Western Sahara ( Arabic : الصحرة الغربية As-Ṣaḥrā’ al-Ġarbiyyah), formerly the Spanish Sahara (or Saguia el Hamra y Río de Oro ), is a country in the Sahara Desert south of Morocco in North Africa. Other neighboring countries are Algeria and Mauritania.
The area has been on the UN’s list of non-self-governing areas to be decolonized since the 1960s.
The liberation movement Front Polisario (People’s Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) was formed in 1973 with the goal of liberation from Spanish colonialism, after Spain refused to agree to the UN’s repeated demands for decolonization. Since November 1975, Western Sahara has been occupied to large parts by Morocco. In 1975, the International Court of Justice in The Hague rejected Morocco’s claim to the Spanish Sahara (Western Sahara). The United States recognizes Morocco’s right to Western Sahara since December 10, 2020.
According to Countryaah.com, the Western Saharan Republic, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), was proclaimed on 27 February 1976, when the last Spanish troops left the area. Over 80 states have recognized Western Sahara (SADR), although no EU country, [ 9 ] but nearly half of them have since withdrawn their recognition.
In 1992, a UN-led referendum on Western Sahara’s independence would have taken place as part of decolonization, but Morocco has prevented it. Since 2004, Morocco is completely opposed to an independent Western Sahara. A large part of Western Sahara’s population lives since the occupation in 1975 in refugee camps in Algeria.
Western Sahara has one of the world’s largest phosphate deposits, rich fishing waters, several minerals and possibly oil and natural gas.
The vast majority of the original inhabitants of the Western Sahara are Saharans, an Arab nomadic people, who have lived in the area for centuries and who have their own culture and language, Hassania. This language is also spoken in Mauritania. Spain was awarded and colonized the area of the Spanish Sahara in 1884 at the so-called Berlin Conference.
In 1960, the UN adopted the so-called Decolonization Declaration and in 1963, the UN’s special committee for decolonization put the Spanish Sahara on the UN’s list of areas to be decolonized, that is, the population has the right to self-determination and independence. In December 1965, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution demanding Spain to decolonize the area.
In 1973, the Front Polisario (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia El Hamra y Rio de Oro) was formed with the aim of liberating the territory from Spanish colonialism through armed struggle. Spain conducted a census in 1974 but no referendum.
In 1975, Morocco claimed the area. The UN then referred the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which announced that the Western Saharans have the right to self-determination and independence. Morocco’s claim to the area was thus rejected. In 1975, Spain found itself in a politically sensitive situation with a dying General Francisco Franco. Through a secret and illegal agreement, the so-called Madrid Agreement, Spain handed over the colony to Morocco.
The Spanish troops left the Spanish Sahara at the same time as Morocco and Mauritania invaded the country. Spain had not completed its mission to decolonize the Spanish Sahara. Morocco annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara, Mauritania the southern third. Polisario now had two tasks; to take care of the fleeing Western Saharan population and to fight the Moroccan and Mauritanian invasion at the same time. After, among other things, napalm bombings by Moroccan aircraft, Algeria set up an area for refugee camps in Tindouf province near the border with Western Sahara, where the refugees still live.
On 27 February 1976, when the last Spanish administrators had left the area, the Western Saharans proclaimed the State of Western Sahara, formally the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). In 1979, Mauritania made peace with the Polisario and later recognized the Western Saharan state. In 1982, Mohammed Abdelaziz became the state’s president. However, most of Western Sahara was controlled by Morocco. During the 1980s, a war of attrition took place between the Moroccan army and the Polisario Front. In 1981–1987, Morocco built over 270 miles of mined and radar-monitored sand wall guarded by the Moroccan army, with the aim of shutting out the Polisario Front from attacks.
In 1988, the UN and the OAU (the predecessor of the African Union, AU) presented a so-called Settlement Plan, a three-part decolonization plan; ceasefire, update of a voter register based on the Spanish census and referendum on independence for Western Sahara. The Western Saharan population would choose independence or integration with Morocco. Both Morocco and the Polisario Front accepted the plan. In 1991, the UN force MINURSO was established to implement and monitor the referendum. Shortly after MINURSO arrived in the area, a ceasefire was proclaimed, on 6 September 1991.
The referendum was supposed to be held in January 1992, but as of 2022 has still not taken place. Morocco has prevented it in various ways and, contrary to the Settlement Plan, has brought thousands of Moroccan settlers into the area. As of 2004, Morocco refuses to accept an independent Western Sahara as an option in a referendum, arguing instead that limited self-rule, autonomy, is the only solution. The Polisario Front rejects this with reference to the UN decolonization decision and thus the right to self-determination and independence. In the UN Security Council, the issue is blocked by the fact that France, as a permanent member with veto power and strong ties with Morocco, does not support decisions that would benefit the Western Saharans.
The UN force MINURSO’s mandate is basically extended every year, but is the only peacekeeping force that lacks a so-called MR mandate, i.e. the right and obligation to monitor and report on violations of human rights.
Morocco has its strongest political support in France, which, with its seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, uses its veto power to prevent a strong intervention by the UN in the Western Sahara issue. This blockage in the Security Council has meant a silence in the entire decolonization process. The EU has also tied Morocco close by giving the country so-called “advanced status” and large financial contributions. In addition, the EU Council has gone against the European Court of Justice’s decision that agreements between Morocco and the EU cannot include Western Sahara.