Western Sahara is on the Atlantic coast of north-west Africa, between Morocco to the north and Mauritania to the south and east and Algeria to the north-east.
Western Sahara is rich in mineral resources, including phosphates. Western Sahara has some of the richest fishing waters in the world. Currently its off-shore oil resources are being explored.
Spain colonised Western Sahara in 1884. At the time, it was inhabited by nomadic tribes which were socially and politically organised. Spain gained sovereignty over Western Sahara through agreements with local rulers.
The Saharawi people resisted Spanish rule and clashes continued until they were “pacified” in 1934. Until the 1940s, the Spanish administered only a handful of settlements, none of which was larger than a medium sized village. El Aaiun (Laayoune), now the capital of Western Sahara, was not established until 1940.
Between 1956 and 1958 riots broke out again, with the Saharawi resistance fighting Spanish colonial rule. In 1963, the United Nations (UN) included Western Sahara in the list of countries to be de-colonised and asserted the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination. In 1966, the UN passed a resolution calling for a referendum on self-determination.
In 1973, the Saharawi independence movement Polisario Front was established which took up an armed struggle. In 1974 Spain announced its intention to hold a referendum in 1975; however, this was postponed when, at the request of King Hassan II of Morocco, the UN General Assembly sought an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Western Sahara.
On 16 October 1975, the ICJ said in its advisory opinion in (1975) volume 59 of the International Law Reports page 13, with this quote at page 85:
[T]he Court’s conclusion is that the materials and information presented to do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus the Court has found no legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.
In 1975, the Spanish government abandoned its responsibilities as a colonial power and divided Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania.
Following orders of the Moroccan King Hassan II, on 31st October 1975, Moroccan troops crossed the frontier and clashed with Polisario guerrilla fighters in the North East of Western Sahara. Many Saharawis fled the tanks and aerial bombardments of napalm and cluster bombs of the Moroccan invaders and set up refugee camps near Tindouf in south-west Algeria where more than 165,000 of them still live supported by the UN Food Programme and other humanitarian aid programmes.
On 6th November 1975, the king ordered the so-called ‘Green March’ which saw at least 160,000 Moroccans march to Western Sahara. The UN Security Council expressed concern about this action and ordered King Hassan to withdraw the marchers; however, these concerns were ignored by the kinf. Negotiations between Morocco, Mauritania and Spain began in Madrid 14 November 1975 and culminated in the signing of the Madrid Accords, which divided up the territory between Mauretania and Morocco.
Mauritania soon made peace with the Polisario Front and withdrew from Western Sahara; however, the Moroccan occupation continues to this day. The war between Morocco and the Polisario continued until a UN/African Union brokered ceasefire in 1991. The ceasefire stipulated that a referendum on self-determination of the Saharawi people should be held in Western Sahara but this has been blocked by Morocco to this day and a referendum has still not been held.
MINURSO (Mission des Nations Unies pour un Referendum au Sahara Occidental) was established in 1992 to organise the referendum on self-determination, as part of peace process between Morocco and the Polisario Front. By 1996, the peace process had reached a stalemate.
In 1997, James Baker became a UN envoy and drew up a new plan for the referendum, the “Framework agreement on the Status of Western Sahara“. Morocco refused to co-operate.
In 2003 Baker drew up a new plan, known as Baker Plan II – ”Peace plan for self-determination of the people of Western Sahara“. This was unanimously accepted by the UN Security Council and the Polisario-led Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), whose government is based in the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria. SADR is recognised as the legitimate government of Western Sahara by at least 80 countries, most recently by the Republic of South Africa and Kenya. It is a member of the African Union. Morocco still refuses to allow the UN sponsored referendum to take place.
Every 12 months, the UN votes to keep MINURSO in place and each year passes a resolution supporting the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination.
Since May 2005, there has been an increase in the Saharawi people’s oppression at the hands of the Moroccan authorities. Peaceful demonstrations have been brutally suppressed. Many Saharawis have been arrested and imprisoned. Some have been tortured and some have “disappeared”. Women and children have been assaulted in their own homes and property has been stolen by Moroccan police and soldiers. Outsiders, including parliamentarians from the European Union, Spain and Norway, and representatives of human rights organsiations have been refused entry to Western Sahara. A 2,400km wall divides Western Sahara into the coastal zone occupied by Morocco and the interior part held by the Polisario Front.
Clearly, the present situation cannot continue. The oppression of the Saharawis in occupied Western Sahara must stop. The refugees in the camps must feel safe to return to their own country after the referendum to be ruled by a government that they elect directly.