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Western Sahara: the six-decade struggle to liberate Africa's last colony

Since becoming independent from France in 1956, Morocco has been claiming sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Meriem Naili, University of Exeter


Western Sahara is the territory in north-west Africa bordered by Morocco in the north, Algeria and Mauritania in the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. A former Spanish colony, it’s listed by the United Nations as one of only 17 territories that remain without self-government.

Since becoming independent from France in 1956, Morocco has been claiming sovereignty over Western Sahara. In the late 1970s, the kingdom formally annexed around 80% of Western Sahara, over which it exercises de facto control. This followed the so-called “Green March” of 6 November 1975 in which between 100,000 and 350,000 Moroccans resettled in Western Sahara to regain the southern provinces of Greater Morocco.

This annexation flew in the face of the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice made on 15 October 1975. The court concluded that evidence presented before it did not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity.

The court also found that there were no legal obstacles to the decolonisation of Western Sahara. This includes the right to self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the people of the territory.

The UN Security Council establishedthe United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara in April 1991. The plan provided for a cease-fire, followed by a referendum on self-determination in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between two options: integration with Morocco or plain and simple independence. Because ofdisputes over who can vote in the referendum, it has yet to be organised.

I have been studying the conflict in Western Sahara as part of my PhD research for the past four years. It is my finding that the Western Sahara stalemate stems from weaknesses in the UN mission mandate. This is mainly because the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara has no mandate to monitor human rights abuses in Western Sahara.

The absence of a dedicated mechanism has affected and continues to affect the visibility of events on the ground. For example, protesters in the occupied territory of Western Sahara are repeatedly subjected to human rights violations during demonstrations. This increases the possibility of more violations that impair the search for justice and accountability.

Adding a human rights monitoring mechanism to the mandate of the UN’s Western Sahara mission would not automatically resolve the conflict. There are other dynamics, including the fact that the case of Western Sahara has been dealt with in a distinct way from the start. But my findings underline the fact that a mechanism would be beneficial to conflict management, if not conflict resolution.

Absence of human rights mandate

There are four current peacekeeping deployments of the United Nations that have no human rights monitoring mandate. The first, in Northern Cyprus, was set up by the Security Council in 1964 to prevent further fighting between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities. The second, in Lebanon, is the only peacekeeping force at sea. The third is a disengagement observer force in the Israeli-Syrian sector, while the fourth is the Western Sahara UN mission.

The Western Sahara mission also stands out as not having attained its purpose through the organisation of a referendum. Previous UN missions charged with this task did organise referendums in Namibia and in East Timor. The two successful missions had some sort of human rights oversight mechanism stemming from their mandates.

My research sought to understand the extent to which the absence of human rights monitoring components is an anomaly in today’s peacekeeping practice. I also sought to investigate the connection between human rights and peacekeeping in the Western Sahara conflict. Of note is the fact that Morocco opposes a human rights mandate on the grounds that it is not the core objective of the mission and it could jeopardise the negotiation process.

My project has two dimensions. Firstly, it aims to establish why the Western Sahara UN mission is an outlier case in terms of human rights provisions in peacekeeping practice. I conclude that the monitoring of human rights by the mission need not be understood as antagonistic to the primary aim of UN intervention, which is to resolve the conflict through a negotiated political solution that will provide for self-determination.

Secondly, it explores ways through which this absence of explicit language in the mandate is – or can be – remedied in practice based on legal doctrine and methodology. By establishing the emergence in customary international law of a norm of human rights monitoring for peacekeeping operations, I am able to strengthen the assumption of a highly irregular nature of the UN’s Western Sahara mission.

Hope after impasse

Several factors have signalled a renewed interest in this protracted conflict. The African Union in 2014 appointed a special envoy for Western Sahara. More recently, major events have begun to challenge the status quo.

The war resumed on 13 November 2020 following almost 30 years of ceasefire. For the first time, a UN member state – the US – recognised Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Former US president Donald Trump’s declaration of 10 December 2020 has not been renounced by the current Biden administration. It secured Morocco’s support for Israel as per the Abrahamic Accords.

Yet, in September 2021, the General Court of the European Union issued decisions invalidating fisheries and trade agreements between Morocco and the EU insofar as they extended to Western Sahara, rejecting Morocco’s sovereignty.

It must be emphasised that the people of Western Sahara reserve to right to self-determination. The last colony in Africa remains largely under occupation and the UN mission in place is still deprived of any kind of human rights monitoring. This situation must end – with freedom, and sovereignty finally won by Western Sahara.


Meriem Naili

PhD candidate, College of Social Sciences and International Studies, University of Exeter

Meriem Naili is affiliated with OUISO, the International Academic Observatory on Western Sahara.


The Conversation Africa

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