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Inquiry into the Question of Western Sahara Part 1/3: The Political Equation. Western Sahara, a conflict sandbagged in its contradictions

Written by Frédéric Dubessy on Wednesday, December 16th 2020 à 14:39 | Read 801 times

Violation of the ceasefire signed in 1991, recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara by the United States, events have accelerated in recent days on the issue of the status of this territory.

Inquiry into the Question of Western Sahara Part 1/3: The Political Equation. Western Sahara, a conflict sandbagged in its contradictions
On Saturday, December 12, 2020, David Fischer, U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, signed the new official map of Morocco for the U.S. government. Soon to be presented to King Mohammed VI, it integrates Western Sahara within the borders of the Cherifian Kingdom. A first.
This information, however symbolic, is in fact only the logical continuation of the recognition, by tweet forty-eight hours before, of the sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara by Donald Trump. But also a return of elevator, totally assumed, after the declaration of Rabat on its normalization of relations with Israel (see part 3 of our survey).
For this French specialist in Mediterranean geopolitical issues requiring anonymity, "that a head of state unilaterally recognize 'Morocco's sovereignty' over Western Sahara demonstrates the contempt in which this official holds the UN. It devalues this unique institution. To imagine that the United States proposes to impose its authoritarian governance on the entire planet in replacement of an administration of international consultation seems to me an extremely dangerous prospect". According to him, "instrumentalizing the question of Western Sahara to satisfy egocentric political projects by negotiating with carpet merchants, without measuring the consequences of delegitimizing the UN is clearly irresponsible".
Mohamed Ould Cherif, director of the Franco-Saharan think tank Ahmed Baba Miské, states that "the status of Western Sahara has been defined by the United Nations as a non-autonomous territory awaiting self-determination. The decision of the outgoing president, Mr. Trump, is in total contradiction with international legality and with the decisions and resolutions of the Security Council".
Totally opposed opinion for Jawad Kerdoudi, president of the Moroccan Institute of International Relations (IMRI): "The recognition by the United States of Morocco's sovereignty over its Sahara strengthens Morocco's diplomatic position, the United States being the first economic and military power in the world. Their presence on this issue is legitimate because it is managed by the UN, and the United States is a permanent member of the Security Council. Moreover, the U.S. Presidential Order mentions that an independent Sahrawi state is not a realistic option to resolve the conflict".
Rachid El Houdaigui believes that "the United States is present on this issue because it has the resources to resolve the problem." And Professor Abdelmalek Essaadi University (Tangier), member of the Policy Center for the New South (Rabat), to specify, "French officials have often told their Moroccan counterparts that the solution of the Sahara is in the White House and not in the Elysée!" 

End of 30 years of ceasefire

Inquiry into the Question of Western Sahara Part 1/3: The Political Equation. Western Sahara, a conflict sandbagged in its contradictions
The layout of this new American map validated in the direction of the Moroccan hair carries the trumpian seal and could therefore prove to be ephemeral. Once seated behind the oval desk, will Joe Biden take out his eraser to restore the dotted lines of this much-criticized border? "The decision to recognize the Moroccanness of the Sahara is the culmination of a process that began when the U.S. administration, George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, considered the autonomy plan as a credible and realistic solution. Donald Trump has only pushed the logic towards its point of arrival," Rachid El Houdaigui analyses. Mohammed Ould Cherif is less confident: "the new president's leitmotif is the return of an America that respects international legality. In addition, the principle governing the resolution of this conflict is that of self-determination, a founding principle of the United States. Therefore, I believe that there is a good chance that this decree of an outgoing president will be rescinded, as is often the case, by the new president".
This controversy comes at a time when the situation on the ground has become increasingly tense since November 2020 with exchanges of fire between Moroccan troops and the Polisario Front, the movement for the liberation of Western Sahara. The noise of weapons, but also a communiqué of the Polisario Front declaring the "state of war", came to tear a silence resulting from thirty years of ceasefire.
At the origin of this "awakening", the blocking of road traffic (mainly trucks) at the border post of Guerguerat by the independence fighters. The only road leading from Morocco to Mauritania and the countries of West Africa. But also the "massive attacks by firing and shelling" of the Polisario Front, according to the terms of its Ministry of Defense against the 2,700 km long sand wall, which acts as a dam to prevent Polisario incursions.
In response, the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces (FAR) deployed into the Guerguerat buffer zone, under UN surveillance, to dislodge men from the Sahrawi movement. For Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), "the end of the war is now linked to the end of the illegal occupation." Understandably, of the Moroccan-controlled part of Western Sahara.
"The Saharawis remain open to negotiations, because as a matter of principle they are a peaceful people. Nevertheless, given Morocco's move to extend the conflict to other parties far from the region, I do not see a real willingness of the Kingdom of Morocco to sit at the negotiating table," added Mohamed Ould Cherif.
The United Nations has been very silent after these events that upset the fragile status quo. The latest annual report of the UN Secretary General simply states that it was "extremely difficult to verify the reality of the information disseminated on either side.


The history of Western Sahara in a few key dates

1884: Western Sahara becomes a Spanish colony.
1912: Beginning of the French Protectorate in Morocco and the Spanish sub-protectorate in Morocco in the north of the country and in the Saharan territories of Tarfaya and Rio de Oro.
1956: Proclamation of Moroccan independence and end of the Spanish Protectorate in the north of the country.
1958: Assignment to Morocco by the Spanish of the territory of Tarfaya then creation of the Spanish Sahara (with Rio de Oro and Saguia el-Hamra).
1963: Sand War between Morocco and Algeria following border incidents.
1964: Cease fire
1969: Transfer by the Spaniards of the enclave of Ifni.
1975: Spain ceases its protectorate in Morocco, which it exercised with France.
1976: Self-proclamation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) by the Polisario Front.
March 1976: Recognition of the SADR by Algeria
1991: Ceasefire pronounced under the aegis of the United Nations with a defined pseudo-frontier.
2007: Morocco proposed a plan for "broad autonomy", rejected by the Polisario Front.

Lurking war between Morocco and Algeria

The former Spanish colony (see box) of 266,000 km² is claimed by Morocco, which controls 80% of this territory with 654,000 inhabitants (figure 2018), including nearly 500,000 in the cities under the control of Rabat.
At its independence in 1956, the Cherifian Kingdom had to give up the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and some rocks because of their membership in the Spanish crown before the beginning of the protectorate. But for Mohammed Ben Youssef, Sultan of Morocco who will reign under the name of Mohammed V, the departure of the Spaniards immediately placed Western Sahara under his authority. The territory of Tarfaya (1958) then the enclave of Ifni (1969) were indeed retroceded by the Spanish to Morocco. But not the Rio de Oro and Segia el-Hamra.
After the death of Francisco Franco and the installation of Juan Carlos, the Spaniards left in 1975 without resolving the problem of status, which would have required a referendum among the Saharawi people. Hassan II has always opposed self-determination.

The UN sent a mission to the region in May-June 1975. Its conclusions fed into the October 16, 1975 decision of the International Court of Justice that Western Sahara was not "terra nullius" (territory without master) at the time of its colonization and that the nomadic tribes inhabiting it, despite the legal ties of allegiance with Morocco and Mauritania, had the right to pronounce on its status.
Morocco, with its 350,000 strong Green March, and Mauritania then decided to invade this territory. In response, the Polisario Front, an independence movement, took up arms. Algeria joined the party, but only stayed for a few days (in January 1976) before withdrawing.
A week later, the Madrid Accords, denounced by the Polisario and often qualified, even in Europe, as "the legal dressing of the Moroccan occupation," divided the region between Morocco (two-thirds) and Mauritania (one-third).
The latent war between Morocco and Algeria begins. The border between the two countries is closed since 1994. In 1979, Mauritania finally gives up all view of Western Sahara.

The United Nations powerless for four decades

The Polisario Front flag flies over a Minurso helicopter (photo: DR)
The Polisario Front flag flies over a Minurso helicopter (photo: DR)
"The abandonment of this colony by the Spaniards led to the current situation. It seems legitimate to rely on the position of the only international organization recognized by all, the United Nations, which is productive of peace. Even if this task is delicate and sometimes disappointing", asserts the French specialist in Mediterranean geopolitical issues already mentioned. "The UN is responsible for the decolonization of this territory and has set up a mission for this purpose, the Minurso. This referendum was to take place six months after the cease-fire in September 1991. More than twenty-nine years later, the UN has still not organized this referendum, although the electorate has been clearly established by it," said Mohamed Ould Cherif.
The UN has called Western Sahara a "Non-Self-Governing Territory" since 1963. "In a process of decolonization, the question is whether the people are sovereign over their territory or not. This is the case here," Gilles Devers, French lawyer for the Polisario Front, reminds us, drawing parallels with the FLN in Algeria and the PLO in Palestine. "A national liberation movement, the Polisario Front is the provisional legal form that represents Western Sahara", he insists.
Jawad Kerdoubi believes that "Western Sahara is an integral part of the Moroccan territory. Legal ties of allegiance existed before the Spanish occupation between the sultans of Morocco and the Sahrawi tribal leaders. These ties were recognized by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in its advisory opinion of October 16, 1975". Rachid El Houdaigui does not see "Morocco without its Saharan geographical and human extension. It is an essential issue for the Moroccan nation-state, for the political institutions and for the country's geographical posture". He takes up an old thesis that is still alive, "those who believed they could suffocate Morocco, by surrounding it with the creation of a micro-state, are today living in disillusionment". The reference to Algeria, accused by some of wanting to close Morocco's access to sub-Saharan Africa, is limpid. 


An autonomy plan proposed by Morocco

The peacekeepers have just had their mission renewed for another year (photo: Minurso).
The peacekeepers have just had their mission renewed for another year (photo: Minurso).
Moroccan authorities advocate an autonomy plan under its sovereignty. The document presented by Morocco to the UN in 2007 is "the best solution for the future status of the territory, as it provides for a broad autonomy of the region with a government and a local assembly under Moroccan sovereignty," Jawad Kerdoudi said. For the president of IMRI, "the referendum on self-determination cannot be organized because there was no agreement between the parties to identify the electorate. A return to the negotiating table is conceivable in the coming year 2021, but for it to be effective it must take Morocco's autonomy plan as a basis for discussion".
The leaders of the Polisario Front demand the implementation of the referendum on self-determination planned by the United Nations. Negotiations have been at a standstill since the spring of 2019. And Minurso, the UN peacekeeping force created in April 1991, has just been reappointed in early November 2020 for a one-year mandate until October 31, 2021. Based in Laayoune, these blue helmets (245 military personnel plus 440 administrative staff) continue their mission. They now find themselves without a leader since the resignation in May 2019, officially for health reasons, of Horst Köhler.
Khadija Mohsen-Finan claims "to have naturally adopted a distance from the parties in working on this dossier". A political scientist, professor at the University of Paris 1 and researcher at the Sirice laboratory (identities, international relations and civilizations of Europe), she claims that "none of the claims fully satisfy her". Khadija Mohsen-Finan castigates "the Moroccan pendulum game between 'historical rights' and international law" which she considers "not acceptable because it gives the feeling of a manipulation of law and history. Conversely, an additional state in the region, governed by the Polisario Front, which would have strengthened an arrogant Algeria, seems unsustainable and destabilizing for the region"
"Morocco is more than ever in a position of strength, first military, then diplomatic. The question of the referendum is even further away, the UN is not saying a word, as are the Africans," said a French diplomat.

Read other articles from our survey on the Western Sahara issue

Part 2: The counterpart to American recognition: Strengthening relations between Morocco and Israel
Part 3: Economic data. A desert full of resources



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