Western Sahara: The Forgotten Conflict at Risk of Re-Escalation

Sahrawi soldiers parade in Algeria.
Members of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army parade with Polisario Front flags in a refugee camp 170 km to the southeast of the Algerian city of Tindouf. The Sahrawis are campaigning for the independence of Western Sahara, but Morocco maintains its sovereignty over the region. FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images

The Western Sahara conflict has eluded resolution for so long that the principles underlying United Nations-led efforts to seek an enduring outcome have become muddied almost to the point of cancelling each other out.

Forty-one years since its inception, diplomatic language rather than arms has become the medium for the continuation of the dispute. The annual highlight is the renewal of the U.N. Security Council's (UNSC) peacekeeping and monitoring mission to the region at the end of April, which in the words of the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., Samantha Power, was particularly "challenging and contentious" this year.

For many, this is the forgotten conflict that pitches the defence of the right of self-determination of the Sahrawi people against the de facto restoration of Morocco's sovereign control over territory formerly subject to a colonial-era Spanish protectorate. There is no obvious meeting point between these positions without a creative compromise, and the urgency of finding one has been mitigated by the absence of armed struggle since a ceasefire was implemented in 1991.

In the changing climate of the region, however, a return to violence cannot be ruled out indefinitely. In the Sahel and West African regions to the south of Western Sahara, Boko Haram has extended its reach from Nigeria to Cameroon, while Al-Qaeda-linked groups have attacked hotels and tourist resorts in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast since late 2015. The growing competition between the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) networks now based in Libya and the region's Al-Qaeda affiliates intensify the risk that transnational terrorist groups will seek to exploit the divisions at the heart of this conflict for their own ends.

The Diplomatic Track

Since 2004, the U.N. has all but abandoned attempts to organise a referendum for the self-determination of the population of Western Sahara, which now also comprises Moroccan migrants since Morocco took control of the northwest African territory in 1975. The U.N.'s Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO in its French acronym) has nevertheless retained its name, even though its purpose has evolved into a military mechanism to monitor the 1991 ceasefire combined with a civilian function to report back to the UNSC on political developments.

The U.N.'s approach over the past decade has been to urge the main parties to the conflict (Morocco, Algeria and the pro-independence and erstwhile armed Polisario Front representing the indigenous Sahrawis) to engage in negotiations towards a political solution at the regional level. Five rounds of negotiations have subsequently taken place, but as of December 2015, the U.N. Secretary-General's (then) Personal Envoy, Christopher Ross, reported back to the UNSC that they remained "stalemated, with a solution needed more urgent[ly] than ever." The incentives for the parties to reach agreement, however, have been consistently unbalanced in favour of the status quo and against Morocco's diplomatic efforts to gain diplomatic recognition for its claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Algeria, which houses the main Sahrawi refugee camps at Tindouf controlled by the Polisario in southern Algeria, claims not to be directly implicated in the conflict, but is merely acting in defence of the exercise of the Sahrawis' right to self-determination. Against claims by the Moroccans of obstructionism, in reality the Algerian government is in no hurry to see the conflict resolved and has refused to participate in the negotiating process.

For Morocco, defending its sovereign claim to Western Sahara is the most important issue in its foreign diplomacy and external relations. The Algerian authorities argue the opposite: they have no stake in the outcome except to uphold the post-colonial rights of the Sahrawi people. To this end, Algeria materially and diplomatically supports the Polisario's government-in-exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and has also gained recognition for SADR amongst the majority of African Union (AU) states.

This leaves Morocco outside the AU, having rescinded its membership in protest. Morocco has also made little headway in achieving diplomatic recognition for its claims to sovereignty beyond a number of Arab League states, Pakistan and Turkey. Most notably, none of the permanent members of the UNSC (U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China) have followed suit.

In the run-up to renewals of MINURSO's mandate, Morocco successfully lobbied against the introduction of human rights monitoring to MINURSO's functions in Western Sahara (proposed in 2013-14) and convinced the US to tone down the language of the most recent UNSC resolution 2285 , agreed on April 29. This followed Morocco's unilateral expulsion of 73 of the civilian contingent of MINURSO in March, without prior consultation with the UNSC—an action taken in protest at the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's allegedly biased use of the word "occupation" in referring to Western Sahara during his first official visit to Tindouf in early March.

Diplomatic Maneuvering

For over a decade, the parties to the conflict have deployed more diplomatic energy in outmaneuvering each other than in seeking an enduring settlement to the legal status of Western Sahara. To break out of this will require a different tack.

Since 2007, Morocco has proposed an autonomy plan for the Western Sahara, which U.S. Ambassador Power still deems to be "serious, realistic, and credible," representing "a potential approach that could satisfy the self-determination aspirations of the people of Western Sahara." To satisfy this requirement, however, will need more concerted action by Morocco to implement plans initiated by King Mohammed VI to increase socio-economic investment into Western Sahara for the benefit of the young unemployed, above all. A U.S. aid package of $1 million is currently being concluded to support a civil society and local governance programme in Western Sahara, the State Department having resisted including any of the direct investments urged by the U.S. Congress that might imply U.S. recognition of Morocco's legal claims.

The altercation over Ban's comments and Morocco's expulsion of MINURSO personnel has nevertheless tried the patience of Morocco's key supporters on the UNSC, who fear negative precedents being set for the UNSC's oversight of U.N. peacekeeping and monitoring missions elsewhere. The 2016 annual report of the U.N. Secretary-General refers to continuing reports of human rights and judicial violations in Western Sahara, even while UNSC Resolution 2285 welcomes "the role played by [Morocco's] National Council on Human Rights Commissions operating in [the Western Sahara towns of] Dakhla and Laayoune." The clear implication is that human rights are being improved by some Moroccan agencies working there, but not by others.

Ensuring that its actions speak more consistently than its words would appear to be the best approach for Moroccan diplomacy in coming months, not least since under the terms of UNSC Resolution 2285, it has until July to reinstate the civilian contingent of MINURSO. Failing that, and failing some tangible progress in improving the capacity of young Sahrawis to resist the enticements of regional terrorist groups, the diplomatic initiative so often seized by Morocco may no longer be theirs to exercise in their favour.

Claire Spencer is a senior research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Program and Second Century Initiative at Chatham House .