The Sahara's Frozen Conflict
The Sahara's Frozen Conflict
Europe’s Balancing Act in Western Sahara
Europe’s Balancing Act in Western Sahara

The Sahara's Frozen Conflict

Efforts to end the near-forgotten conflict in Western Sahara seem to have picked up momentum, after 16 years of bloody war and another 16 of failed peacemaking. The conflict began when 350,000 Moroccans marched into the formerly Spanish-controlled region in 1975, generating armed resistance by the Polisario Front movement of the local Sahrawi people, who wanted independence, not a new overlord. After apparent concessions from both Morocco and the Polisario, U.N.-sponsored talks involving the local and regional parties began this week.

But appearances can be deceiving. The dynamics of the conflict have not changed, and the formal positions of Rabat and the Algeria-backed Polisario are far apart. It's little surprise the negotiations stalled after only two days. Morocco has proposed creating a "Sahara autonomous region" but insists on retaining formal sovereignty over the area. The Polisario wants a referendum with independence as a clear option, the eventual solution proposed in 2004 by James Baker, then the U.N. Secretary-General's personal envoy for Western Sahara.

There are many reasons why the various parties in Western Sahara do not want to compromise. Elements of the Moroccan, Polisario and Algerian leaderships have vested interests in the status quo. The 1991 cease-fire is working well enough that neither the Algerian nor Moroccan publics are pressing for change. The Moroccan monarchy and Algerian presidency also have limited room for maneuver with their military commanders.

The Security Council, which has given itself the responsibility for resolving the conflict, continues to insist that an acceptable solution "will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara." So far, however, the U.N. has wholly failed to put its doctrine into practice and to organize a referendum allowing for choice between at least two options: integration with Morocco and independence. That is what would be needed for the U.N. to really put its money where its mouth has been.

The U.N. has its reasons for being cautious. Morocco's consent is hardly likely, and in its absence such a referendum would have to be imposed on it by a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the Charter, a course both extremely unlikely to win the necessary votes and full of operational pitfalls.

The alternative approach is for the Security Council to allow and encourage the parties to negotiate the terms of a settlement themselves, without imposing any conditions as to the outcome. It remains wholly unlikely that Algeria and the Polisario Front will persuade Morocco to resolve the dispute on the basis of the democratic principle of self-determination: Rabat's fear of an independent Western Sahara destabilizing the monarchy is just too strong.

But it is conceivable that the parties could agree on a package of reciprocal concessions that the territory's population, and its neighbors, could live with. For example, the new autonomous region could be designed to correspond exactly with Western Sahara boundaries; Rabat could stop encouraging settlement of the region from other Moroccan provinces; and it could accept the Polisario as a legal political organization capable of assuming political power in the autonomous region, if elected.

The trouble with the Security Council's position is that it has in fact set the negotiators mutually exclusive objectives. It is simultaneously continuing to stipulate that the talks between the parties vindicate the right of self-determination (which means independence is an option) and welcoming Morocco's recent autonomy proposal (which rules out independence). This recipe for deadlock is not a matter of bad faith or familiar Security Council power politics so much as competing imperatives. Self-determination, with all that implies, is a longstanding U.N. doctrine that no one really wants to abandon. Yet autonomy, while strongly favored by traditional Morocco supporters, the U.S. and France, has long been seen by others as well as a possible practical solution.

So with the best of intentions, the U.N. has succeeded only in encouraging another round of lobbying. The latest proposals by Morocco and the Polisario Front -- addressed not to each other, but to the U.N. and major Western governments -- are meant to impress the international gallery rather than serve as opening moves in a sincere negotiation with the historic adversary.

Whether achieved by a full self-determination referendum (the ideal solution), or a negotiated settlement, the main objective must be to bring this conflict to an end. Though the status quo looks appealing, it hides costs that have been unacceptably high for everyone concerned. The Sahrawi people have suffered most. Even if the 1991 cease-fire stopped most of the outright violence, refugees in the Tindouf camps in Algeria live in isolation and poverty, under political leadership that is barely democratic. Those who live in the territory controlled by Morocco fare a little better materially, but Rabat systematically suppresses political rights calls for self-determination and any right of free association.

Moroccans have also borne huge financial costs for the military presence there, the investment in the "Southern provinces," and tax breaks and higher salaries for civil servants based in Western Sahara. All of this hampers national development elsewhere. The situation is all the more serious since poverty in the country's slums is generating momentum for a Salafi Islamist movement. Algeria also faces financial and diplomatic costs, and the security problem of continuing tension on its western border. The international community has to pay large sums for an observation force and economic aid.

The answer is for the Security Council to admit its approach has become part of the problem and make a decision: either to push for self-determination, with all the problems that go with that, or let the parties resolve the dispute among themselves without preconditions.

Europe’s Balancing Act in Western Sahara

Hugh Pope is joined by North Africa experts Intissar Fakir and Riccardo Fabiani to ask whether Morocco holds a winning hand in its conflict with the pro-independence Polisario Front in Western Sahara as Europe looks on timidly, wary of direct challenges to the regional power. 

Exactly a year ago, in November 2020, an old conflict on the south-western edge of Europe burst back into flames. After almost 30 years of ceasefire, the pro-independence Polisario Front and Morocco went back to battle stations in Western Sahara. European states have so far taken a timid stance in response, preferring not to involve themselves in another intractable conflict. Nonetheless, the new focus on Western Sahara is unsettling many relationships, particularly with Morocco. For its part, the Kingdom has taken a hardline response to even the most limited of criticisms: Rabat’s ambassador to Germany was even recalled after a public spat in May. A recent verdict from the European Court of Justice excluding Sahrawi goods and fish from a trade deal risks further ratcheting up tensions. So, how will conflict in Western Sahara affect Europe’s relations with Morocco? 

This week, Hugh Pope is joined by Intissar Fakir, Director of the Middle East Institute’s North Africa and Sahel Program, and Riccardo Fabiani, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for North Africa. They discuss Morocco’s successful hardball strategy, the Polisario’s desperate gambit, Rabat’s troubled alliance with Spain and France, and the ramifications of the Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty. They ask whether Europe’s arms-length stance is another example of regional powers flexing ever-growing influence at the expense of the “big players” in the Old Continent’s capitals.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information explore Crisis Group’s work on Europe, Morocco, and Western Sahara, by checking out the regional pages on the left hand side of our website. Make sure to take a look at our recent report ‘Relaunching Negotiations’. 

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