The Western Sahara territorial conflict is an artificial issue. It has been such since its inception in the 1970s during the Cold War era and here is why: The vast territory called Western Sahara had been under Spanish occupation for years until 1963, when Morocco introduced the issue to the United Nations as part of its attempts to complete its territorial integrity. That was ten years before the separatist movement called POLISARIO (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro/ Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Wad e-Dahab) came to existence in May 1973.

Morocco Sahara

Western Sahara map

Spain had already then turned over the provinces of Tarfaya and Sidi Ifni to Morocco in 1958 and 1969, respectively. Yet, Spain wanted to maintain its control over Western Sahara to create an independent state in the region with local government under Spanish tutelage and control. To concretize its plan, Spain unilaterally announced in August 1974 its decision to organize a referendum in the Sahara during the first half of 1975, which Morocco strongly rejected while dispatching delegates to several countries to explain its stance. Up until that point, the POLISARIO as we know today did not exist.

Morocco subsequently brought the Sahara issue to the International Court of Justice in order to determine the legal status of the region. Indeed, Morocco submitted a request for an advisory opinion to the court after asking the General Assembly to suspend every process related to holding a referendum in the Western Sahara until the International Court of Justice’s consultative judgement on the case was revealed. Pursuant to this request, the General Assembly issued Resolution No. 3292 of December 13, 1974, in which it requested the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on the following two questions:

  1. Had Western Sahara – Saguia el Hamra and Wad e-Dahab – been terra nullius (land without owner) before it was colonized by Spain?
  2. In case the answer to the first question was negative, what ties had this region had with Morocco and Mauritania?

A majority of 13 votes confirmed that Western Sahara had indeed had an owner before the Spanish colonization.

On October 16, 1975, the International Court of Justice issued its advisory opinion on the two questions. Concerning the first question, a majority of 13 votes confirmed that Western Sahara had indeed had an owner before the Spanish colonization while only three votes denied this fact and claimed that it was terra nullius.

As to the second question, 14 votes out of 16 confirmed that, based on the materials and information presented to them, tribal leaders representing many Western Sahara tribes had legal ties with, and pledged allegiance to the Moroccan Sultan during Spanish colonialism. This opinion by the International Court of Justice was neither a gift nor bias in favor of Morocco since it was based on hard facts and concrete archival manuscripts that proved, without any shred of doubt, the continuous ties between the indigenous Sahrawi tribes and the Sultans of Morocco through the ages. (See the manuscripts provided in this article.)

After the International Court of Justice’s explicit recognition of Morocco’s rights over its Sahara by confirming the pledge of allegiance ties between the Sahrawi tribal leaders and the late Sultan of Morocco Hassan II, Morocco decided to organize an epic, peaceful march (The Green March) to its southern provinces on November 5, 1975, with the participation of 350,000 citizens representing all the regions of the country.

The Green March was a turning point in the conflict because it spoiled the Spanish government’s and prompted it to embrace negotiations with Morocco.

The Green March was a turning point in the conflict because it spoiled the Spanish government’s plans and prompted it to embrace negotiations with Morocco over the future of the region. The tripartite summit between Morocco, Mauritania, and Spain culminated in the signature of the Madrid Declaration on November 14, 1975, commencing a three-month transitional period during which the Western Sahara would be subject to tripartite administration, followed by Spain’s handing over of power to Morocco and Mauritania. The latter signed a peace accord with the POLISARIO front in 1979 under which it renounced all claims to the southern part of Western Sahara and withdrew from the conflict for good, leaving Morocco in direct confrontation with the guerrilla organization.

Morocco Sahara

Morocco’s historic Green March with 350,000 citizens carrying the Moroccan flag, November 1975.

[Morocco’s Approach to Religious Extremism: From Jihadism to Pacifism and Reform]

[The Rise of Atheism in Morocco]

[New Approaches to European-Maghrebi Relations Emerge Amid Pandemic]

The success of the Green March, which resulted in Spain’s immediate consent to peaceful negotiations with Morocco and later the withdrawal of the Spanish forces from Western Sahara, led Algeria to adopt an anti-Morocco position by first engineering the birth of the separatist movement known today as the POLISARIO, and then hosting it on Algerian territory in the Tindouf camps of southwest Algeria. Algeria’s support for the POLISARIO was and continues to be steadfast, ranging from generous armaments to financial rewards for some poor developing countries in exchange for their recognition of the POLISARIO front.

Today, out of the 85 countries that recognized the self-proclaimed, so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, only 40 countries—none of which are major players—still hold that recognition while 45 countries have either frozen or withdrawn their acknowledgment, which clearly debunks POLISARIO allegations.

The POLISARIO front declared war on Morocco immediately after the Spanish withdrawal from Western Sahara.

Conflated militarily through direct Algerian and Libyan armament, the POLISARIO front declared war on Morocco immediately after the Spanish withdrawal from Western Sahara following the Madrid Declaration of November 14, 1975. The POLISARIO guerilla fighters were able to inflict severe damage on Morocco through hit-and-run attacks that were part of guerilla tactics. Given the vast Saharan territory, it was hard for Moroccan forces to stop the insurgencies of POLISARIO rebels until the erection of the largest functional military barrier in the world (the Berm) stretching 1,500 miles, which allowed Morocco to establish its complete control over 80 percent of the Sahara. The war lasted from 1975 to 1991, draining both parties and costing between 10,000 and 20,000 deaths.

In 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the POLISARIO and adopted a settlement plan based on the organization of referendum in the Sahara which included separation and independence from Morocco as one of its options. The Security Council, thus, decided on April 29, 1991 to establish the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in accordance with the Secretary-General’s report S/22464. The mission of the MINURSO was to monitor the ceasefire agreement and implement the referendum in congruence with the UN Settlement Plan.

Yet, despite the efforts invested by the MINURSO under successive special UN representatives, the referendum has never come to see the light due to many intricate technical problems related to the census and registration of the Sahrawis who are entitled to vote and the inapplicability of the UN Settlement Plan which had numerous gaps according to many observers. Both Morocco and the POLISARIO front initially expressed their reservations over the plan, but the UN hastened the implementation stage without close consideration of those concerns.

The identification and registration process undertaken by the UN Identification Commission faced ample challenges with regard to the disagreement over who was eligible to vote. The second part of the provisional list of voters released on January 17, 2000, by the MINURSO Identification Commission was very surprising to Morocco with regard to the small number of applicants found to be eligible. Of the 51,220 Sahrawis who applied to vote from H41, H61, and J51/52 tribal groupings, only 2,130 individuals were deemed eligible. Added to the first list of 84,251 voters, the total number of individuals who met the identification criteria was 86,381 out of about 200,000 applicants.

The exclusion of more than 100,000 applicants who were indigenous Saharans reflected the disruptive role the POLISARIO and its backers played during the work of the UN commission.

The exclusion of more than 100,000 applicants who were indigenous Saharans reflected the disruptive role the POLISARIO and its backers played during the work of the UN commission and the negative influence they exerted on its deliberations. Morocco, consequently, questioned the impartiality, credibility, and objectivity of the MINURSO Identification Commission members and expressed its surprise and dismay at the list, warning “that the referendum would not be held if any person originating from the Sahara were denied the right to participate.” (Report of February 17, 2000)

After many futile attempts to implement the plan, the Secretary General Mr. Kofi Annan and his personal envoy Mr. James Baker concluded that “it has not been possible to implement in full any of the main provisions of the United Nations Settlement Plan, with the exception of the monitoring of the ceasefire.” (Report of February 17, 2000)

Morocco Sahara

Moroccan soldiers watched a biker pass the wall of sand separating Morocco and Mauritania, in the Western Sahara, Jan. 8, 2001. (Photo Patrick Hertzog/AFP)

Following the failure of the United Nations Settlement Plan, as recognized by the UN Secretary General himself in his February 17, 2000 report, Morocco submitted a memorandum to the UN Secretary General in 2003 declaring that the self-determination referendum has become a dead option. This conclusion would be corroborated by the UN Special Envoy Mr. Peter Van Walsum who, after three years of continuous work with the conflicting parties as a successor to Mr. James Baker, said that the referendum is no more feasible and should be bypassed and removed from the negotiations table. Mr. Walsum went even further to say in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais that the independence of the POLISARIO and the establishment of a Sahrawi state is not an “achievable goal.”

Morocco’s autonomy plan was hailed by the international community and the members of the Security Council, describing it as serious and credible.

In April 2007, Morocco proposed a political solution that would grant the Sahrawis autonomy to run their affairs under Moroccan sovereignty. Morocco’s autonomy plan was hailed by the international community and the members of the Security Council, describing it as serious and credible. Yet, the Algerian-backed POLISARIO front continues to regurgitate its old cold war polemic, brandishing its weapons and threatening to go back to war against Morocco anytime. The stalemate in the issue today is due to the POLISARIO clinging to its unbudging traditional stance towards the conflict, considering it a matter of decolonization whose only solution is self-determination in line with the international law represented by the UN resolution number 1544.

The POLISARIO considers that Morocco’s invocation of its historical rights over the Sahara is only a maneuver to cover up its nationalist expansionist aspirations. Accordingly, the Moroccan claim is described and classified as part of a larger project of “Greater Morocco” which was proposed by the Independence Party after Morocco’s independence in 1956. This project, however, was but a legitimate plan to restore some of the lost Moroccan territory that historically stretched as far south as the Senegal River during the reign of many Moroccan dynasties. The lands north of Senegal and parts of today’s Algerian Sahara were all under the Moroccan sway in the immediate pre-colonial era, and their peoples showed allegiance to the Sultan of Morocco, paid him taxes, and conducted the Friday prayers in his name. The international community today is completely amnesiac to that history, as if it did not exist.

The relative success that the separatist movement brags about today on the military and diplomatic fronts was sometimes bigger than that achieved by legitimate liberation movements such as the Palestinian Liberation Front, the Kurds in Iraq, and the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Had it not been for the untiring Algerian multifaceted support, the POLISARIO would have never achieved any gains in its war against Morocco. The Algerian propaganda machine has always portrayed the POLISARIO as a meek player, describing Morocco’s existence in the Sahara as occupation and, on many occasions, comparing Morocco to Israel. This misleading analogy has no grounds to rest on, given the different historical, geographical, and political contexts in which the two conflicts originated.

The cost of the conflict for Morocco is very high economically and politically, draining the state treasury for more than 40 years now.

The cost of the conflict for Morocco is very high economically and politically, draining the state treasury for more than 40 years now. The economic statistics available for anyone to consult undermine all claims that Morocco exploits the natural resources the Sahara provides. As the Moroccan monarch King Mohammed VI said in his speech on the 39th anniversary of the Green March on November 6, 2014: “Since we recovered the Sahara, for every single dirham of revenue from the Sahara, the state invests 7 dirhams there, as part of the solidarity between the regions and between the sons and daughters of the nation.” This is not to mention the other parallel material and human costs, especially with permanent military and logistical equipment that swallows almost half of the Moroccan military budget. It is indeed profuse bleeding from a stab in the back.

Today, thousands of Sahrawis live in despair and closed horizons in the Tindouf camps in Algeria without any prospects. The camps are entirely dependent on international aid, with thousands of families living in drastic destitution and inhumane conditions. Reports from many international organizations also indicate the rising threat of terrorism, drug trafficking, contraband and smuggling, illicit immigration, and many other illegal activities in the region. International media also report well-organized, years long embezzlement of European humanitarian aid designated for the refugee camps in Tindouf.

These reports clearly indict the Algerian authorities and the POLISARIO leaders who systematically divert vitally needed humanitarian aid to build personal fortunes. In this regard, Bjorn Hultin, Vice President of the Brussels-based NGO Comité Européen de Soutien au Plan D’autonomie au Sahara Occidental (CESPASO), told EUToday: “The POLISARIO leaders systematically and methodically adopt misappropriation of humanitarian aid and accumulate colossal fortunes and they all have luxury real estate in Spain. It is tragic to be enriched on the back of the suffering of the sequestered populations.”

The status quo seems therefore to benefit corrupt Algerian and POLISARIO authorities who turn a blind eye to the human crisis in the Tindouf camps even during the current pandemic. Human rights reports indicate that great proportions of children in the camps suffer from chronic malnutrition, anemia, and other related diseases. The population in general lives under extremely difficult conditions and suffers imaginable and unimaginable plights. Thus, until a solution is found, this conflict continues to not only drain Morocco’s resources and impede the geopolitical unity of the countries of the Maghreb but also deepen the humanitarian crisis in the Tindouf camps in Algeria.