The Conflict in Western Sahara

The risk of a military escalation remains high in the region of Ouarkziz, in the Western Sahara, where the Polisario Front has been running operations against the Moroccan army in recent months. Hostilities resumed on November 13, 2020, when Morocco sent troops to the south of the Western Sahara to repel protesters blocking commercial routes to Mauritania. These operations, the latest on the timeline, revoke the importance of paying attention to an often-neglected conflict.


For decades, the status of Western Sahara has been opposing Morocco and the Polisario Front, an independence movement founded back in 1973. The disputes on its territorial sovereignty arose in 1975, after the withdrawal of Spanish colonial occupation forces. The Moroccan government occupied the region and signed a treaty dividing the territory with Mauritania. The Polisario Front, in turn, announced the creation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government in exile in Algeria, starting a war for independence against Morocco. A ceasefire agreement was finally reached in 1991 and MINURSO, a UN Mission, was put in place to monitor compliance.


Although MINURSO is still in charge of organising a self-determination referendum, negotiations are at a standstill. The mission has remained without a director since 2019, when then-Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, resigned. In the absence of international pressure, Morocco proposed opening diplomatic posts in Western Sahara, which was supported by multiple African governments and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In December 2020, Morocco’s stance in the conflict was strengthened by the Trump Administration’s recognition of its sovereignty on the whole disputed territory. The announcement was directly linked to a normalization of relations between Morocco and Israel, despite regular Moroccan support for the Palestinian cause. Therefore, reconsidering Trump’s policy without complicating the partnership with Israel will not be an easy task for President Biden.


In its Advisory Opinion of 1975, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) excluded the presence of legal ties of territorial sovereignty between Morocco and Western Sahara. The UN General Assembly reaffirmed the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination and independence with Resolution 34/37. The Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) confirmed the views of the ICJ, by excluding that an agreement between Morocco and the EU could be applicable to the territory of Western Sahara. The region remains listed among the 17 Non-Self-Governing Territories by the UN, meaning that its population is not yet considered to have “attained a full measure of self-government.” An Autonomy Plan, proposing the establishment of an autonomous region of Western Sahara, was submitted by Morocco to the UN in 2007, and praised by the international community. However, the Polisario Front immediately rejected the proposal, which would consecrate Moroccan sovereignty.


Remarkably, the confrontation reached the world of football on March 12, 2020, at the 43rd general meeting of the African Football Confederation (CAF) which took place in Rabat. An amendment of the statute, establishing that only representatives of independent States and UN members could be admitted to the CAF was approved. Such a measure would result in preventing any future participation of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic members in the organisation. The measure risks increasing controversy, as the Algerian vote, which usually aligns with the Polisario Front, voted for the amendment, allowing for its unanimous adoption.


Overall, despite the low intensity of the conflict in Western Sahara, the risk of higher-scale military operations is not to be underestimated. A major escalation could further destabilise the North Africa region, affecting both US and European interests. Similar to the blockade in November 2020, which caused a surge in the prices of fresh goods in the region, more conflict can cause similar supply shortages in the future. The resumption of talks among the contending factions will require renewed international pressure, the direct re-engagement of the UN, and closer cooperation between the US and its allies.