In this article, Khadidja Daoudi explores recently resurfaced tensions, mainly between Tunisia and Morocco, over the Western Sahara and sheds light on the involvement of the international community in the conflict. She argues in favour of Tunisia which took a decisive stance against what they perceive as Morocco’s illegal occupation of the Western Sahara. Daoudi calls on the international community to take more clear positions and actions to resolve the conflict.
This year has seen a state of renewed tensions amongst states of the Maghreb, provoked by what is being characterised as an ‘unfreezing’ of the longstanding conflict over the Western Sahara.
In August, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied took a highly controversial step in welcoming Polisario (Western Sahara’s official national liberation movement) head Brahim Ghali, who was to attend the Japan-Africa Investment summit. This was at the request of the African Union that all African states recognised by the Organisation attend this high-profile summit. This move, perceived by Morocco as ‘unnecessarily provocative’, prompted their immediate withdrawal of participation in the summit as well as the recalling of their ambassador from Tunisia. Undoubtedly, this ignited a hostile climate between Tunisia and Morocco, and reaffirms the importance of renewing discourses on the continued need for decolonisation and self-determination for all across the continent. I will seek to highlight how taking decisive stances on the conflict, as Tunisia has done, regardless of the political and economic costs at stake, is a crucial step towards the liberation of the Western Sahara, which continues to struggle at the hands of illegal Moroccan occupation.
A Brief History
The Western Sahara, a territory situated south of Morocco and west of Algeria and Mauritania, fell under Spanish colonial domination in 1884 following the Berlin Conference. Up to 1975, long after both Morocco and Mauritania achieved independence, the territory operated as a colony, until pressure mounted on Spain to begin a process of decolonisation. Around this time, Morocco maintained its claims to the territory, basing it on historic rights, cultural and religious ties (Zoubir, 297). Mauritania also claimed territorial rights since Sahrawi tribes in the South had belonged to the Mauritanian entity long before Spanish colonisation (Zoubir, 309).
Attempting to stall Spain’s plans to hold a referendum in 1975 which would have allowed the Sahrawi people to determine their own future, Morocco made an appeal to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion on the matter. After much legal deliberation, the ICJ concluded that there were no existing ties of territorial sovereignty for either Morocco or Mauritania, rendering their claims baseless (Franck, 710). Rejecting this opinion, against the principles of both the United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity and in breach of international law, the King of Morocco, Hassan II, launched the ‘Green March’: a massive march of 350,000 ‘unarmed civilians’ from Morocco into the Western Sahara, beginning the formal colonisation of the territory (Franck, 712). This fatalistic decision set the precedent for the indubitably internationally illegal Moroccan occupation that ignored the desires of the majority of the Sahrawi people as well as, in the wider context, for decades of countless political rifts in the Maghreb.
Morocco: National Sovereignty or Illegal Occupation?
Following the invasion and tripartite agreement between Morocco, Mauritania and Spain in November 1975, the struggle of the Sahrawis was characterised, militarily, by decades long of guerrilla fighting and politically, attempts to bring Morocco to the negotiating table. Mauritania, after realising the costs of the war were impacting domestic development, withdrew in August 1979 (Dunbar, Malley-Morrison, 24). Despite strong backing by the US, and later Spain and France, of Morocco’s colonial fait accompli, Mauritania’s exit from the territory left Rabat in a fairly isolated position. Particularly on the continent, Morocco’s principal rival, Algeria, continued to assume an important role as vanguard of Third World liberation, in the advocation of principles of self-determination, as well as in their support of the Polisario through the form of money, arms and diplomacy (Dunbar, Malley-Morrison, 24). Nonetheless, Hassan II persisted with colonial endeavours in the territory; it would be 16 years more until a formal ceasefire was agreed upon between Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1991 and a potential referendum to be held under the auspice of the UN (Zunes, 34). While the referendum never came into fruition, due to Morocco’s renewed intransigence regarding Sahrawi self-determination, the ceasefire essentially froze the conflict on ground for another 29 years. Tensions resurfaced again in 2020 in the form of border clashes between the Moroccan army and the Polisario as a result of the US’s announcement of a renewal of a military pact with Morocco, in exchange for Israeli-Moroccan cooperation.
The Role of the UN
Considering the crucial role the United Nations (UN) assumed in the post-war world order in promoting international peace and advancing prospects of decolonisation where possible, it is important to highlight their role in the Sahrawi case. It has long been regarded that the case of the Western Sahara by the UN has been, as Franck puts it, ‘monumentally mishandled’ (Franck, 694). The Organisation’s inertia in pursuing decisive stances on the dispute and protecting the rights of the Sahrawi people, who continue to be subjected to appalling living conditions and routinely repression in the pursuit of the policy of ’Moroccanisation’, has rendered them beyond effective in their role as mediators (Dunbar, Malley-Morrisson, 28). Perhaps the most disappointing action taken by the body was the passing of two paradoxical resolutions on the conflict in December 1978: one encouraging the Sahrawi people to exercise their rights of self-determination, while the other, recognising the fait accompli imposed on them by the three participating powers in 1975 (Franck, 717). It is easy to see how this decision only reaffirmed the futility of the UN in the conflict, while also declining the prospects of Sahrawi self-determination through negotiations with their second colonial power.
While many may still recognise that the way forward for the future of Western Sahara should begin with the actions and voice of the UN, history has proven this to be the contrary. It remains the occupying power, Morocco, first through pressure from other African nation states, that is to pave the way for them to determine their fate and realise that the demands of the SADR for self-determination, a right to build their future, independent of any colonial influence and within the framework of international law, are rational ones. Only then will it become pertinent for the UN to use its influence to restructure its peacekeeping mission in line with the unified demands of African nations in support of self-determination, mounting further pressure on Morocco to reverse its fait accompli.
What To Expect
However, the recent eruption of tensions has shown that there is little room to expect a resolution any time soon. Morocco once again has proved to be unequivocal on its so-called rightful claims to the territory, while countries such as Algeria, and more recently, Tunisia, continue to support the Sahrawi cause on matters of principle, causing an entrenchment of continental divisions and renewed perpetuation of political aggression on the Sahrawis. Moreover, the decision taken by the Biden administration to not reverse the policy of the previous administration in recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the territory has only served to solidify Moroccan insistence that self-determination for the people of Western Sahara is out of the question (Certo, 2022). Nonetheless, this should not serve as a deterrent in continuing to anticipate a change in the fate of the Sahrawi people. While it has already been proven that one cannot rely on the UN solely, if at all, to lead the Sahrawi people’s way to self-determination, support for their liberation on a nation state basis, particularly from African nations, can set a precedent for progress towards freedom from Moroccan occupation. The arguably politically bold and dangerous moves taken by both Tunisia and the African Union in openly endorsing the SADR this year are demonstrations of what other nations need to pursue. To continue, or at least begin, to take decisive stances regarding the Western Sahara in support of their people will undoubtedly create an environment of strengthened political isolation for Morocco, potentially initiating a process of Moroccan reconsideration on the conflict.
Featured image: Western Sahara’s “Polisario front” independence movement leader Brahim Ghali at the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Tunis on August 27, 2022. Photo by FETHI BELAID/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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