The Western Sahara’s more than four-decade conflict is also one of the world’s most invisible crises. The territory lies between Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria and its long coastline stretches along the Atlantic Ocean.
Morocco and Mauritania occupied the Western Sahara in 1975 when Spain, the colonial power, reached an agreement allowing the invasion to go forward; Morocco also had the green light and the military support of the US and French governments. Thousands of Sahrawis, including many women and children, fled from the repression that followed and crossed into Algeria, where they were allowed to settle near the town of Tindouf.
Often referred to as Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara was under Spanish colonial rule until 1975, when Spain withdrew from the territory and allowed Morocco and Mauritania to invade.
With Algeria’s support, the anti-colonial movement that had fought to oust Spain, known as the Polisario Front, went to war against Morocco and Mauritania. In 1979 Mauritania withdrew. The war ended in 1991 with a UN-sponsored cease-fire agreement that included the promise of a referendum on self-determination and the return of the refugee population.
With aid from the US and Israel, Morocco built a 2.720 km separation wall, a militarized trench sewn with millions of mines separating the occupied Western Sahara and a portion of the territory controlled by the Polisario – separating Sahrawi family members in the camps from those living under occupation.
The wall, as known as “the berm”, is fortified 2.720km-long, patrolled by 150 thousand Moroccan soldiers and lined with an estimated 7 million landmines, divides Sahrawis living under Moroccan occupation from those exiled in the refugee camps.
Although several UN resolutions have called for the celebration of a referendum, Rabat has persistently refused to allow the vote to take place. At stake are powerful economic and strategic interests that include the territory’s rich natural resources: phosphates, rich fishing waters and the promise of offshore oil.
In November of 2020, after 29 years of cease-fire, Morocco launched a military operation in a buffer zone of Western Sahara near the Mauritanian border to violently break up a peaceful sit-in by Sahrawi civilians who had interrupted traffic to protest an illegally-built road used by Morocco to transport plundered goods from Western Sahara. The cease-fire was shattered, and the armed conflict between Polisario and Morocco resumed. Weeks later, on December 10th, former US President Donald Trump illegally recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara — the only country in the world to do so — in exchange for diplomatic normalization between Israel and Morocco as a part of the Abraham Accords.
Both the US and France, close political allies of Rabat, have either been reluctant or have directly blocked attempts at the UN Security Council to force Morocco to hold a referendum. This political stalemate means that Sahrawi refugees in the camps, nearing the end of a fourth decade of exile, have no immediate hope of returning to their homeland. Refugees are at particular risk for arrest if they attempt to return to the occupied Western Sahara, while those from the occupied territory who visit the camps are sometimes arrested upon return.
Meanwhile, the Moroccan military occupation of the Western Sahara has become increasingly repressive with the jailing, disappearance and torture of Sahrawi human rights defenders, journalists and pro-independence activists. Reporters without Borders labeled Western Sahara a “news black hole”; international journalists are generally barred from entering and the movements of those who manage to get in are closely monitored and their reporting activities restricted. Most international human rights monitors are barred from the territory, and the UN’s peacekeeping mission to Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, is the only modern UN peacekeeping mission in the world that does not have a human rights mandate.
Sahrawi video activists film demonstrations and repression from rooftops and homes, providing some of the only footage of human rights violations available to the international community.
Morocco leaked part of the content of a letter from the Government of Spain in March 2022 in which Spain varied its historical position on the conflict and endorsed the autonomy plan proposed by Morocco, which clashes head-on with UN resolutions and international law. The decision of the Government of Spain does not have the endorsement of the Council of Ministers and has run into the vote against the entire Parliament, with the exception of the socialist party (PSOE).
The UN continues to support a solution with a “full commitment (of the parties)”, which annuls the unilateral decision of autonomy. Meanwhile, in Europe, the resolution of the appeal filed at the end of 2021 by the European Commission is awaited after in September of that year the European General Court invalidated the commercial and fishing agreements between Morocco and the European Union that affect Western Sahara because of understanding that its signature must be done with the Polisario Front, recognized by the Court as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people.