Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa, located on the continent’s Atlantic coast to the south of Morocco and to the north of Mauritania. This vast territory of 286.000 square kilometers is inhabited by indigenous population known as the Saharawis, and from 1884, was subject to Spanish colonial rule.
Western Sahara was designated by the General Assembly as a ‘Non-Self-Governing Territory’ (NSGT) under the Charter of the United Nations in 1963, a legal status it retains to this day. General Assembly (GA) Resolution 1541 (XV) (adopted in 1960) confirmed that in order to complete the process of decolonization, all NSGTs must progress to a “full measure of self-government” by: (a) emergence as a sovereign independent State; (b) free association with an independent State; or (c) integration with an independent State.
Under increasing international pressure to decolonize the Territory, Spain agreed in 1972 to a referendum on self-determination for the Saharawi people. However, in the final months of the Franco regime, and in violation of the relevant GA resolutions, Spain initiated a process to withdraw from the Territory by signing an unlawful agreement, the ‘Madrid Accords’ of 14 November 1975, which attempted to transfer the Territory to a temporary tripartite administration of Spain, Morocco and Mauritania with a view to achieving a full withdrawal by Spain at the end of February 1976. Prior to the formal end of the temporary tripartite administration, Spain wrote to the UN Secretary-General seeking unilaterally to exempt itself from its role as administering power and relevant international obligations.
At the request of the General Assembly, an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in October 1975 found that there were no ties of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and either Morocco or Mauritania.
The Court also confirmed the legal right of the Saharawi people to a process of self-determination, which includes the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory. The advisory opinion prompted illegal invasions of Western Sahara by both Morocco and Mauritania, and a 16-year war ensued against the Saharawi liberation movement, Frente POLISARIO, which declared an independent Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in February 1976.
Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara in 1979 and officially recognised the SADR. Morocco eventually occupies the western two-thirds of Western Sahara, and built a military sand wall (also known as “Berm” – see map) littered by millions antipersonel landmines running the length of the Territory from North to South.
The Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union, granted full membership to the SADR in 1984. The SADR is a full founding Member of the African Union and has established full diplomatic relations with dozens of countries worldwide.