The Western Sahara of Morocco
The Moroccan Sahara conflict is one of the longest-running territorial disputes in modern history. The parties to the conflict have overlapping claims, and there is intense hostility between them. Morocco has a historical right to the Sahara, but this has been disputed for four decades without any clear solution.
The conflict over the Moroccan Sahara began in the sixties of the last century, when Morocco demanded the restoration of its Sahara immediately after gaining its independence, after the Spanish colonial authorities refused to hand over the territory of the Sahara to Morocco after abandoning the territory of Tarfaya in 1958, and the territory of Sidi Ifni in 1969, with Keeping it occupied the cities of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco.
The objective was to establish a Spanish-controlled local government in the Sahara, and achieve this through organizing a referendum there in 1975.
Morocco flat-out refused this action, and then King Hassan II wrote a letter to the Spanish President affirming Morocco’s dedication to opposing this illegal step. This rejected plan does not follow the United Nations General Assembly resolutions.
King Hassan II sent envoys to many major international capitals at the same time in order to present the Moroccan view of the Sahara issue, Additionally, King Hassan II brought attention to the Sahara issue in front of the International Court of Justice in order to determine what legal status the territory holds.
On September 18, 1974, Morocco submitted an advisory request to the International Court of Justice after asking the General Assembly to stop every process related to holding a referendum in Western Sahara. This was until they knew the opinion of the International Court of Justice in its case. Upon this request, the General Assembly issued Resolution No. 3292 on December 13, 1974 and asked the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on the Sahara.
On October 16, 1975, the court issued an advisory opinion on Western Sahara. The opinion argues that even though Western Sahara was colonized by Spain, it had an owner prior to colonization and there were legal ties between Moroccan sultans and the tribes living there.
The Moroccan move did not stop at this point, but included the Arab and African sides, and one of its results was the request sent by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Spain on October 1, 1974, on behalf of all Arab countries to expedite the resolution of the Moroccan Sahara issue, as well as the statement of the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity on March 14, 1975 He affirmed the organization’s support for Morocco by all means to liberate its usurped lands, as well as the measure taken by the Ivory Coast government on March 25, 1975 when it appointed Mr. “Alfonso Ponce” to represent Morocco in the International Court of Justice.
The Court of Justice’s recognition of Morocco’s historical rights to the Sahara on November 6, 1975 resulted in King Hassan II organizing a 350,000 person march towards the territory. The Spanish government had been refusing Morocco’s demands up until this point, but now faced pressure it hadn’t anticipated.
After this, the Spanish government agreed to talks with Morocco about the Sahara issue. These happened at a summit in Madrid that also included Mauritania. They signed an agreement on November 14, 1975 stating that there would be a transitional period of three months where all three countries involved would administer the Sahara. This was followed by Spain withdrawing from the area.
At a time when King Hassan II was preparing to launch the Green March, and in parallel to this great event, Algeria announced on October 21, 1975, a position opposing Morocco’s decision to organize the Green March, and its diplomacy was mobilized in the major western capitals in order to stop the march and object to Morocco in its Sahara.
In the face of this strange position from Algeria, and in order to lift the coercion and pressures on Morocco, the Algerian regime expelled 350,000 Moroccans, in what the late Algerian President Houari Boumediene called the “black march.”
After Morocco gained its independence from France, the Spanish forces remained in the Sahara for years, which made Morocco work hard to complete its independence. Thus, the negotiations between Morocco and Spain resulted in the evacuation of Spanish forces from the Moroccan Sahara in February of the year 1976.
At this time, the eastern neighbor’s ambitions led to expansion at the expense of the Moroccan Sahara and the thought of occupying areas of the desert, as soon as the Spanish forces left it.
As the date of the evacuation of the Spanish forces from the Moroccan Sahara approached, on January 27, 1976, a group of Algerian army officers and soldiers infiltrated the village of Amgala, located near the city of Smara, and the border with Mauritania. The Algerian group collided with a battalion of the Royal Armed Forces that had joined this center. Immediately after the evacuation of the Spanish occupation forces. The Algerian regime aimed to occupy the area before the arrival of the Moroccan soldiers. A battle took place between the two forces, which was soon resolved in favor of Morocco, in which many Algerian soldiers were killed and captured.
In a desperate attempt to justify the presence of elements of its army on Moroccan soil, Algeria promoted, by informing it, that the group was nothing but a convoy of trucks carrying supplies, foodstuffs and medicine, although the reality belies that.
The writer and historian Abdel Karim Ghallab mentioned in the second part of his book “The History of the National Movement”: The victory in Amgala marked the end of the desert war, as the battles that followed were nothing but a guerrilla war. If Algeria had won the Battle of Amgala, the region would have been a bridgehead for trying to control the desert.”
About two weeks after the attack on Amgala, Hassan II sent a message to the Algerian President, Colonel Houari Boumediene, in which he said: “It is an astonishing event, Mr. President, that the Royal Armed Forces found themselves on January 27, 1976, facing the People’s National Army of Algeria in Amgala, which is an integral part of the Moroccan Sahara.”
And the king’s message continued, “Blood did flow between our peoples because you did not keep your promise. And here again, you saw the Moroccan garrison, which remained on the spot (Amgala) in extreme conditions, was taken treacherously… from the units of the Algerian People’s National Army, with heavy weapons and equipment, the type and level of which revealing the intention to carry out an operation of destruction that did cause dozens of victims among my people and the fighters for my country. “
When the attempt to occupy Amgala ended, the eastern neighbor did not despair of trying to extend its hand over the Moroccan Sahara. Rather, it tried to precede events once again.
The Spanish occupation forces left the Sahara on February 28, 1976, and a day before that, Algeria announced on February 27 the establishment of the “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.”
The official response of Morocco was what was stated by the late King Hassan II in a letter he addressed to the Royal Armed Forces: “Without hiding from you the seriousness of the situation, and without exaggerating the matter, we have resolved to defend in every possible way the unity of the Kingdom and ensure security and contentment for our people,” which means that Algeria is determined to fight Morocco.
Abdel Karim Ghallab wrote, “When Algeria became independent, the Algerian leaders began their rule while carrying “complexes”, including that the people their people achieved a “revolution” like no other nation on earth.”
Although Algeria extends over a vast area, its leaders have tried hard to suppress and reduce the future of neighboring countries, and since Morocco is the country that is nominated by its location on the Atlantic coast, its economy, population, land capacity and historical balance to form a union between North African countries and its leadership, it also nominates it to be another strong country. In the region that would rival Algeria economically and politically, the intention of the Algerian regime tended to oppose Morocco.
When the Algerian regime saw the opportunity to spread its control over the Sahara region, they jumped on it, and when they failed, they created the “Polisario” and tried to drain the western neighbor with a guerrilla war.
That Morocco be in its historically natural size, strength and extension over its Sahara means one thing in the logic of the Algerian regime; that Morocco will be stronger than Algeria or a competitor to it at least, and that is what justifies Algeria’s ambitions to expand at the expense of the Moroccan Sahara.
The eastern neighbor aspires to have a port on the Atlantic Ocean that would enable it to market the iron of Ghar Jbeilat. This will not be possible for them unless the Sahara region is under the influence of a “state” of its own making. The intention of the Algerian regime has been exposed since the first attack on Morocco in Hassi Beida and Hassi Tengoube in 1963, and only one year has passed since the independence of Algeria.
The Algerian war against Morocco continued for many years. Algeria eventually decided to launch the Polisario Front (in cooperation with Libya and ex-colonial powers) and provide support in the Tindouf region. Furthermore, they sought international recognition for their efforts and worked hard to find a “cover” solution to the Sahara problem in favor of Algeria’s agenda, that would be “accepted” by the international community. They used all of the necessary mechanisms and measures available to them in order to achieve this goal (e.g. bribery, communist ideology…etc).
Dr. Abdel Wahed Al-Nasser, Professor of International Relations, states that Algeria has provided financial incentives to less fortunate countries in Africa and Latin America if they would recognize the Algerian government or in other situations help establish radio stations expressing support for the separatists. He goes on to say that this has allowed the separatist movement to gain more than what other legitimate liberation movements have accomplished because no other state lends them its full backing like Algeria does (with its hidden and misleading agenda of course).
Not content with winning international recognition of the so-called Sahrawi Republic, Algerian lobbyists took things a step further, working to promote negotiations at the United Nations and in other international forums. These platforms were used to score propaganda and political points by calling for direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front – something that would implicitly involve Morocco’s agreement to tacitly recognize the movement.
In 1988, the UN plan to hold a referendum in the Sahara was approved due in part to this policy. Morocco agreed to negotiate with the Polisario movement only if a third party representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations was present at all meetings.
Before this event, Algeria had caused many others through the Polisario- such as the Battle of Tan-Tan on January 28-29 1979, Smara 14 March 1979, Bir Inzran on August 11, 1979, El Masid September 13, 1979 , Boukraa and El Ayoun on January 28th 1980 ,Boujdour February 13th 1980 , and Ahnifis September 26th 1980.
Despite the fact that there was a ceasefire between the Moroccan and Polisario sides, instability still reigned in the region until the Secretary-General of UN came up with a peace plan. This plan was then approved by UN Resolution No. 629 on September 23, 1988 after being presented to both parties on August 11th.
The two parties to the conflict have also expressed their willingness to implement this plan, but the latter will face many obstacles during its implementation, which can be summarized in three things:
– The question of direct negotiation
– The question of the criteria for determining the identity of the participants in the referendum in accordance with the requirements of the plan of the Secretary-General
– The question of appointing tribal elders from each side in the identification committee.
The identification process started in July 1994 but halted in January 1996 when the Polisario Frontsuspended its involvement. They objected to the lists submitted by Morocco, causing MINURSO to partially withdraw in May 1996.
The fourth tour led by the United Nations Special Representative Mr. James Baker to Houston resulted in a commitment from both parties to uphold the 1988 peace plan. In addition, they also agreed to follow the Code of Conduct for referendum Campaign set forth in Houston.
On December 3, 1997, the identification process resumed with the Polisario Front accepting its commitment to the regulating conditions. The referendum that was supposed to take place on December 7, 1998 according to United Nations Secretary-General schedule had been postponed five times consecutively already.
In light of these difficulties that surrounded the UN settlement plan, and about the identification process, and the persons entitled to participate in the referendum, a UN Resolution No. 1309 issued on July 25, 2000 was issued stating the importance of resorting to a political solution as one of the options that may receive the consent of the parties It goes beyond the problems faced by the referendum process, especially in the issue of identification, but then it was confirmed to the United Nations the failure and impossibility of the referendum project, which is based on identification.
Morocco proposed the idea of autonomy after all other options had been exhausted. This proposal was the result of a long and consultation process between different Moroccan political parties, elected officials, and citizens living in Sahara Desert regions. The Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs collected various points of view with the goal formulating a self-autonomous project forSahara region.
The aim of the series of efforts was to get acquainted with the views of countries concerning the Moroccan Sahara crisis and see if they approved of Morocco’s initiative. Many major countries did accept and approve it as the best solution.
Afterward, Morocco started to hold bilateral talks with some of these countries in order to convince them more about the feasibility of this project.
The first step was taken on September 6th 2006 when King Mohammed VI sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General informing him that Morocco had started working on a new and serious initiative to solve the Western Sahara conflict.
The new Moroccan project was based on three pillars:
– First, complete the process of regionalization in the Kingdom by giving the Sahara region a special status that allows it to run its own affairs within the Moroccan state framework.
– Second, organize a large conference that would bring together all parties with a stake in the conflict, namely the Kingdom of Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria, and Mauritania to reach a final solution.
– Third, create an atmosphere conducive to negotiations by releasing all Sahrawi political prisoners detained in Moroccan prisons and allow Sahrawi refugees to return to their homes in the Sahara region.
The release of Sahrawi prisoners was carried out gradually between 2006 and 2010. In December 2008, the Moroccan Government presented a draft autonomy statute to the UN Security Council.
The Polisario Front immediately rejected the proposal and continued to insist on independence as the only option.
On April 29, 2011, the Kingdom of Morocco submitted a revised version of its autonomy plan to the UN Security Council.
The new proposal was based on the same three pillars as the old one, but with some amendments. The most important of these amendments was the introduction of a time limit for the implementation of the plan, which would be four years from the date of its adoption by the Security Council.
In addition, Morocco proposed that a team of international experts be sent to the Sahara region to assess the feasibility of the plan and make recommendations.
The new proposal was unanimously welcomed by the Security Council, which called on all parties to engage in serious and credible negotiations to reach a final solution to the conflict.
In the last 10 years UN Security Council adopted many resolutions, which renewed the mandate of MINURSO every year and called on all parties to resume negotiations without preconditions. The UN General Assembly welcomed the efforts made by Morocco to find a solution to the Western Sahara conflict.
The Western Sahara conflict is one of the longest-running disputes on the UN agenda. Despite decades of efforts by the international community, a solution to the conflict remains elusive. The conflict has caused immense suffering for the people of Western Sahara, and it is high time that a final solution is found. It is incumbent on all parties to the conflict to engage in serious and credible negotiations to reach a final settlement.
Otherwise, the conflict will continue to fester and cause further misery for the people of Western Sahara.The Security Council reaffirmed its commitment to a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in the context of arrangements consistent with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations.
The Security Council urged the parties to resume negotiations without preconditions and in good faith, and called on all states and regional organizations with a stake in the conflict to use their influence to encourage the parties to resume negotiations. The Security Council also urged the international community to continue its support for the efforts of the United Nations to facilitate a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution to the Western Sahara conflict.