- BBC World News
This territory of almost 270,000 square kilometers mainly of sand and sparsely populated is the subject of a territorial dispute that dates back to the 70s of the last century.
Located on the northwest coast of Africa, Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony that was annexed by Morocco in 1975.
In 1991, a truce negotiated by the UN ended 16 years of violence between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which defends the independence of this territory.
The Western Sahara is considered one of the great forgotten conflicts. However, this 2020 two events occurred that put it back on the table.
First, in November of this year, the warlike tension between Morocco and the Polisario Front – the Saharawi national liberation movement – returned to the area, after Morocco’s incursion into a demilitarized border post.
And in early December, US President Donald Trump signed a declaration recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Below we explain the origins of this conflict and what is at stake with the latest events.
1. An inhospitable territory, but with important natural reserves
The territory is located on the western edge of the Sahara Desert, and stretches along some 1,000 kilometers of the Atlantic coast.
It borders Morocco to the north, Algeria to the east and Mauritania to the south and southeast.
At 266,000 square kilometers, it is relatively large, but only a little more than half a million people live on its inhospitable land.
However, it has large phosphate reserves and one of the richest fishing grounds in the world.
2. Territorial claims and self-determination
Traditionally populated by Berber tribes, Western Sahara was colonized by Spain in 1884 and 50 years later, in 1934, it was converted into a Spanish province, called Spanish Sahara, until the UN requested the decolonization of the territory in 1965.
By then the demands of the kingdom of Morocco, which had become independent in 1959, were already weighing on Western Sahara, but had been claiming the territory as its own for centuries, and also Mauritania.
But an independence movement also began in Western Sahara itself, with the creation, in 1973, of the Polisario Front.
In 1974, Spain announced its plans to grant greater autonomy to the Sahrawis and proposed organizing an independence referendum a year later.
However, Spain retired in 1975 Without having carried out such a referendum and Morocco annexed Western Sahara and encouraged thousands of Moroccans to settle there.
In November 1975, 350,000 Moroccans crossed the border in the so-called Green March to press for the claim of the kingdom.
The Polisario Front, which from that moment waged a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces that would last 16 years, proclaimed in February 1976 the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with the support of allies such as Algeria.
Mauritania abandoned its territorial claims in 1979.
3. Years of struggle
In its fight against Moroccan forces, the Polisario initially took the lead, before having to retreat inland.
During the 1980s, Morocco built a series of concentric walls in the desert, mostly made of sand, to keep the movement’s fighters out of the territory where it had established control.
The outermost defensive line stretches for 2,700 kilometers, surrounding the 80% of Western Sahara now under Moroccan control.
It is fortified with barbed wire and trenches and forms one of the largest minefields in the world.
The SADR controls only 20% of the territory, mostly empty desert.
The fighting lasted until 1991, when the UN negotiated a truce which provided for the holding of a referendum.
The warlike tension between Morocco and the Polisario was reactivated last November after the incursion of Moroccan troops into the Guerguerat border crossing, a demilitarized zone that separates Mauritania from Moroccan-controlled areas.
The incursion led the Polisario Front to consider that Morocco had broken the ceasefire agreement signed in 1991 and declared a state of war throughout the territory.
Since then, the Polisario assures that it has daily attacked Moroccan Army positions along the separation wall it built in the desert, and that it has caused mortal casualties to the enemy, something that Morocco denied.
The assertions of both contenders cannot be confirmed or denied by independent sources, since the two parties prevent access to the conflict zone.
The dispute has also long poisoned Morocco’s relations with neighboring Algeria.
Their common border has been closed since 1994, and between 100,000 and 200,000 Sahrawi refugees They live in precarious conditions in camps around the Algerian desert city of Tindouf.
4. A referendum that never came
In 1991, the Security Council agreed to create the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) as part of an arrangement that provided for a transition period to prepare for a consultation in which the Sahrawis would choose between the independence and integration with Morocco.
Almost 30 years later, that referendum has still not been held: first due to discrepancies over the census of Sahrawi voters and later due to a Morocco’s frontal refusal to accept the consultation.
Rabat offers as the only way a proposal for autonomy, while the Polisario does not accept anything other than a self-determination referendum.
Meanwhile, the powers of the Security Council have been extending the mandate of the Ministry.
The personal envoys of the Secretary General of the United Nations have been passing one after another with different plans and negotiations to try to find a way out, for now without any success.
“Since the ceasefire in 1991 and the signing of the Framework Agreement, the conflict has been stagnant, stuck in unsuccessful negotiation processes, condemned to failure due to the immobility and lack of political will of Morocco,” he wrote in a article in The Conversation María López Belloso, researcher at the University of Deusto and an expert in this conflict.
“Along this path, the international community, far from enhancing its role as an impartial mediator in the conflict, has been bringing its speech closer to Moroccan theses, with obvious modifications to its language that have eliminated the express reference to the referendum as a solution to the controversy. , and avoiding assuming a more active role in the fulfillment of International Law “.
The paralysis is such that this key position has been vacant since May 2019, when the German resigned alleging health reasons Horst Koehler, who had been in the position for less than two years.
Köhler had generated some hope by succeeding in bringing Morocco and the Polisario, along with Algeria and Mauritania, to a round table to address the conflict, although no real negotiations or concrete progress ever took place.
5. The status of Western Sahara
The SADR is recognized by more than 80 countries, including several Latin American countries such as Mexico and Ecuador, and is a member of the African Union.
United Nations as a non-self-governed territory, but recognizes your right to hold a self-determination referendum.
However, on December 10, US President Donald Trump signed a declaration recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
The White House noted that the decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara was part of the agreement for the reestablishment of the ties between Morocco and Israel.
“The latest move by the Trump administration will not necessarily have an immediate impact on the ground because the dispute is seen as bigger than the whims of the US president,” said Rana Jawad, the BBC’s North Africa correspondent.
“However, Trump’s support for Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara is a big problem because it diminishes the hope of a people who have aspired to the independence of that territory for decades,” he said in his analysis after the decision was known. of the American president.
Trump’s decision was widely criticized by the Polisario Front and the SADR.
“The position declared by Trump constitutes a flagrant violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international legality – organizations and courts – and obstructs the efforts of the international community to find a peaceful solution to the conflict between SADR and the Kingdom of Morocco “, both instances said in a statement.
In this sense, they also warn, “the Saharawi people will continue their legitimate struggle to complete their sovereignty by all means and assuming the sacrifices that this requires.”
Meanwhile, the UN, which the Polisario criticizes for its immobility, said its position “has not changed” on the disputed region.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres believes that “the solution to the issue can still be found on the basis of Security Council resolutions,” said his spokesman.
The United States is not the first Western country to recognize the sovereignty of Morocco in the Sahara, since France has been doing it for decades, and has been the main defender of the Moroccan theses.
Now, therefore, Morocco has the support of two members of the Security Council with the right to veto.
For Jawad, in the absence of a referendum, “the prolonged stalemate between Morocco and the Polisario Front is ultimately reduced to international recognition: a new independent state cannot be established without it.”
“Today, the idea of an independent Western Sahara may have diminished significantly, and the tensions that have been building up in recent months could worsen.”
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