The United Nations And African Union Raise New Questions Surrounding The Western Sahara

Twenty-seven years have passed since a UN-brokered ceasefire left most of the Western Sahara territory under Moroccan control. Ever since then, the Sahrawi people, the region’s indigenous population, have consistently struggled to gain independence. Since 1991, the efforts of the Sahrawi people organised under the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) have been met with vocal support from international organizations, including the UN and the African Union (AU). This support, however, has yet to translate into substantive pressure to prioritize the conflict and the Sahrawi people. Today, the future of the Western Sahara remains uncertain. Recent events have raised new questions over the possibility that the UN, AU, and regional countries will act as agents of change in the decades-long push to ensure the independence of what is understood to be the last remaining colony in Africa.

The contemporary history of the Western Sahara is one of colonialism and occupation. When Morocco was divided between Spain and France in the Treaty of Fez in 1912, the Western Sahara territory had been allocated to Spain. It remained under Spanish control until 1975, which, upon the UN’s insistence, Spain ceded the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. However, immediately following this reallocation, Morocco invaded the territory and entered into an immediate conflict with the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi liberation group. This conflict continued until the UN-brokered ceasefire of 1991 that left most of the territory under Moroccan control and the Sahrawi governing party (SADR) in exile in Algeria.

In the eyes of most states, Morocco continues to illegally occupy the Western Sahara. To Morocco, however, Western Sahara is part of its rightful, pre-colonial territory, where the Sahrawi people enjoy relative autonomy under a greater national government. The land itself is underdeveloped and enjoys little resource-based wealth, remaining sparsely populated with a population of around 500,000. Yet, while the relative worth of the lands seems to have little significance in determining its control, there has been historical precedence of vast and dire human rights violations in the region due to the ongoing conflict. As Morocco struggles to assert its authority and quell the continued efforts of the Polisario Front and SADR, the treatment of the civilian population has ranged from negligence to intentional deprivation of basic resources and rights. This has been a continued focus of international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. But while the conflict has reach a stalling point, so has the prioritization of the needs of the Sahrawi people.

In the discussion of the Western Sahara, is it important to recognize its charged history — namely, the extent to which Morocco has gone in the past to prevent it from being a topic of international conversation. Most notably, Morocco left the African Union over 33 years ago, making it the only country on the continent to not be a member in the Western Sahara. Though as of 2017, it has returned to the organisation, their stance remains unchanged and the AU recognizes the Western Sahara as a non-participatory member.

Morocco’s re-admittance into the Union has started to push the discussion into the center of attention. Additionally, the EU has recently followed suit and taken a more subtle stance on the conflict by renegotiating fishing trade deals with Morocco which explicitly do not extend into the coastline off of the Western Saharan territory. In the past, the UN had taken the most verbally active role in the conflict. In 2012, the UN held a series of unsuccessful talks in an attempt to pressure Morocco. These talks were then followed by former Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s visit to the Western Sahara, where he met with the Polisario Front, and subsequently exiled SADR government in Algeria. And while the UN’s movement clearly indicates its position on the matter, these meetings and visits have yet to materialize into anything more than animosity from the Moroccan government.

At home, the Western Sahara falls under one of Morocco’s ‘red line’ issues:  a term commonly used to refer to topics that cannot be publicly discussed. Other examples of red line issues include the monarchy and the personal character of King Mohammed VI, the current king. The formal restrictions on discussion of the Western Sahara has created a forced media blackout on the issue; domestic coverage on the topic is quickly shut down by the government, and foreign journalists who have attempted to report on the crisis have been removed from the country. Furthermore, with Morocco’s historically strong relationship with the United States, a partnership that has prompted economic support from the United States and military and political cooperation from Morocco, it remains one of the few countries in the Middle East North African region that is relatively free from major political pressure from international bodies like the UN. While the UN and EU have both aimed to readdress the conflict and the pressing future of the Sahrawi people, they seem to have little incentive to push Morocco, a key regional ally, with extensive pressure.

With a widespread inability to accurately and constantly report on the Western Sahara, in addition to the close relationship between the United States and Morocco, it is impossible to keep the conflict in the attention of the international community. As a result, the Western Sahara continues to struggle to obtain autonomy, with little to no ability to garner the international backing that is no doubt necessary to keep its cause in the spotlight. The conflict continues to reflect the prioritization of political alliances and economic partnerships over the suppression of a group of people who has fought for independence for centuries. Today, the future of the Sahrawi people remains uncertain, and it is unclear how and when this will change.