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.
The Peace Process:
Following 16 years of war, the UN and OAU jointly brokered a ceasefire and elaborated a settlement plan, approved by the Security Council in its Resolutions 658 (1990) and 690 (1991). The latter resolution also established a United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire and to organise a referendum of the Saharawi people in order to allow them to determine their own future by choosing autonomy, independence or integration. Despite the publication of UN-approved voter lists in 1999, and the UN’s sole and exclusive authority over all matters relating to the organization and conduct of the referendum, the intended referendum has not yet taken place due to Morocco refusal.
In his role as the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, former US Secretary of State James Baker III proposed two versions of a compromise solution in 2000 and 2003 (Baker Plans I and II), both involving a referendum after a period of autonomy. Baker Plan II was endorsed by the Security Council in July 2003, but was never implemented due to Morocco’s refusal to accept independence for Western Sahara as one of the options to be put to a vote. This position runs counter to the general position under international law and several GA resolutions on decolonization and self-determination. It should also be noted that Morocco had previously agreed to independence as a possible option to be voted on in a self-determination referendum in both the Settlement Plan of 1991 and the Houston Accords of 1997.
On 10 April and 11 April 2007, respectively, the Frente POLISARIO and Morocco presented their individual proposals for a political solution to the Western Sahara issue. The Moroccan plan proposed autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty, while excluding the option of independence – counter to the inalienable right of the Saharawi to independence and self-determination as defined by General Assembly Resolutions 1514 (XV) and 1541 (XV). Meanwhile, the Frente POLISARIO proposal stressed the need for a referendum on self-determination that would include the options already agreed to in the 1991 Settlement Plan and in the Houston Accords of 1997 (i.e. independence, integration or autonomy).
In its Resolution 1754 of 30 April 2007, the Security Council took note of the two proposals and called on the parties to “enter into negotiations without preconditions 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.”
Four rounds of formal talks were convened in 2007 and 2008 under the auspices of the former Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General, Peter van Walsum. Following the appointment of former US Ambassador Christopher Ross as his replacement in January 2009, the parties have held a further nine rounds of informal talks, the latest in New York in March 2012. At the conclusion of these talks, the parties agreed in a communiqué that Ambassador Ross would visit the region in May, including the Territory of Western Sahara, and that this would be followed by two further rounds of informal talks in June and July. This timetable was endorsed by the Security Council in its resolution 2044, but was never realized due to the announcement by Morocco in mid-May that it no longer had confidence in Ambassador Ross and would not cooperate with his process.
Following repeated public statements from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he did not intend to replace Ross, and strong statements of support for Ross from the US and UK Governments, Ban Ki-moon reportedly called Moroccan King Mohamed VI to confirm that Christopher Ross would continue in his role.
Despite the prospect of resumed talks in late 2012, discussions largely remain in stalemate due to Morocco’s refusal to discuss the substance of the Frente POLISARIO proposal, or other options for a process of self-determination that would include independence as one of the options to be put to a vote. Morocco has also refused to participate in serious discussions regarding the definition of the eventual electoral corps.
Meanwhile, the large Saharawi population that fled Western Sahara during the war continues to live in tented refugee camps in the harsh conditions of the Sahara desert near Tindouf in south-western Algeria. A generation of more than 165,000 Saharawi refugees has grown up in the camps, a situation widely recognised as a humanitarian tragedy.