Front official Mahfoud Ali Beiba says that a referendum represents a good compromise between Casablanca's insistence on Western Saharan autonomy within Morocco, and Polisario Front's quest for independence. But the two parties cannot agree on who could vote in such a referendum.

Thinking Outside the Box in Western Sahara (June 17, 2007)

To solve the conflict between Morocco, Western Sahara's occupier since 1978, and the pro-Independence Polisario Front, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wants both parties to negotiate without pre-conditions. The author argues that former colonial power Spain must give up its Moroccan enclaves Ceuta and Melilla in exchange for Morocco's agreement to a referendum as demanded by Polisario and long-demanded by the Security Council.(Angus Reid Global Monitor)

Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse (June 11, 2007)

Morocco and Polisario Front will renew talks on a Western Saharan settlement. However, this International Crisis Group report warns that talks will prove unfruitful until the UN Security Council either reinvigorates or reconsiders its pro-referendum position. To escape stagnation, the report argues that the Security Council must either vigorously pursue its official position of self-determination for Western Saharans, or delegate its current responsibility for conflict settlement to the parties involved.

Morocco, Polisario Front Agree to Hold Talks For First Time Over Western Sahara (April 30, 2007)

The UN Security Council has passed a resolution calling for Morocco and the POLISARIO front to hold talks over the future of the Western Sahara region. Although both sides are willing to negotiate, the Moroccan government has not agreed to a referendum on the issue of the region's independence or autonomy. The POLISARIO front insists that a referendum is the only way forward. The US asserts that it has a strong interest in resolving the dispute because of "terrorist groups expanding their presence into North Africa." (Associated Press)

Proposals to Resolve the Conflict in the Western Sahara (April 17, 2007)

Magharebia compares the plans submitted to the Security Council by Morocco and the POLISARIO front as the Council prepares to debate the future of the Western Sahara. Morocco proposes autonomy for the region but wants to keep Moroccan sovereignty and firmly rejects any debate on full independence. POLISARIO insists that a referendum is the only answer to the issue of self-determination while underlining its desire to find a solution that is also acceptable to Morocco.

Morocco: Country to Present Saharawi Autonomy Plan to Security Council (April 10, 2007)

Morocco is to present a plan granting substantial autonomy to the Western Sahara to the United Nations Security Council. While many countries including France, Spain and the United States have praised the plan as a solution to the conflict with the POLISARIO, South Africa reaffirms its support for the right of the Saharawi people to determine their own future, insisting that the principle of self-determination is an inviolable principle enshrined in the UN Charter. (BuaNews)

Western Sahara Between Autonomy and Intifada (March 16, 2007)

Jacob Mundy's article for MERIP deplores that the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)'s continued presence has not hastened the process of referendum on independence of the region from Morocco. Mundy reports that even if The Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguí­a el Hamra y Rí­o de Oro (POLISARIO) does win the referendum, Morocco may still refuse to leave the territory. Morocco is set to present its proposed plan on autonomy to the Security Council in April 2007.



The Polisario Front, which seeks an independent Western Sahara, has implied it may resume hostilities if a diplomatic solution on the territory's future status is not reached soon. Citing "renewed Moroccan intransigence," the Polisario urges the UN to pressure Morocco to follow through on the 1991 UN-backed agreement to hold a referendum on whether Western Sahara should remain under Rabat's control or become an independent state. The longer the stalemate continues, the more the Saharawi people get frustrated by what they see as the international community's flagging efforts to address their claims. Most Saharawis feel like time for diplomatic efforts has run out: "from children to adults, everyone will tell you they want war." (openDemocracy)

More Talks Ahead in Western Sahara Impasse - UN Envoy (January 18, 2006)

Peter van Walsum succeeded James Baker as UN special envoy for Western Sahara. Baker resigned the post after seven years of unsuccessful efforts to reach an agreement on the territory's future status. Although van Walsum does not foresee any breakthroughs in the near future, he reiterated that more talks between the Moroccan Government and the Polisario Front independence movement were the only way out of the deadlock over the desert territory. (Reuters)

Western Sahara Impasse (January 2006)

The Algeria-backed independence movement Polisario Front and the Moroccan Government remain unwilling to make any sacrifices to end the territorial deadlock over Western Sahara. Since May 2005 the Saharawi people have organized a series of demonstrations in major Western Saharan towns calling for secession from Morocco. Le Monde diplomatique wonders if the violence with which these were put down will reawaken the armed liberation struggle.



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