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Focusing on Western Sahara

by Amran Rabbouj (EU International Relations and Diplomacy - Manuel Marin promotion)

The often neglected and unheard-of Western Sahara issue was put at the core of the United Nations Security Council’s agenda on 31 October 2018. The last territorial conflict in Africa has been on-going for more than 40 years, with a never-ending status-quo between the different parties. UN efforts to achieve a compromise between the two parties and settle a final status for the Western Sahara have repeatedly failed since Spanish colonial power left in 1974.

On the one hand, the Kingdom of Morocco claims full sovereignty over the territory based on historical grounds and pledges of allegiance of local tribes to the Moroccan Sultans before colonisation took place in 1884. These historical links were fully recognised and confirmed by the International Court of Justice’s consultative opinion of 16 October 1975. On the other hand, an independence movement was formed in 1974, the so-called Polisario Front, who is made up of Sahrawi leaders who also claim sovereignty over the territory left by Spain on the grounds of the right of self-determination.

After years of armed conflict between the Moroccan Army and the Polisario rebels, a cease-fire came into force in 1991 with Morocco controlling 80% and the Polisario the remaining 20% of the territory. Since then, the UN created a special mission, the MINURSO – ‘UN Mission for the Organisation of a Referendum in the Western Sahara’ – which aim is to be the mediator between the two parties in order to come to an agreement on the conditions of a self-determination referendum in the Western Sahara.

This referendum should have been the mean through which a final legal status to the Western Sahara would be democratically achieved – either Sahrawi independence or remaining under Moroccan sovereignty – but it never took place until this day. And while the UNSC extended the MINURSO mandate for 6 months, the 31 October Resolution 2440 brought a new element that will, for sure, play the role of game changer in the resolution of this conflict.

Indeed, while neighbouring Algeria – who hosts Sahrawi refugee camps on its territory and is a longstanding regional rival to Moroccan hegemony – has always denied the accusations from the Moroccan government that it has always been backing the Polisario politically, militarily and financially, the UNSC invited Algeria to the table of negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario for the first time since 1974. For Morocco, the fact that Algeria has accepted the invitation to the roundtable taking place in Geneva next December is a confirmation that it is and always has been a party to the issue.

Moroccan political analyst and special advisor to the Embassy of Qatar in Washington D.C., Samir Bennis, adds that “Morocco has emphasised on many occasions that it will not participate in direct negotiations [with the Polisario] so long as Algeria is not regarded as a party to the conflict.” Here, even if Algeria has insisted on participating only as a ‘neighbouring state’, the language used in the Resolution does not mention it at any point. However, the wording highlights that Algeria’s presence will be based on ‘equal-footing’ with Morocco and this is a first start towards progress as it makes Algeria part of the future solution – something that Morocco has been calling for since the beginning of the talks at UN level in the 1990s.

But the road to finally put an end to this territorial issue will still be long. As a matter of fact, Morocco’s autonomy plan – who is supported by the US and France – will still need to gain more support at the international level in order to put to bed, once and for all, the fantasist prospect of an independent Sahrawi State in the Western Sahara territory.

All I want for Christmas is EU - Issue n. 3, 24 December 2018


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