Western Sahara : From a question of decolonization to a question of negotiation

pOLISARIO ANUNCIA la disolución de la Yemaa en carta a Waldheim
Source : ABC en El AAIUN – 21 décembre 1975

In 1955 Spain signed the UN charter, this obliges it to respect literally the provisions set out in the UN Charter, mainly the provisions that put an end to the decolonization of territories that are under the colonial yoke like that of Western Sahara.

The UN General Assembly declaration of 1960, known as resolution 1514, stated that all people have a right to self-determination and proclaimed that colonialism should be brought to a rapid and unconditional end. In the same frame, the UN General Assembly established in 1962 the decolonization committee of 24 to monitor and advice on the implementation of the Declaration on decolonization. In this context, Western Sahara was included in 1963 on its list of non-self-governing territory. But the indisputable reference to launching the question of Western Sahara as a land subject to decolonization is affirmed without any nuance and in a clear way in the UN resolution of 1965[1], and since that date, the question of the people of Western Sahara will be subject to a game in the regime of dictatorship, Franco.

However the great game of Spain will be illustrated not only by its blockade against the self-determination of the Saharawi people but by the introduction of regional actors such as Mauritania and Morocco to create a problem between these two States and Algeria first, and on the other hand, to dilute the question of the decolonization of Western Sahara like if it’s only a conflict between the Maghreb state. Denaturing the question of Western Sahara and emptying it of its content of decolonization was the main object of the agreement of Madrid. The outcome western Sahara will become a theatre of an intense armed conflict from 1975 until the signature of the peace agreement for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in 1991.

By the agreement of Madrid, Spain prevent decolonization in Western Sahara                         

The discovery of phosphates in 1963 and its exploration in 1966 prompted Spain to accept in the Decolonization Committee the holding of a referendum for the free determination of the Sahrawi people. But this new choice of Spain had not been taken seriously because the latter’s regime is very weak to support such a shock of decolonization of Western Sahara, and it is the same case for Portugal in East Timor. Indeed, Spain needed the natural resources of Western Sahara for its economy and for its colonial policy in Western Sahara.

This means that the new Spanish decolonization policy is open to discussion in several ways. Certainly, Spain will play a new card to perpetuate its presence in Western Sahara. This is the reason why it had agreed to start discussions with the United Nations to determine the modalities of the application of self-determination in favour of the people of Western Sahara.

The Spanish diplomatic manoeuvre has the effect of upsetting the peaceful way of decolonization for another way of pushing inter-Maghrebin conflicts to block the independence of the Saharawi people. Because in the Spanish doctrine, Western Sahara is Spanish territory and the Spaniard has historical rights and a civilizing mission in this territory without a master according to the Spanish perception.

In this sense, Spain has systematically postponed the welcome to Western Sahara the UN mission established to provide the resolution of 20 December 1966. In the same way, it benefited in particular from the contradictions born between the countries of the Maghreb. If you return back to the history before the resolution of AG in 1966, all the Maghreb states havea commonview: the idea to encourage the independence of Western Sahara people. But as soon as these countries discover that Western Sahara can contain in underground fossil energies, Morocco and Mauritania will take a new position namely, they are concerned about the decolonization of Western Sahara while Algeria will take another position that of being interested.

In front of the Maghrebi and Spanish contradictions, the Saharawi people will be forced to defend their cause. Thus sees the day of the Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro) at Ain Bentili in 1973[2] as an alternative to protect the independence version from the Maghreb states and Spanish game. The birth of Polisario sealed the real birth of Sahrawi nationalism[3].

The decade of 1960 was the decade of African independence. Thus decolonization of the continent was well on its way when Spain, was strengthening its control over Western Sahara. The pressure for independence came from two sources, local and international. However Spain remains to ignore these international calls, and in other hands, Spain pursued a policy of native Saharawi support for its continued rule in the territory by the creation of PUNS[4] (Sahrawi National Union Party). But this political party did not have a solid base within the Sahrawi society, that’s why its existence was ephemeral.

The lack of any progress towards self-determination prompted Polisario to seek an alternative to status quo. The Polisario front mounted its first attack on a Spanish military outpost only ten days after its founding; the target was the outpost of el Khanga[5]. During the following year, 1974, thus was born the military resistance and guerrilla Sahrawi to drive Spain from Western Sahara. In response to the Polisario resistance, Spain government announced in July 1974 the intention to give an internal autonomy to a native of Western Sahara. This planwas endorsed by the pro-Spain Saharan assembly, the Djemaa. However, the plan drew strong protest from Mauritania and Morocco.

A UN visiting mission headed by Simeon Aké that was conducted in June 1975 concluded that Sahrawi support for independence concluded that the Polisario Front was by far the most powerful political force in the country.

Therefore, a new deal between Mauritania, Morocco, and Spain to stop the independence of Western Sahara: the Madrid agreement of 1975[6]. This agreement sealed the sharing of Western Sahara between a northern zone occupied by Morocco and a southern zone occupied by Mauritania. Without taking intoconsideration the opinion of the Saharawi people.

Spain underestimated the weight of the Polisario within the Sahrawi society and did not bring any respect to the advisory opinion of International Court of Justice (ICJ), which had affirmed clearly the obligation to respect the choice of WesternSaharapeople.

The settlement agreement of 1991 a path to peace in Western Sahara

When the ICJ, on 16 October 1975, in his advisory opinion rejected Moroccan and Mauritanian claims sovereignty over Western Sahara and recommended the UN that referendum should proceed, the Moroccan King Hassan II ordered the Green March with approximately 350.000 to cross the Western Sahara border, and sign the Madrid agreement with Spain and Mauritania. Both those two factors will lead to the outbreak of a fierce war between the Polisario fighters against Morocco and Mauritania at the beginning before the latter withdrew from the conflict in 1979[7] and signed a peace treaty with the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)[8] in within recognizing the belongings of this territorial to the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people namely Polisario (versus SADR).

From the start of the armed conflict, the entire stakeholder wants to win the war by any means. It should be pointed out that the major attacks carried out by the Polisario against the fiefs of the Moroccan army from 1979 (with the withdrawal of Mauritania) will be very fierce. The consequences are the construction of the Great Wall of a sand dune that separates until today the Sahrawi people between a party under Moroccan sovereignty (80% of the territory) and another party under the sovereignty of the SADR (20% of the territory). The defensive walls changed the character of the war by limiting the effectiveness of the Polisario raids.

However, at the same time, the situation in Morocco could be dangerous at the social and economic level, and if there is no solution to the conflict no one can win the war. The two belligerents are in the process of accepting a peace agreement because they are convinced that the battle will no longer be played on the ground of war, but in the field of diplomacy and because of the outcome of the new world order and the Pax Americana after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1990[9].

The result was the birth of the plan of peace over the ashes of the war without been well prepared to legally complete the decolonization of Western Sahara. This leaves us to say that this peace process is only the beginning of another battle, mainly the elective body eligible to vote in a future referendum.

Despite the UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar presented a settlement plan in June 1990 with the creation of United Nations Mission for a referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)[10], within its main provisions: cease-fire with a transitional period leading to a referendum organized by the United Nations. The main problem with the holding of the referendum was to determine which people were entitled to vote in such referendum. To unblock this situation, the UN will use the practice of negotiations as a remedy, but it seems that the two belligerents are far from agreeing on the electoral body.

Consequences direct the birth of a new UN policy which is more interested in negotiations between the two parties under the heading of Chapter VI and to maintain the status quo, by holding more negotiations in order to deadlock the situation. But the lack of interest of the Security Council pushes more to favour realpolitik instead of right because he sees the issue of Western Sahara does not represent a direct, threatens for peace and global security.

Ali El Aallaoui

— Notes de bas de page —

[1] The UN’s involvement in the Western Sahara issue started on December 16, 1965, when the General Assembly adopted its first resolution on what was then called Spanish Sahara, requesting Spain to “take all necessary measures” to decolonize the territory, while entering into negotiations on “problems relating to sovereignty.” Between 1966 and 1991 the General Assembly adopted many resolutions on the territory, all of which reiterated the need to hold a referendum on self-determination.

[2] The Polisario Front was formally constituted on 10 May 1973 at Ain Bentili by several Sahrawi university students, survivors of the 1968 massacres at Zouerate and some Sahrawi men who had served in the Spanish administration.

[3] Emboirik Ahmed Omar, El moviminento nacionalista Saharaui de zemla a la Organizacion de la Unidad Africana,Madrid, Mercurio Editorial,2017,pp156-161.

[4] Was a short-lived political party set up by Spain to rally indigenous support of Western Sahara

[5] Region in north part of western Sahara

[6] 14 November 1975 the Madrid Agreement, by which Spain cedes the Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania.

[7] 1979 August 5, the Polisario Front and Mauritania sign a peace agreement, Morocco militarily invades the Sahrawi zone liberated by Mauritania, the General Assembly of the United Nations condemns through resolution 3734 the new Moroccan invasion.

[8] February 27, 1976: The proclamation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in Bir Lehlu

[9] To understand why such Collapse you can see, Susan Muaddi Darraj, The collapse of the Soviet Union, New York, by InfoBase Publishing, 2010.

[10] MINURSO is established in 1991 called Mission of UN for the Referendum in Western Sahara, will oversee the implementation of the peace plan.

1 comment

  1. it is an analytical description of the change of the question of Western Sahara. by emphasizing the legal aspect of the Western Sahara question, the author demonstrates how Spain has violated international law in Western Sahara. that is to say that it is Spain that must be tested in court. thank you for this clear and succinct analysis.

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