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Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse
Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Europe’s Balancing Act in Western Sahara
Europe’s Balancing Act in Western Sahara

Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse

The combination of Morocco’s recent proposal of a “Sahara autonomous region”, the Polisario Front’s counter-proposal of independence with guarantees for Moroccan interests and the UN Security Council’s 30 April resolution calling for direct negotiations between the parties – due to begin on 18 June – has been hailed as a promising breakthrough in the protracted Western Sahara dispute.

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Executive Summary

The combination of Morocco’s recent proposal of a “Sahara autonomous region”, the Polisario Front’s counter-proposal of independence with guarantees for Moroccan interests and the UN Security Council’s 30 April resolution calling for direct negotiations between the parties – due to begin on 18 June – has been hailed as a promising breakthrough in the protracted Western Sahara dispute. This optimism may eventually be vindicated but is likely to prove premature, since the underlying dynamics of the conflict have not changed. The formal positions of Morocco and the Polisario Front are still far apart; Algeria’s position remains ambiguous and difficult to deal with; and the UN, which has responsibility for resolving the conflict, still denies itself the means to do so.

Breaking the impasse requires, at a minimum, changing the framework that has governed efforts to resolve the conflict until now. The Security Council must either discharge in full the responsibility it assumed to secure the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara or accept it cannot and encourage Morocco, the Polisario Front and Algeria to resolve matters among themselves on whatever basis they can.

The impasse can be attributed in part to the reluctance of the main parties to compromise on the fundamental elements of their respective positions. This in turn has been due to many factors: the extent to which elements of the Moroccan, Polisario and Algerian leaderships have had vested interests in the status quo; the limited room for manoeuvre of both the Moroccan monarchy and the Algerian presidency, notably in relation to their respective military commanders; the lack of pressure for a change of policy from domestic public opinion in Algeria and Morocco; the insulation of the Tindouf-based Polisario Front from public opinion in the territory and the fact that, since the ceasefire took hold in 1991, the political cost of maintaining intransigent postures has appeared lower than the potential cost of moving away from them. But, if these factors have tended to reinforce one another and to combine in a vicious circle, this has been above all the consequence of Security Council failure.

The UN’s assumption of responsibility was originally predicated on a thesis – that the Western Sahara question is a matter of decolonisation – and the principle that the future of an ex-colony must be decided on the basis of the self-determination of the population in question, to be exercised in a UN-organised referendum. For such a referendum to be truly based on the principle of self- determination, at least the two main options – integration with Morocco and independence – must be on offer. But so far the UN has wholly failed to put its doctrine into practice and organise a referendum. Yet, it has not drawn the lesson of this failure, namely that, if it cannot be reversed, the question cannot be resolved on the basis of the self-determination principle. The UN’s refusal to draw this lesson has also inhibited the parties from doing so.

Instead, the UN has tacitly abandoned its earlier position of principle while continuing to play the role of arbiter of the dispute. Its inability to broker a compromise was evident as early as 2003. Yet, by continuing to attempt to arbitrate, it has encouraged the contending parties to continue to concentrate on lobbying it to arbitrate in their favour. The latest proposals by Morocco and the Polisario Front are cases in point; they have not addressed their proposals to each other, but to the UN and major Western governments. Consequently, the proposals have the character of ploys to impress the international gallery rather than opening moves in a sincere negotiation with the historic adversary. Should the Security Council favour either proposal, the result would be an imposed “solution”, which would have little moral force with the other side and accordingly be unlikely to constitute a real solution.

As shown by a simultaneously published companion Crisis Group report,* the continued failure to resolve this conflict has had high costs, especially for the people of the Western Sahara, for Maghreb unity and cooperation in the security and economic spheres, and for the credibility of the UN. An end to the impasse requires the Security Council to make a choice: either it must find what it has hitherto lacked, the political will to secure a resolution of the conflict through a truly free and fair referendum, or it should renounce its ambition to arbitrate and instead induce Morocco, the Polisario Front and Algeria to resolve the dispute among themselves on the basis of whatever principles they can genuinely agree to apply. In adopting Resolution 1754, which calls for negotiations between the parties, the Security Council may seem to have definitively rejected the first option and taken up the second. But by simultaneously stipulating that these negotiations should seek a solution “which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”, the Security Council has in fact fudged the issue in a way that could seriously prejudice the negotiations it has called for.

A resolution of the conflict could be achieved if the three main parties were left to negotiate the terms for themselves. These terms would undoubtedly be based on raison d’état, and consist of a package of reciprocal concessions. Since neither Algeria nor the Polisario Front is likely to revert to war, and there is little the Polisario can offer that would address Rabat’s fear that an independent Western Sahara would destabilise the monarchy, it is most unlikely they could persuade Morocco to resolve the dispute on the basis of the democratic principle of self-determination. But they and Morocco could conceivably agree to resolve it on another basis. And should the parties reach such an agreement, it would be possible to submit it to ratification by the population of the Western Sahara. Such a procedure would fall far short of realising the principle of self-determination, and it would debase the principle to pretend otherwise. But by securing consent, it could nonetheless legitimate the agreed solution in the eyes of those most directly affected.

The protracted attempt to resolve the Western Sahara question on the basis of the principle of self-determination has led most actors and observers alike to become fixated on this principle as if it is the only one at issue. In fact, other principles have been involved throughout and have tacitly informed the behaviour of the main protagonists. For Morocco, these have included the integrity of the national territory as Moroccans conceive this and the monarchy’s legitimacy. For the Polisario Front, they include the preservation of the identity of the Sahrawi population of the Western Sahara and the effective representation of its interests. For Algeria, they include the principle of the inviolability of the frontiers inherited from the colonial era, the preservation of strategic equilibrium in the region and the honouring of its commitments to the Polisario Front.

These are all matters of genuine principle for the concerned parties. A negotiation which took them into account might possibly yield an agreement. And an agreement based on them would deserve the international community’s respect.

Cairo/Brussels, 11 June 2007

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’. 


Former Director of Communications & Outreach
Project Director, North Africa
Intissar Fakir
Senior Fellow and Director of Program on North Africa and Sahel, Middle East Institute