The word that reignited the Western Sahara debate

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's recent reference to Morocco's 'occupation' of Western Sahara has brought the dispute back into the international spotlight.

No issue divides the member states of the African Union (AU) like the dispute over Western Sahara. Also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), this partially recognised state is a member of the AU, represented by its government in exile.

The matter has tested the cohesion and existence of the organisation, while in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, the so-called ‘Southern Provinces’ has united the political and military elite and defined its regional and global relations.

On 31 March, the Moroccan delegation abruptly left an African Development Week event that was being held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The annual event was a platform for discussion on the AU’s Agenda 2063; Africa’s structural transformation through green industrialisation; and the Economic Report for Africa 2016 – a publication of the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). The Moroccan delegation opposed the representation of the Sahrawi Republic at the event, and demanded that the chair of the opening session clarify their attendance.

The African participants were divided along linguistic lines; with the francophones echoing the need for an answer, while the anglophone states dismissed the demand.

No issue divides AU members like the dispute over Western Sahara

Western Sahara is Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute and an issue of continental and international law and diplomatic controversy. The incident at the African Development Week came in the wake of an unprecedented diplomatic spat around the issue, which was triggered by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s use of the word ‘occupation’ in reference to Morocco’s role in Western Sahara.

The UN chief referred to Rabat’s four decade-long annexation of Western Sahara as an ‘occupation’ at the end of his controversial visit to Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria.

The comment was met with outrage in Rabat. Morocco announced a unilateral reduction of the political staff of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO); expelled its 83 members and withdrew its US$3 million annual contribution to the mission. Angry demonstrators took to the streets across Morocco, insulting Ban Ki-moon and burning his picture as the Kingdom accused him of ruining the UN's neutral stance on the Western Sahara dispute. According to a statement from the Foreign Ministry, Ban had abandoned his ‘neutrality, objectivity and impartiality’.

A UN spokesperson later said that the use of ‘occupation’ was not planned and deliberate; and added that Ban regretted the ‘misunderstanding’ over his use of the word. Morocco responded that it was not a misunderstanding, but rather a premeditated act to ‘alter the nature of the dispute’.

Western Sahara is Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute

The UN sees the Western Sahara as an issue relating to the right of the population of the territory to self-determination, while Morocco sees it as a recovered territory following the departure of the colonial power, Spain, in 1975. The war between Morocco and the Polisario Front (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro) lasted for more than 25 years from 1975 to 1991.

The 1991 peace agreement was followed by UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution 725. Passed the same year, it established a UN mission to Western Sahara and set up a roadmap for a referendum, which was originally scheduled for 1992. It failed, however, because of disagreements on voting rights and other details.

The Baker Plan of 2000, proposed by the former UN special envoy to the dispute, is considered to have been the last meaningful international attempt to resolve the crisis. Baker proposed a referendum for Western Sahara after a self-rule for five years. Morocco rejected the plan, however, announcing it would not accept any referendum proposal that includes independence as an option. Baker resigned his post in protest.

The UN-led talks are at an impasse. There have been more than 10 informal rounds of UN-led negotiations since 2009; all of which have ended without any meaningful progress. Morocco’s best offer is an ‘autonomy-based political solution’. The Polisario Front, which controls more than a quarter of the Western Sahara territory, however says it won’t settle for anything less than a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawis to choose between independence, autonomy or integration with Morocco – as recommended in UNSC resolution 725. The Moroccan and SADR sections are divided by a wall that extends more than 2 500 km. Meanwhile, generations of Sahrawis are still living in refugee camps. The UN puts the number of such refugees at 90 000.

Morocco left the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 in protest against its acceptance of the SADR as a member state. Algeria, which hosts the SADR government in exile, is at the forefront of the AU group campaigning for the referendum. A number of other key states of the AU, including South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Ghana also support the referendum.

Various other AU states, however, want Morocco back in the AU and are demanding a review of the AU stance on the matter. The mainly francophone countries from west and central Africa, and some countries in the north like Egypt, want the SADR to settle for greater autonomy instead of independence.

A UN spokesperson said the use of ‘occupation’ was not planned or deliberate

The Western Sahara was again on the agenda at the January 2015 AU summit in Addis Ababa. In his first speech as the new AU chairperson, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe stressed that ‘Africa’s failure to decolonise Western Sahara would be a negation [of the] African ideals and principles’ of the founding fathers of the OAU.

Mugabe emphasised that Africa would not be completely free ‘as long as our brothers and sisters in Western Sahara remain under Moroccan occupation’. Other prominent leaders of the continent also see the issue as one of decolonisation. Former South African president, Thabo Mbeki also called it a matter of ‘great shame and regret for the continent.’

Given the AU’s strong stance and support of a proposed referendum, Morocco doesn’t see the AU as neutral enough to take part in the negotiations. Legal and diplomatic complexities, and divisions within the union further limit the AU’s involvement in efforts to resolve the dispute. The AU is therefore forced take a backseat when it comes to the peace and political process in Western Sahara. Its role seems limited to expressing concern over the occupation and human rights violations in the disputed area.

In June 2014, the AU appointed former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano as the Special Envoy of the Chairperson for Western Sahara to lead and coordinate the AU’s efforts on Western Sahara. Rabat was quick to reject the appointment, saying that the AU ‘has no legal basis, no political fundament, nor moral legitimacy to intervene in that issue which is the exclusive domain of the United Nations’. Morocco also questioned the partiality of the former president. Chissano’s attempt to brief the UNSC has so far been unsuccessful.

Divisions within the AU were again reflected when the organisation’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) met on 6 April this year to discuss Western Sahara. A number of member states feel the UN should deal with the issue; some want a compromise; and others complained about the lack of coherence and harmony between the PSC and the three African countries currently serving on the UNSC – namely Angola, Egypt and Senegal.

Despite the AU decision that ‘the Africa three’ in New York are representative of the continent – and therefore have a responsibility to respect and implement PSC decisions – many take their own path on issues such as Western Sahara.

Morocco is a valuable partner in the West’s campaign against extremism

Egypt and Senegal favoured Morocco at the latest meeting of the UNSC on the matter, held on 17 March. Sources at the AU say that Angola is organising an event on Western Sahara at the UN to keep the momentum, and also provide a platform for Chissano. On 25 April, a seminar and photo exhibition created by Oxfam themed ‘40 Faces, 40 Years – A Lifetime in Exile’ were launched at the AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa, displaying ‘the humanitarian socio-economic and human rights tragedy of the Sahrawi people living in exile for the last 40 years’.

Morocco is a valuable diplomatic and strategic partner in the West’s ‘war on terror’. Washington and Paris are unwilling to put pressure on Rabat, a major ally in the global campaign in the Maghreb region and beyond. The United States supports Morocco's autonomy plan. Analysts say that Spain – the former coloniser of Western Sahara, which had historically sympathised with the Sahrawi cause – is now compromised by the European Union’s (EU’s) economic interests.

The latest meeting of the UNSC came as a disappointment to Ban Ki-moon and the UN secretariat as the council, pressured by the Morocco lobby, was unable to support the secretary-general, or condemn Morocco’s response. Many in the UN corridors and international organisations expected a rebuke, or strong response from the UNSC condemning Rabat’s perceived ‘bullying’ of the UN.  

No Western powers recognise SADR. Though the Swedish Parliament voted to recognise the state in 2011, it hasn’t been made official as the Swedish government is still reviewing the implications of such a move. Morocco reacted to the decision by blocking IKEA’s expansion plan in that country.

Morocco is accused of illegal mining and fishing in Western Sahara and of denying independent observers access to the territory. Recently, to the fury of Morocco, the EU’s General Court ruled that a trade pact between Morocco and the EU should not apply to products from Western Sahara.

The recent confrontation has brought Western Sahara back to the attention of the AU and the international community. Many believe the latest developments have put Rabat on the defensive. It could help bring the forgotten conflict back onto the UNSC’s agenda, and remind major powers behind the ineffective mediation that it is time to make meaningful proposals – and to take the difficult decisions needed to implement these.

Hallelujah Lulie, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

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