Below you can find background information on the conflict over self-determination in Western Sahara. First, you will find key events in the region’s history. Second, you will find definitions of key terms. Third, you will find a list of readings about the conflict. Additionally, you can access a full timeline of events here.
- Colonialism Under Spain and France
- Colonial Border-Drawing: Morocco and Western Sahara
- Nation in Exile: Sahrawi Displacement
- Sahrawi Population: Statistics
- Contemporary Sahrawi Resistance
- Exploitation of Environmental Resources Under Occupation
- Wall of Shame
- Liberated Zone
- Green March/Black March
- Sahrawi Intifada
- The Third Way
Colonialism Under Spain and France
Spanish Colonialism: Western Sahara was a Spanish colony from 1884 until 1976, and has remained on the UN Decolonisation Committee’s agenda since October 1964. In December 1974, as international and local pressure in favor of decolonisation escalated, Spain conducted a census of the territory to prepare for a referendum on self-determination. By the end of 1975, however, Spain had withdrawn from its colony without holding a referendum. It was during the 1970s that the main anti-colonial movement, the Polisario Front, was born and gained popular support. It first resisted Spanish colonialism and then Moroccan and Mauritanian claims over the territory.
Moroccan Colonialism: In 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that neither Morocco nor Mauritania held legal claims to the territory, impeding a referendum on self-determination. And yet, 350,000 Moroccan civilians faced no resistance from Spanish or international forces as they crossed into the territory in early November 1975 as part of the ‘Green March’ to recover the ‘Southern Provinces’. Approximately 20,000 Moroccan soldiers soon joined their civilian compatriots from the North, while Mauritanian forces entered from the South, ignoring UN Resolutions deploring the March and calling for its termination. Moroccan administration of the territory began shortly after a Tripartite Interim Administration agreement was signed between Morocco, Mauritania, and Spain in November 1975.
Colonial Border-Drawing: Morocco and Western Sahara
Morocco’s borders were drawn in negotiations with Spain and France. Morocco has a coast by the North Atlantic Ocean that stretches up to the Mediterranean Sea. Morocco maintains an international border with Algeria to the east. The international border to the south of Morocco is Mauritania. The border of Morocco to the north is Spain. The borders of Morocco with Spain include a water border through the Strait and land borders with two small Spanish autonomous cities, Ceuta and Melilla. Spain and France ruled Morocco at various times until March 2, 1956, when Morocco earned its independence from France.
Due to a Moroccan demand, Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963. In 1975, Spain relinquished administrative control of the territory to a joint administration by Morocco (which had formally claimed the territory since 1957) and Mauritania. A war erupted between those countries and the Sahrawi national liberation movement, the Polisario Front. The Polisario proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government-in-exile in Tindouf, Algeria. Mauritania withdrew in 1979. Morocco eventually secured effective control of most of the territory, including all the major cities and natural resources.
Nation in Exile: Sahrawi Displacement
Sahrawi Displacement: The armed conflict between Morocco, Mauritania, and the Polisario intensified at the end of 1975. There was a mass exodus of Sahrawi people, who were first displaced to other parts of the territory. Following the bombardment of these first encampments with napalm and phosphate bombs, they moved to the nascent Algerian-based refugee camps near the territory’s border with that country. In 1976, Spain officially withdrew from the territory and unilaterally declared that it was no longer the administrating power. The next day, the Polisario Front proclaimed the birth of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Political conflicts ensued between states that recognized and lobbied in favor of the Polisario/SADR’s struggle for independence and those that did not.
Nation in Exile: Since 1976, the conflict over the Western Sahara has been dominated by the main parties’ (Morocco and Polisario) attempts to convince influential state and non-state actors to support their respective standpoints and recognize the legitimacy of their claims over the territory and its inhabitants. Armed hostilities continued until the OAU and UN brokered a ceasefire in 1988. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara was created in 1991 with a mandate to organize and hold a referendum for self-determination. The referendum has not yet been held. While almost entirely dependent upon externally provided support, the protracted Sahrawi refugee camps have been managed by the Polisario Front since their establishment in 1975. Since its birth in 1976, the Sahrawi ‘state-in-exile’ has been recognized by over 70 non-Western states and is a full member of the African Union. Polisario/SADR is the only authority with which camp residents have regular contact. It has developed its own Constitution, camp-based ministries, police force, prisons, army, and parallel ‘state’ and religious legal systems. These describe the Sahrawi as “a nation in exile, not refugees.” A wall was erected to fence off the Polisario in Tindouf, making the camps the non-official capital of the Sahrawi-state-in-exile. Backed up by economic and military support from France and the US, Rabat set to build a 2,700 km berm with explosive mines and soldiers stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sahrawi camps. It is said to be the world’s longest military barrier.
Sahrawi Population: Statistics
Western Sahara: 538,811 (July 2013 est.) | Source: CIA World Factbook
Size: 266,000 km², roughly the size of the UK.
Capital: Al-Auin (spelt Laayoune under Morocco). Other major urban centres are Dakhla, Smara, Ausserd, and Boujdour.
Language: Saharawi dialect Hassaniya, Moroccan dialect, French, and Spanish. Since Morocco’s occupation, French and Moroccan Arabic dialect dominate.
Religion: Sunni Muslims.
Media: Radio, press, and TV are all run and controlled by the Moroccan state. There is no independent media.
Currency: Moroccan Dirham.
Refugee Camps: These are disputed and politically sensitive. Algerian authorities have estimated the number of Sahrawi refugees in Algeria to be 165,000. This has been supported by Polisario. UNCHR referred to Algeria’s figure for many years, but concern about it being inflated led the organization to reduce its working figure to 90,000 in 2005. This number was based on satellite imagery analysis. The Moroccan government contends that the total number of refugees is around 45,000 to 50,000. They also say that Polisario keeps these people in the camps against their will.
Morocco: 90,000 – 221,000 | Source: CIA World World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People
Mauritania: 26,000 | Source: CIA World World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People
Spain: 3,000–12,000 | Source: CIA World World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People
Contemporary Sahrawi Resistance
After nearly ten years of futile negotiations, a popular uprising shook El-Ayoun, capital of the occupied territories, as Sahrawi people protested against the impoverishment of the region in 1999. After the death of then-King Hassan II, the Moroccan regime violently dismantled the camp and encouraged local thugs to attack the Sahrawi population. Locals labeled this as the first Sahrawi intifada, the Arab term for “popular uprising” mostly used in the context of Palestinian resistance. A popular upsurge in 2005 was widely reported following a violent crackdown on peaceful sit-ins and the assassination of a young Sahrawi demonstrator. Global awareness was then kept at bay until Aminatou Haidar’s hunger strike in 2009. This Sahrawi protest turned into brutal clashes with Moroccan security forces. Before Rabat ordered the crackdown, these protests were said to be the largest acts of non-violent resistance since Morocco occupied the former Spanish colony in 1975. Rabat bowed under the pressure of its western allies, led by Paris and Washington, and eventually the prominent activist was given carte blanche to return to El-Ayoun.
On June 15, 2014, a non-violent demonstration in Laayoune took place on Smara Street, the main avenue that runs across the length of the city. Activists had been organizing it for several days, making sure that they would filter out onto the street from different connecting streets in small groups. From the early afternoon onward, police and military vehicles lined Smara Street for several blocks. The neighborhood, which is known for housing many prominent activists, was blocked off by military police vehicles and patrolled by riot police. The demonstrators who successfully made it to Smara Street were instantly met with violent force. Women were pushed backwards and knocked to the ground as taxi cabs maneuvered around them without stopping. This particular protest was not an isolated event. On the contrary, it is representative of the violence inflicted upon nonviolent protesters all throughout the cities of the Occupied Territories. The Moroccan military occupation has sustained its presence within the Western Sahara by doing precisely what it did on June 15: suppressing any and all possibilities of political resistance. Sahrawis are completely unable to express their political opinions in public, which produces an image of a stable and legitimate Moroccan Sahara.
Exploitation of Environmental Resources Under Occupation
Moroccan exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources—phosphate, fish stocks, arable land, and oil—perpetuates colonial domination and continues to prevent the resolution of the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario. Some efforts at ending the illegal trade of Western Saharan natural resources have been successful. For example, four of Sweden’s state pension funds recently decided to sell their stakes in Incitec Pivot and Potash Corp due to the companies’ continued import of Western Saharan phosphate.
Phosphate: At 3 million tons annually, the phosphate production in Western Sahara’s Bou Craa mines alone amounts to 10 percent of Morocco’s total production. Western Sahara has the world’s longest conveyor belt, which facilitates the transport and export of phosphate to fertilizer producers, especially in the US, Australia, and Spain. In 1968, there were 1,600 Sahrawis employed in the phosphate industry. Today, only 200 of a total work force of 1,900 are Sahrawi.
Fisheries: Morocco’s main commercial fishing activities take place in the Western Sahara coastal cities of Dakhla and El-Aaiún. Morocco also sells fishing licenses to foreign states such as the European Union and Russia, which are the two major foreign actors in occupied Western Sahara. In December 2013, Morocco and the EU finalized a controversial four-year agreement allowing European vessels to fish off the coast of Morocco, including disputed waters off the coast of Western Sahara.
Agriculture: Morocco has incentivized thousands of Moroccan settlers to work in many plantations on Western Sahara’s 1 million acres of arable land. Over 530ha are being exploited within six larger irrigated areas of about 1,450ha near Dakhla. Five of these areas are equipped with glasshouses and practical irrigation systems that produce good-quality crops away from the soil. Nearly 10,000 people are employed in the tomato industry in the region of Dakhla, most of whom are Moroccan.
Oil: Oil has never been found in Western Sahara in commercially significant quantities, but Morocco and the Polisario continue to fight over who has the right to authorize and benefit from oil exploration in the territory. The firm Kosmos Energy holds a license for oil exploration on the offshore Boujdour block. Together with the Moroccan state-owned oil company ONHYM, the Irish firm San Leon Morocco Ltd. and the UK firm Longreach Oil and Gas Ventures hold an onshore exploration license in Tarfaya Basin on the north-western part of Western Sahara.
SOURCE: Western Sahara Resource Watch
The wall in Western Sahara is almost half the size of the Great Wall of China, four times the length of the wall in the West Bank, and sixteen times longer than the Berlin Wall ever was. In 1980, Morocco began the construction of this long barrier of alternating simple sand embankments, rock walls, and deep ditches. It is meant to impede the movement of Sahrawi soldiers fighting against the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Between 1980 and 1987, five heavily fortified walls were added to the east and south, completely cutting off refugees from their home cities, such as Laayoune and Smara. Morocco maintains over 120,000 troops reinforced by heavy military installations positioned every seven miles, which include radar, artillery, and tanks. Millions of landmines surround the wall—estimates range from one million to over 10 million. The UN consistently ranks Western Sahara as one of the ten territories most contaminated by landmines and unexploded ordinances.
In 1991, the United Nations created the Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) as part of a ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Due to Moroccan opposition, the planned 1992 self-determination referendum never occurred. MINURSO is the only UN peacekeeping mission created since 1978 that does not include a mandate to observe and report human rights violations.
The liberated zone is a narrow strip of land running the length of Western Sahara’s eastern and southeastern border, accounting for about one-fifth of the territory’s area. There are numerous settlements within the zone, including Tifariti and Mheiriz. This area is isolated from the rest of Western Sahara by the “Wall of Shame” (or “Moroccan Wall”), which is often referred to as the “Berm.” Polisario calls it a “liberated territory” or the “free zone.” The UN simply calls it “east of the Berm” and refers to territories under Moroccan control as “west of the Berm.” Morocco, on the other hand, refers to it as a “buffer zone” or “buffer strip,” claiming that Polisario forces are not allowed entry and that both military activities and civilian construction in this area constitute violations of the cease-fire agreement.
The Polisario Front—also referred to as Frente Polisario, FRELISARIO, or POLISARIO—is a Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement working for ending the occupation of Western Sahara. It originally sought liberation from Spain and has now been seeking independence from Morocco since 1975. The movement took up arms. Some 100,000 refugees still live in POLISARIO’s camps in Algeria.
SOURCE: Huffington Post
On November 6, 1975, immediately after the decision of the ICJ, Moroccans participated in “The Green March” (known to Sahrawis as “The Black March”) when King Hassan II of Morocco called on 300,000 civilians to move into and claim Spanish Sahara as their own. The Moroccan government strategically used the mass demonstration to force Spain to hand over the disputed, autonomous semi-metropolitan Spanish Province of Sahara to Morocco.”
SOURCE: Encyclopaedia Britannica
The first Sahrawi Intifada was part of the ongoing Western Sahara conflict for independence. The main phase lasted from September 1999 to early 2000. It was the first of successive peaceful uprisings in occupied Western Sahara (1999, 2001, 2005, and 2010) in protest of the lack of human and economic rights for the Sahrawi people, as well as the lack of progress in the referendum process. This transformed into the Second Sahrawi Intifada (a.k.a. the Independence Intifada of Sahrawi, the May Intifada, or the El Aaiún Intifada) in 2005. The “Camp of the Dignity of Gdeim Izik” was later established near El Aaiún, where this intifada began.
In a new bid to break the deadlock, James Baker submitted a “Framework Agreement,” known as the Third Way. It provides for autonomy for Sahrawis under Moroccan sovereignty, a referendum after a four-year transition period, and voting rights for Moroccan settlers residing in Western Sahara for over a year. This formula is rejected by POLISARIO and Algeria.
Background, News, and Commentary
The following are recent stories from the news media that provide an overview of the situation in Western Sahara.
- “Letter From Western Sahara, A Land Under Occupation.” The Nation, November 2013.
- “Inside Disputed Western Sahara,” Al Jazeera, January 2013.
- “Waiting for the Arab Spring in Western Sahara,” Al Jazeera, March 2012.
- “Special Report: Western Sahara: the long, lonely journey of Sahrawi activism.” Ceasefire Magazine, December 2012.
- “Western Sahara Profile,” BBC, 2014.
- “Morocco Profile,” BBC, 2013.
Human Rights Reports
The following reports by major international organizations provide detailed documentation and analysis of human rights abuses taking place in Western Sahara.
- “No More Half Measures: Addressing Enforced Disappearances in Morocco and Western Sahara.” Amnesty International, May 2009.
- “Morocco/Western Sahara: Dubious Confessions, Tainted Trials.” Human Rights Watch, June 2013.
- “Nowhere to Turn: The Consequences of the Failure to Monitor Human Rights Violations in Western Sahara and Tindouf Refugee Camps.” Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, April 2013.
Articles by Stephen Zunes
Below are a selection of writings on the conflict by Dr. Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco. A leading scholar of U.S. Middle East policy and strategic nonviolent action, Dr. Zunes has been closely following events in Western Sahara for many years. He is the author, with Jacob Mundy, of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution. The articles below span from 1989 to the present.
- “US Should Reassess Policy in Western Sahara ,” January 10, 1989.
- “Morocco and Western Sahara,” December 1, 1998.
- “UN Betrayal of Western Sahara Appears Imminent.”
- “Western Sahara (Conflict Profile),” June 1, 2001.
- “UN Betrayal of Western Sahara,” June 1, 2001.
- “Self Determination Struggle in the Western Sahara Continues to Challenge the UN,” September 1, 2003.
- “Western Sahara: The Other Occupation,” February 1, 2006.
- “More harm than good,” July 18, 2007.
- “The Future of Western Sahara,” July 20, 2007.
- “Haidar’s Struggle,” October 9, 2008.
- “A Tale of Two Human Rights Awardees,” December 2, 2009.
- “U.S. Lawmakers Support Illegal Annexation,” April 5, 2010.
- “Interview: Zunes on Western Sahara,” November 15, 2010.
- “Upsurge in repression challenges nonviolent resistance in Western Sahara,” November 17, 2010.
- “WikiLeaks Cables on Western Sahara Show Role of Ideology in State Department,” December 7, 2010.
- “Divesting from all Occupations,” July 25, 2012.
- “The Reality of Western Sahara,” August 2, 2012.
- “The Last Colony: Beyond Dominant Narratives on the Western Sahara Roundtable,” June 3, 2013.
- “War, Nationalism, & Conflict Irresolution,” June 2013.
- “Obama Ignores Morocco’s Illegal Occupation and Human Rights Abuse,” December 22, 2013.