The recent violent end of the ceasefire in Western Sahara
means the EU and the UN should pay renewed attention to resolving the
longstanding conflict between the native Sahrawis and Morocco.
Various peace-making efforts over the years have led the
Sahrawis’ representative organisation, Polisario, to make concessions to Morocco.
However, Morocco remains insistent on an autonomy option for the Sahrawis – not
The UN should pursue a “free association” option for Western
Sahara – a third way that offers a realistic means of fulfilling Sahrawi
France, along with the US, should encourage this by removing
their diplomatic protection for Morocco both within the EU and at the UN.
Correctly aligning the EU’s political and trade relations
will be vital to bringing this conflict to a close. It is in EU member states’
interest to ensure a stable southern neighbourhood.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the creation of
the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The mission was
originally tasked with laying the groundwork for Sahrawi self-determination
while monitoring a ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario – the Western Sahara
national liberation movement. In setting up the mission, the United Nations
promised to end the long-running conflict in what remains Africa’s only
territory still awaiting decolonisation. Yet, three decades later, the UN has
little to show.
Self-determination for the Sahrawi people appears more
remote than when MINURSO was first launched in 1991. Meanwhile, the ceasefire
is unravelling after the resumption of armed attacks by Polisario against
Moroccan forces, stemming in large part from the absence of a viable peace
process and the strengthening of Morocco’s hold over the territory. Diplomatic
inaction has been compounded by the lack of a UN personal envoy, two years
since the most recent appointee resigned in May 2019.
The UN Security Council and its permanent members, which
have shepherded peace talks since the 1990s, hold much responsibility for this
state of affairs. Under their watch, self-determination and decolonisation were
replaced with a peace process that has given Morocco veto power over how the
Sahrawi people fulfil their internationally recognised rights.
Stuck on the sidelines has been the European Union. The
actions of two of its members, France and Spain, have helped keep the conflict
rumbling on. Yet, as a bloc, the EU has maintained its distance from peace
talks despite the implications that Western Sahara’s future will have for
north-west Africa, whose stability and prosperity is a key European interest.
To the extent that it has been involved in Western Sahara – through its trade
relations with Morocco – the EU has actually harmed prospects for resolving the
conflict. Europe is far from an uninvolved observer; indeed, it is directly
implicated in the conflict. Bearing testament to this is Morocco’s recent
decision to allow thousands of migrants to make for the Spanish North African
town of Ceuta in response to Spain’s hosting of Polisario leader, Brahim Ghali,
for medical treatment and (in Rabat’s eyes) because of Spain’s insufficient
support for Moroccan positions on Western Sahara. This summer’s anticipated
decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to invalidate the
EU’s inclusion of Western Sahara in its trade and fishery agreements with
Morocco is yet another sign of how implicated the bloc is in the unfolding
International neglect is having an adverse impact on the
calculations of both main parties, demonstrating to Morocco that the UN Security
Council has acquiesced to its continued control over Western Sahara. Moreover,
in his final weeks as US president, Donald Trump recognised Moroccan
sovereignty over Western Sahara – in contravention of international law.
Receding prospects for a negotiated solution will convince the Western Sahara
national liberation movement that diplomacy and international law have failed
it, and that an intensification of armed confrontation with Morocco is the only
Drawing on interviews with serving and former officials, and
with leading experts and academics, this paper argues that, at this critical
juncture, European governments – including those with a seat on the UN Security
Council – must urgently relaunch a viable UN-led peace process. In doing so,
they should avoid repeating the mistakes of old. They must put their full
weight behind the appointment of a UN personal envoy tasked with formulating a
new plan for Sahrawi self-determination. This plan should set out a third way
for Western Sahara – between full independence and formal integration into the
territory of the Kingdom of Morocco – based on the concept of “free
association” in which Polisario, as the representative of the Sahrawi people,
delegates powers both to Morocco and to a newly created state of Western
Sahara. A UN-backed process cannot succeed without the active political support
of European governments. How they align their political and trade policies will
greatly influence the prospects for resolving the Western Sahara conflict and the
future of the region.
conflict in Western Sahara – By European Council on Foreign Relations
What is the Western
Sahara conflict is all about, and how will the most recent developments between
Morocco and Spain influence this conflict? The little-known but
long-running conflict in Western Sahara made it into the headlines in Europe
recently, when Morocco weaponised migration in Ceuta to advance its territorial