Western Sahara’s case: a remarkable turning point?

Western Sahara was originally a Spanish colonial territory, now we can call it the last “survivor” on the African list of “non-autonomous territories” under the supervision of the UN. In the 70s the International Court of Justice excluded that the territory could be called a terra nullius or that other States could claim rights over it, and also decreed the need to proceed to its final decolonization in favor of a process of self-determination of the Sahrawi people. Regardless of the opinion of the Court, Morocco and Mauritania divided de facto the mentioned territory until Morocco was left alone to counter the liberation movement called Polisario Front. Only in 1991 the UN was able to secure a ceasefire in the Western Sahara througha wall of more than 2000 km, which divided the territory in a part occupied by Morocco and partly freed. That same year, a UN resolution authorized the mission MINURSO, with the objective of the resolution of the conflict through a referendum to determine the annexation to Morocco or the definitive autonomy and independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

The 38th European Conference of Coordination and support to the Saharawi people, which took place in mid-November of 2013 in Rome, was opened by the Secretary of the Polisario Front and President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), General Mohamed Abdelaziz, with following requirements: demolition of the “wall of shame”, unconditional and immediate access for international observers to the Saharawi territories occupied by Morocco and the release of political prisoners held in the prisons of Rabat.

The SADR, which corresponds to the territories of the north of the Sahara disputed by Morocco and Polisario Front, is currently recognized by 82 states of the United Nations, and sits fully in the African Union but is still in the list of non-autonomous territories of the UN.

General Abdelaziz, a charismatic figure who enabled his people to reach a political compromise with the historic signing of the 2003 Baker Plan, called for Europe and the international community to consider any economic sanctions against the Moroccan government to put an end against the abuses and the illegal exploitation of natural resources of Western Sahara.

The Front doubted EU support, precisely because of the conclusion of the trade agreement with Morocco in 2012, with which were reduced or eliminated duties on some products. Morocco is a good trade partner of the EU and especially enjoys the support of France, which is the main market of the Moroccan tomato table.

The UN envoy, Christopher Ross, is back in the area and he is pushing for a solution, stirring up rusty mechanisms and providing a strong feeling to impose an acceleration to the final process, but, during the 38th Conference of European Committees of solidarity with the Saharawi people (EUCOCO), the president of the SADR Mohamed Abdelaziz said that unfortunately Morocco continues to erect a wall also against the UN envoy and prevents  them to move in the direction of an agreement.  However, he appreciated that the international community acknowledges the problem and tries to solve it. In addition, the envoy’s visits have exerted pressure on the actors of the conflict, the Polisario Front and Morocco, but also neighboring and Western countries involved, to stop hindering and commit themselves seriously to reach a common solution.

Unfortunately it is still impossible to implement a referendum to solve the issue, as the difficult administrative management and the continuation of hostilities makes this path impractical. It is now forty years that the question of Western Sahara remains unresolved, perhaps the most significant remnant of colonialism, which also highlights the inefficiency of the United Nations in the aspect of conflict resolution between states. The real reasons for the controversy, that sees a direct confront between the State of Morocco against the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic and Algeria, althogh indirectly, in favor of the latter, are the immense natural resources that this region offers. Two are its main features: on the one hand the huge amount of phosphates, already discovered during the colonialistic period and on the other the huge amounts of fish stocks, which were calculated by the European Union as the largest reserves of the countries of the Maghreb. Commercial exchanges between Morocco and the European Union in 2014 had a balance of about 30 billion euro. According to the decision of 10 December 2015, the ECJ has not only recognized the locus standing of the Front, but has also considered founded his complaints, highlighting the need to consult the Saharawi people and Morocco, where there is a desire to trade the goods. The Court analyzed the violations of the rights of freedom, self-determination, property, displacement, which would indirectly be legitimated by the EU with the conclusion of an agreement that effectively allows Morocco to financially exploit those areas. The European Court of Justice annulled the trade agreement on agricultural products between the Government of Rabat and Brussels, because it violated the rights of the Saharawi people, since the agreement provided the use of part of a territory free from the Moroccan sovereignty.

Although the issue is far from a resolution, the Polisario Front continues to pursue self-determination, through armed struggle and diplomacy in international forums. The political instability of the territory together with the presence of armed groups can be fertile ground for the growth or migration of terrorist groups or just their members, which would make the North African area even more unstable. It is nevertheless difficult to give up the logic of division and confrontation in favor of greater economic benefits towards the States and Western organizations.

Therefore The Western Sahara issue is perhaps not only the last outstanding issue arising from colonialism and politics of the walls of the twentieth century, but considering the situation in North Africa and Middle East, it should be a source of reflection for the States and Western organizations about on the choice of sacrifing the political stability on the altar of economic advantages.

Sofia Carola Sammartano

Ca’ Foscari University of Venice


Petronella, Angelica. “Sahara Occidentale: l’UE rivedrà accordi col Marocco”, Europae, 28th January 2016. http://www.rivistaeuropae.eu/diritto/sahara-occidentale-lue-rivedra-accordi-col-marocco/

Napoli, Antonella.“Nella disputa con il Marocco, i saharawi cercano il sostegno dell’Ue”, Limes, 27th November 2013. http://www.limesonline.com/nella-disputa-con-il-marocco-i-saharawi-cercano-il-sostegno-dellue/54942

Gallina, Daniele. “Sahara occidentale ultimo esempio della politica dei muri”, L’indro, 18th January 2016. http://www.lindro.it/sahara-occidentale-ultimo-esempio-della-politica-dei-muri/2/

Attanasio, Luca. “L’Europa e il mondo si stanno accorgendo della questione saharawi”, Limes, 27th November 2013. http://www.limesonline.com/leuropa-e-il-mondo-si-stanno-accorgendo-della-questione-sahrawi/54967

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