The conflicts of the Western Sahara region are one of the biggest obstacles in the Moroccan-Algerian bilateral relations, Morocco always blaming the neighbor for being the first supporter of the Polisario Liberation Front, that calls for the independence of the Sahara and rejects the Moroccan autonomy initiative. However, Algeria does not deny its support for the Polisario Front and it even welcomes its members.
The Moroccan online news Hespress quoted a report by the UN Secretary General António Guterres, addressed to the UN General Assembly, covering the period from 2011 to 2020, focusing on the topic of the Sahara as a regional conflict under Chapter VI of the UN Charter on the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes.
According to the UN report, Algeria has provoked the Sahara conflict and prolonged it for geopolitical reasons, inherited from the Cold War. Hence, the Security Council urged Algeria to work constructively with the Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General, in a spirit of consensus, throughout the political process, in a way that guarantees the success of this process. Guterres stated, that „during the mentioned period, the Security Council continued to study the UN reports and took decisions on the situation related to the Sahara”, stressing, that „the envoys and special representatives have continued to consult with the parties on ways to deal with the situation.”
The roots of the problem
The Western Sahara is a vast region located in northwest Africa and covers an area of about 266 thousand square kilometers, a former Spanish colony. Currently, Rabat administers about 80% of it, while the Polisario Front runs the rest. The population is approximately half a million. The region was under the Spanish colonization from 1884 to 1976. After the colonization’s departure, Morocco and the Polisario Front disputed over it, where the Front raised the pace of its operations and incited demonstrations demanding independence. However, Morocco and Mauritania resorted to the International Court of Justice. The Polisario Front was founded in 1973, aiming for an independent state in Western Sahara. Its military activity began during the Spanish colonization of the region, where it received aid from Libya and Algeria. It announced the establishment of the “SADR” between 1975 and 1976 where it formed an exile government in the Tindouf region in the far south of Algeria.
In 1975, Morocco announced its organization of the “Green March” towards the Sahara region. In January 1976, the “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic” was established with the support of Algeria. As a result, at the beginning of the eighties, Morocco constructed a sand wall around the cities of Es-Samara, Laayoune, and Boujdour to isolate the desert regions rich in phosphates and the main desert cities to protect them from attacks by the Polisario Front.
With Libya, giving up its support for the Polisario in 1984 and Algeria preoccupied with internal crises, Morocco’s position and control over the Sahara were strengthened. However, the Western Sahara crisis is currently one of the prolonged political and humanitarian conflicts in the world. During this war, many Sahrawi people sought refuge in Algeria, staying in camps for decades.
The Algerian position
Algerian official statements considered that its support for the Polisario is a matter of principle, similar to its support for Nelson Mandela in South Africa and the Palestinian cause, which led some observers to say that the relationship between Algeria and the Front has become historic.
A former Algerian officer said in a recent BBC interview that the reason for this Algerian support would not be related to what Algeria declares as the “justice of the case” only. However, Algeria took it as an opportunity to settle old and recurrent issues with Morocco. He added, Morocco has well known ambitions in the Western Sahara, in addition to the competition for leadership in the Maghreb. Moreover, Algeria has played an international prominent role in supporting the cause of Western Sahara’s independence that led to the Organisation of African Unity’s recognition of the Sahrawi government.
An international vision
The United Nations intervened in the complex conflict since 1988, when it proposed various solutions to the issue, including the referendum submitted during the eighties. The proposal can be summed up with two possible solutions for the conflict. The first is joining Morocco, rejected by Polisario, and the second is separation from it and the formation of an independent Western Sahara state, not acceptable for Morocco.
The UN made full arrangements to organize the referendum, starting with the approval of a ceasefire between the two sides in 1991. Nevertheless, the referendum process was suspended due to a lack of agreeing on who is entitled to participate in it. There was also a proposal to grant Western Sahara a broad autonomy under the Moroccan administration. However, the Polisario rejected the proposal, having Algeria as an ally, while Morocco agreed to these proposals at the time. After that, Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the UN, proposed the partition option as a fourth solution in 2002, with Morocco having the two-thirds and the Polisario a third, but Morocco refused it.
In 1991, the UN began monitoring the ceasefire agreement in the region. However, Morocco in 2016 threatened not to allow the UN peacekeepers operating in Western Sahara after António Guterres during his visit to Tindouf used the expression „occupation” for Morocco’s annexation of the Sahara region after the withdrawal of Spanish colonialism in 1975.
It is noteworthy that Rabat proposed a plan in 2007, granting the Sahara a great deal of autonomy, while preserving the symbols of Moroccan sovereignty, such as the national anthem and the Moroccan currency. Nonetheless, Washington expressed its support for the plan proposed by Morocco to give Western Sahara autonomy, considering the proposal “realistic and credible.”
Claims of impartiality
Idriss Al Karini, a professor of international relations at the University of Cadi Ayyad in Marrakech, considers that Algeria, despite its repeated claim of neutrality in this conflict, is harnessing all its economic, diplomatic, and political capabilities to support the Polisario. Al Karini also sees that Algeria leaves no occasion, regionally or internationaly, to make provocative statements to the unity of Morocco, which disrupts all the efforts made by the UN to settle this dispute.
Al Karini believes that the UN, as well as some countries in the world, are aware of the incitement role that Algeria plays in this regard, which empties any constructive initiative of its importance. Hence, many Security Council resolutions have called in recent years for the neighboring countries to provide a safe atmosphere that supports the political process, in a framework of goodwill, which is a direct reference to Algeria.
Moreover, Al Karini considers that the UN Secretary-General has asserted of Algeria’s role in this conflict in a report submitted to the General Assembly as an international parliament. It explains to the world and the UN the importance of Algeria stepping out from this file, which is supervised by the UN in good faith. He added that this would be a helpful and supportive factor in ending this conflict, especially after Morocco proposed the autonomy project, which praised its seriousness and credibility by the Council in a number of its decisions.
Besides, the Secretary-General of the UN, previously announced that the issue of Western Sahara is still on the UN agenda and under its consideration as a case of decolonization. In a report presented to evaluate the third international decade of the UN efforts to eradicate colonialism from the world, he said that the Western Sahara issue is also receiving attention from the UN Security Council.
Where the Council called on the parties to the conflict, the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco, to resume the stalled negotiations under the auspices of the UN without conditions and in good faith, taking into consideration the efforts made since 2006 to reach a just and lasting political solution that guarantees the people of Western Sahara the right to self-determination.
Guterres also indicated that the General Assembly considered the report of the Special Committee on the Implement the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and People under the item entitled to implement the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and People. Moreover, it monitored developments in all non-self-governing territories and submitted a report on each region on the model of Western Sahara.