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The conflict over the sovereignty of the Western Sahara “Africa’s Last Colony” has long been a matter of dispute with Morocco’s continuing claim to its legal right over the territory under what it calls: “Restoration of pre-colonial territorial heritage”. Morocco’s proposal was examined by the International court of Justice which in 1975, delivered a controversial opinion that marked the start of the conflict. According to ICJ (1975), there have been legal ties with the Sahara and Morocco respectively, yet these ties, did not mount to territorial sovereignty. Therefore, there was no reason not to apply the principles of self-determination to the decolonisation process in the territory. Accordingly, early signs of an inevitable crisis appeared when Morocco mobilised around 350,000 Moroccans in a popular march “The Green March” to the Western Sahara . By 1976, Spain withdrew from the territory after concluding a tripartite secret treaty “The Madrid Treaty” with Morocco and Mauritania to transfer administration to the two neighbouring states without referring to the UN charter concerning the decolonization process of former colonies through a referendum of self-determination “Resolution 1514 (XV).

In response, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was proclaimed as the diplomatic and administrative arm of the Polisario Front . Since, series of events took place and a struggle in North Africa was predictable. Algeria entered the conflict as the main backer of the Front and more than 40.000 Sahraoui refugees were evacuated to the bordered Algerian city of Tindouf where they remain to date. Mauritania withdrew shortly after, concluding the “Algiers Peace Treaty” with the Polisario in 1978 . By the 1980s, Morocco and the Front went through direct confrontations which lasted until ceasefire took place in 1988 under the UN (resolution 658/1990) and the Organisation of the African Unity (OAU) pressures . By the 1990s, Morocco controlled 80% of the territory, building a sand wall along the borders of Algeria . UN peace settlement plan was introduced in 1991; nevertheless, for over two decades, the situation did not improve and the mission is subject to failure. This article aims to examine the reasons behind the continuance of the Western Saharan Conflict. It will first analyse the role of actors such as: the UN, African Unity, NGOs and the media. Then, it will look at regional and international incentives and their relationship with security and the current deadlock in the Sahara.

Role of the United Nations (UN):

Since its introduction in 1991, the United Nation Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was unable to function as a transformative tool for the current deadlock. The plan excessively focused on what should be achieved to resolute the conflict rather than how this could be achieved. For example, it was designed to conclude the voting lists, organise the referendum of self-determination in January 1992, establish the Saharan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), reduce the Moroccan forces from the territory, ensure the safe exchange of political prisoners and the return of refugees from the Algerian city of Tindouf . Nevertheless, its success was limited to stopping direct confrontations between the warring parties (negative peace) rather than resolving the roots of the conflict (positive peace). As a result, the ceasefire lost its credibility over the years and the operation was categorized among the “frozen conflicts”, besides Lebanon and Cyprus .

The UN’s involvement in the Western Sahara conflict was more disadvantageous than advantageous. Struggles started when ceasefire was accomplished with the disapproval of one party, Morocco . The UN did not call parties to negotiate, formally or informally, in order to construct a base for future negotiations. Polisario’s sole aim was a referendum of self-determination which includes the option of independence and Morocco’s objection to such option was clearly obvious before the ceasefire took place . As a result, MINURSO units were unable to conduct their duty with Morocco’s control over the territory. Further difficulties occurred when the UN adopted the 1754 resolution in 2007 which entitled the parties to negotiate without preconditions. This has only succeeded in bringing parties together as no further progress was made, giving that both still insist on their traditional views The UN was to abandon its mission in the territory, following Baker’s resignation after two major unsuccessful plans to resolute the conflict. Baker I plan was rejected by the Polisario for not including the option of independence and introducing a third option “autonomy” while Baker II was rejected by Morocco for including the option of independence in the referendum . Christopher Ross, the new personal envoy, argued that the conflict will never be resolved if parties are not willing to compromise and change their perceptions and interests from win-lose to win-win outcomes . This lack of will towards a concrete compromise to achieve a sustainable peace is related to the distrust and polarisation barriers that were constructed between the two parties throughout five decades of the conflict and that generated malice and hatred between the two populations. Last March, the 9th informal meeting of negotiations took place in New York; however, these have solely focused on the humanitarian aspect. Next rounds will take place June and July and the Security Council is expected to take its responsibilities to complete the decolonisation process of Africa’s last colony .

Both the UN and key players in the international community are not only blamed for the current stalemate but also for their lack consent with the operation as no action was taken to force the resolution . Being the sole legitimate mediator, the UN has not transformed power relations since it has been manipulated by Morocco; it maintained the status quo, and legitimized the same order of power relations, without resolving the roots of the conflict . It has been criticised of favouring the stronger side: Morocco, being an ally in the region. In this sense “the mission has been biased towards Morocco because the UN’s production of power/knowledge was constrained by the power dynamics within the international system”.