It has been called ‘Africa’s last colony’, and the debate over its sovereignty is growing tumultuous once more. For four decades, Morocco and Sahrawi nationalists have disputed the ownership of Western Sahara, one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world. So how did we get to this position, and do international organizations like the African Union, European Union and United Nations offer any solutions?
For most of the twentieth century, Spain controlled the territory. But when faced with growing international condemnation for colonization and the 1973 emergence of the Polisario Front (an independent movement led by indigenous people), Spain ceded the territory to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. The latter would withdraw its claim to the region in 1979, but Morocco remained and established a military presence, even as the Polisario Front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with the support of Algeria. Conflict broke out between the Moroccan and Sahrawi forces, aided by both regional conflicts (between conservative Arab monarchies and revolutionary Arab republics) and Cold War dimensions (with Morocco aligned to the USA and Algeria somewhat with the USSR). The fighting persisted until the UN Security Council brokered an informal, then formal truce in 1991. But there are now concerns that, after 25 years of stagnant peace, conflict might return to the region.
Morocco’s recent readmission into the African Union has heightened tension over Western Sahara. Morocco left what was then the Organization of African Unity in 1984, when it decided to recognize the SADR as an independent state. However, Morocco was allowed to re-join in January 2017 thanks to the efforts of its King Mohammed VI, who toured the continent to negotiate 50 bilateral agreements and investments with other states. As a result, 39 out of 54 AU member states voted for its re-entry, despite Morocco’s failure to accept the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.
In its first months as a member, Morocco has done little to alleviate fears that it intends to undermine the standing of the SADR in the AU. In March 2017 the 10th annual meeting of African finance ministers, hosted by the AU and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, was adjourned after Morocco objected to the SADR participating. Furthermore, Morocco’s new deals risk further normalizing the occupation of Western Sahara. For instance, Morocco and Nigeria signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for collaboration and investment in fertilizer to boost agriculture in Nigeria. Materials for this fertilizer were taken from the phosphate-rich Western Sahara territory. So the presence of this deal contradicts Nigeria’s long-standing position on the independence of SADR.
However, the African Union also has the potential to facilitate dialogue between the two opposing sides. It has expressed its regret at Morocco’s non-attendance at talks on the SADR, and has called for direct dialogue between the two member states. For example, the AU decided to appoint a High Representative for Western Sahara to facilitate direct talks. However, further collective action would be required to take Morocco to task for its violation of union rules; this would require member states to prioritize the SADR’s right to independence over their own bilateral agreements – a significant ask.
But what options exist outside of the complex AU relations? Currently, the EU does not have a coherent position on Western Sahara – notionally they support SADR’s independence, but they have strong economic ties with Morocco. The EU recently demonstrated some willingness to challenge Morocco on the issue of the SADR. In 2016 the Polisario Front legally challenged the existing EU-Morocco free trade deals, accusing them of funding illegal occupation. In response, the European Court of Justice acknowledged that Western Sahara should be treated as territorially distinct from Morocco, meaning that trade deals cannot apply to products within this occupied territory (unless with the approval of Sahrawi people). The free trade agreement was thus annulled, and whilst trade continues, products from Western Sahara cannot be admitted. This is the first time the European court has taken a stance on Moroccan claims to the region.
Yet it is easy to over exaggerate the EU’s willingness to push for peace. Presently there is an EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement (FPA) which secures EU fishing rights in Moroccan and Western Saharan waters, in exchange for Morocco annually receiving 40 million euros. The Polisario has accused Brussels of directly assisting the Moroccan government in developing infrastructure in a territory that, according to the European Court, lies outside of Morocco’s internationally recognized borders. The current FPA’s implementation protocol expires in 2017 and negotiations for its renewal are expected to start soon. The Polisario Front is expected to present another legal case.
Furthermore, following the challenge to the free trade agreement, Morocco has mounted its own pressure on the EU. In February 2017, Morocco’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries announced, “Any obstacle in the application of this agreement … risks the resumption of migratory flows, which Morocco has succeeded in containing.” A recent influx of sub-Saharan migrants from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta has been interpreted as the Moroccan government pressuring the EU to respect their territorial control. In three days in February 2017, 900 crossed into Ceuta (more than all of 2016’s crossings). As the EU continues to struggle with the refugee crisis, its reliance on Morocco will likely inhibit its willingness to intervene on the SADR’s behalf. Much like the AU, it is unlikely that the EU will offer any substantial push against Morocco until it has addressed its own internal affairs.
Does it then fall to the UN to offer the ability to smooth West Saharan tensions? The clearest option they have advocated is a vote by the people of Western Sahara on their sovereignty. A UN peace-keeping force has remained in the region since the 1991 ceasefire, intending to host a referendum on independence. However, disagreements over who should be on the electoral roll have hampered progress. Numerous UN representatives have unsuccessfully taken on the task, including special envoy James Baker, the former U.S. Secretary of State. He spent 8 years drafting a Barker Plan (and then a Barker Plan II); when the latter was rejected by Morocco, Baker resigned in protest. This cycle has been repeated with special envoy Christopher Ross, a former U.S. diplomat, who also worked on the subject for eight years and faced significant criticism from Morocco. Ross resigned his position in 2017. Yet this does not mean the idea of a vote should be abandoned. In the last fortnight the AU Peace and Security Council has called on the UN to renew the mandate for the referendum, which expires at the end of April 2017. There is still an appetite for the referendum, if the UN is willing to dig in.
Of course, the UN’s influence over Morocco could be overstated. The UN has been critical of the country in the past. For example, the legal department of the UN Security Council has concluded that Morocco’s exploitation of the mineral reserves of Western Sahara constitutes a violation of international law, especially when such action is undertaken against the wishes of the rightful owners of the resources. But these stances have not led to a dialogue, and the UN has not outright recognized the SADR. However, there is still clearly a role for the UN to play. In August 2015 the Moroccan royal army broke into West Sahara’s buffer zone, claiming that they were clearing the area Guerguerat of drug traffickers and smugglers. However, the Polisario accused Morocco of violating the ceasefire agreement, particularly due to the strategic significance of Guerguerat. The area lies within a province which provides the Polisario with an entrance to the Atlantic Ocean. This potential source of conflict was resolved in February 2017, when Morocco announced that it would pull back from the contested zone at the request of the UN Secretary, General António Guterres. The UN has therefore has such success when wielding ‘soft’ power.
In conclusion, it does not seem like the AU, EU or UN have viable options for peace in West Sahara – at least not at the moment. But all of them have the potential to help peace. For the AU and the EU this would primarily depend upon reconciling the interests of their member states, to develop a united stance towards Morocco. The balance will be continuing to benefit from trade and collaboration with the country, whilst also be willing to challenge aggressive behaviour. The UN likely provides the clearest chance for steps forward, rather than just holding back aggression. This could be done by rededicating themselves to the work of the referendum. The UN alone seems to have had success thus far in facilitating conversations between the two states. As a result, they must lead on these future conversations. Building these democratic approaches – rather than sanctions – would likely allow them to best influence the Moroccan state.