A history of the Western Sahara conflict
Australia Western Sahara Association
2011-10-07, Issue <http://www.pambazuka.org/en/issue/551
> Australia Western Sahara Association provides a
short history of Morocco's military invasion of Western Sahara and its
effects on the populace.
Prior to Spain’s colonisation of Western Sahara, this western part of the
Sahara desert in North-West Africa had been historically inhabited by a
society of desert nomads pasturing their herds of camels and growing crops.
When Spain began to colonise the area from 1884, Western Sahara was
inhabited by these nomadic peoples, who were politically and socially
organised in tribes and under chiefs competent to represent them. Spain
acquired its sovereignty over Western Sahara not because it was a land
without an owner, terra nullius, but through agreements concluded with local
While Spain was the colonial ruler of the territory of Western Sahara, it
did not have effective control over the people of the area. The Saharawis
resisted colonisation and there were bloody clashes until they were
‘pacified’ in 1934. However at this time, and into the 1940s, the Spanish
administered only a handful of settlements, none of which was larger than a
medium sized village. El Aaiun (Laayoune), now the capital of Western
Sahara, was not established until 1940. Between 1956 and 1958 there were
riots in Western Sahara and bloody battles between the Spanish and the
In 1963, the UN included Western Sahara in the list of countries to be
decolonised and asserted the right of the Saharawi people to
self-determination. In 1966 the UN, for the first of many times, passed a
resolution calling for this self-determination to be exercised by
There was organised pressure from the Saharawis for independence in the
1960s and early 1970s. This led to the establishment of the Polisario Front
in 1973 and the beginning of its armed struggle. By 1974 Spain announced its
intention to hold a referendum in 1975; however, it announced it was
postponing the referendum when, at the request of King Hassan II of Morocco,
the UN General Assembly sought an Advisory Opinion from the International
Court of Justice (ICJ) on Western Sahara. The documentary
> True Wars and
Fake Peace deals with this period.
On 16 October 1975, the ICJ delivered its Advisory Opinion in Volume 59 of
the International Law Reports page 13, with this quote at page 85:
‘[T]he Court’s conclusion is that the materials and information presented do
not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of
Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus
the Court has found no legal ties of such a nature as might affect the
application of resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara
and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free
and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.’
MOROCCO’S MILITARY INVASION OF WESTERN SAHARA AND THE ‘GREEN MARCH’
King Hassan II disregarded the ICJ’s conclusions and on 31 October 1975
Moroccan troops crossed the frontier and clashed with the Saharawi
guerrillas, who had formed their liberation movement, the Polisario Front,
in the northeast of Western Sahara. The king had been planning for the march
long before the ICJ gave its Advisory Opinion and on 6 November 1975, he
ordered the 300,000 marchers he had assembled near the border of Morocco and
Western Sahara to commence the ‘Green March’ - so named after the holy
colour of Islam.
At least 160,000 marchers entered Western Sahara. King Hassan threatened
Spain to open direct negotiations with Morocco or else he would continue in
his quest. Spain gave in. Negotiations between Morocco, Mauritania and Spain
began in Madrid on 14 November 1975 and culminated in the signing of the
Madrid Accords, sometimes called the Madrid Agreement or the Tripartite
SPAIN ABANDONS WESTERN SAHARA
As the long-term dictator of Spain, General Franco, lay dying, his
government abandoned its responsibilities as a colonial power and purported
to divide Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania. Both countries
seized part of the land, but Mauritania soon made peace with the Polisario
Front. The Saharawis, through the Polisario Front, continued the fight
On 6 November 1975, the Security Council ‘deplored’ this action and ordered
King Hassan to withdraw the marchers. However the king did not withdraw his
troops or the marchers and Morocco’s invasion of Western Sahara continues to
this day. The Security Council’s resolution No. 380 (1975), stated:
‘The Security Council,
Noting with grave concern that the situation concerning Western Sahara has
Noting with regret that, despite its resolutions 377 (1975) of 22 October
and 379 (1975) of 2 November 1975 as well as the appeal made by the
President of the Security Council under its authorization, to the King of
Morocco with an urgent request to put an end forthwith to the declared march
on Western Sahara, the said march has taken place,
Acting on the basis of the aforementioned resolutions,
1. Deplores the holding of the march;
2. Calls upon Morocco immediately to withdraw from the Territory of Western
Sahara all the participants in the march;
3. Calls upon Morocco and all other parties concerned and interested,
without prejudice to any action which the General Assembly might take under
the terms of its resolution 3293 (XXIX) of 13 December 1974 or any
negotiation which the parties concerned and interested might undertake under
Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations, to co-operate fully with
the Secretary-General in the fulfilment of the mandate entrusted to him in
Security Council resolutions 377 (1975) and 379 (1975).’
THE EFFECTS OF MOROCCO’S INVASION
Many Saharawis fled the tanks and aerial bombardments of napalm and cluster
bombs and set up refugee camps near Tindouf in south-west Algeria where more
than 165,000 of them now live. Life is scarcely viable in the harsh Hamada
desert where the refugees live, as there are no means for self-sufficiency.
Consequently, they are supported by the UN Food Program and other
humanitarian aid provided through the generosity of non-government
organisations and international campaign groups.
Nevertheless, the Saharawis have set up their own government, the Saharawi
Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which not only runs the camps and attends
to the education of the children and the health care of everyone in them,
but also represents the interests of the Saharawi people in the United
States, Europe and elsewhere and lobbies the UN agencies, the EU and
governments throughout the world. SADR is recognised by at least 80 nations
and is a founding member of the African Union.
Those Saharawis who remained in their homeland (now termed the Moroccan
Occupied Territory) have constantly faced arrest, imprisonment, death and
‘disappearance’ at the hands of the Moroccan occupying forces. Their escape
is blocked by a 2,400km wall dividing Western Sahara into the coastal zone
occupied by Morocco and the interior part held by the Polisario Front.
THE CEASEFIRE, MINURSO AND THE REFERENDUM ON SELF-DETERMINATION
The war between Morocco and the Polisario Front continued until a UN-African
Union brokered ceasefire in 1991.
MINURSO (Mission des Nations Unies pour un Referendum au Sahara Occidental)
was established to organise a United Nations-led referendum for
self-determination of the Saharawi people in 1992 as part of the peace
process between Morocco and the Polisario Front. However, by 1996 the peace
process was in stalemate.
In 1997, James Baker (George H. Bush’s secretary of state) became a UN envoy
and drew up a new plan for the referendum, the Framework Agreement on the
Status of Western Sahara. Morocco refused to co-operate. In 2003, Baker made
a new plan, titled Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of
Western Sahara. This was supported unanimously by the UN Security Council
and by the SADR. However, Morocco still refuses to allow the referendum.
The UN has arrangements in place for a referendum, but Morocco continually
refuses to allow the referendum to take place. Every six months the UN votes
to keep MINURSO in place and each year the UN passes a resolution supporting
the right of the Saharawi people to self determination, but more than 30
years have now passed since Morocco invaded Western Sahara, preventing the
right of the Saharawi people to self-determination.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
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> Pambazuka News.
MINI DOCUMENTARIES ABOUT THE SAHRAWI REFUGEES:
> Trailer for
a Documentary about the Saharawi refugees, directed by Tamás Polgár.
- United Nations video called
> ‘Crossing the
- Al-Jazeera’s Inside Story documentary on the Sahrawi:
> Part One and
> Part Two.
- ‘Children of the Clouds’ documentary by Spanish film maker Carlos
One and <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApA8LLvw6kI&feature=related
LINKS TO PHOTOS AND VIDEOS OF THE WAR YEARS:
- International Court of Justice, Reports on Western Sahara (1975)
- Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy, ‘Western Sahara: War Nationalism & Conflict
Irresolution’, Syracuse University Press, 2011.
- Jacob Mundy, ‘Neutrality or Complicity? The United States and the 1975
Moroccan Takeover of the Spanish Sahara’, 11 Journal of North African
- Anna Theofilopoulou, ‘The United Nations and Western Sahara: A
Never-Ending Affair’, US Institute for Peace, Special Report No. 166, July
- John Damis, ‘Conflict in Northwest Africa: The Western Sahara Dispute’,
Stanford, Hoover Institution Press 1983.
- Tony Hodges, ‘Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War’, Westport,
Lawrence Hill, 1983.
- Yahia H. Zoubir and Daniel Volman (eds), ‘International Dimensions of the
Western Sahara Conflict’, Westport, Praeger, 1993.
- Thomas M. Franck, ‘The Stealing of the Sahara’, 70 American Journal of
International Law 694, 1976.
- Kamal Fadel, ‘The Decolonization Process in Western Sahara’, Indigenous
Law Bulletin, 1999, p. 66.
- Ian Williams and Stephen Zunes, ‘Self Determination Struggle in the
Western Sahara Continues to Challenge the UN’, Foreign Policy in Focus, 17
September 2003, found at <http://www.fpif.org
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Received on Fri Oct 07 2011 - 17:09:56 EDT