The Western Sahara Issue and Divergent International Positions

The disputed territory of Western Sahara represents one of the world’s most protracted unresolved geopolitical conflicts, lasting over 40 years since Spain withdrew colonial administration in 1975.[1] Conflicting claims by Morocco and the indigenous Sahrawi Polisario Front resistance complicate sovereignty issues. The stalemate persists despite United Nations engagement efforts. International positions remain divergent, with legal ambiguities allowing varying interpretations. This article will analyze the historical background, key parties, failed settlements, legal arguments, foreign involvements, and prospects for resolution of the intractable Western Sahara quandary.


Western Sahara occupies a desert Atlantic coastal region of 266,000 square kilometers bordering Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria.[2] The indigenous Sahrawi population traditionally practiced nomadic lifestyles. Spanish colonization began in 1885 and lasted until the mid-1970s. As Spain prepared to depart, both Morocco and the independence-seeking Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro) sought control.

Morocco based claims on historical ties predating Spanish rule. In 1975 the International Court of Justice affirmed some Sahrawi tribal links to Morocco’s monarchy, but found their interrelationships did not constitute sovereignty.[3] However, the court also rejected claims to nationhood by the Polisario. With legal ambiguity prevailing, Morocco seized control of most of the disputed area. This sparked an insurgency by the Algerian-backed Polisario and mass flight of refugees.

Mauritania briefly joined Morocco in occupying Western Sahara, before withdrawing in 1979. Morocco then annexed the entire territory, building military fortifications against Polisario rebels.[4] A ceasefire was arranged in 1991, pending an independence referendum. But voting repeatedly stalled amid wrangling over voter eligibility rules skewed in both sides’ favor. The UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO remains deployed to monitor the ceasefire and refugee camps. Overall though, stalemate persists.

Key Parties and Positions


Morocco considers Western Sahara an integral southern province under sovereign control since precolonial times. The ruling Alaouite dynasty espouses historical claims to solidify its legitimacy.[5] Morocco has offered autonomy under its rule, but strongly resists outright independence or even a referendum with that option. Instead Rabat continues entrenching economic and social control over the area, hoping to force acceptance of its sovereignty as a fait accompli.[6] This frustrates Polisario and its backers. But many observers see eventual Moroccan absorption as the only realistic resolution.

Polisario Front

The Polisario Front emerged in 1973 as a nationalist movement demanding Sahrawi independence. Its guerilla forces battled Morocco and Mauritania assisted by Algeria, where many Sahrawi refugees remain encamped. The rebel group positions itself as the sole legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. However its declining military fortunes forced it to accept the 1990s ceasefire and seek a referendum.[7] But maneuvering over voter lists blocked votes, leaving Polisario weakened yet still opposing Moroccan control or limited autonomy offers. Most members demand a fully independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Some analysts contend Polisario’s intransigence undermines realistic steps forward.


Algeria actively champions its ally Polisario as a means to counterbalance rival Morocco. Western Sahara’s postcolonial independence struggle resonates with Algeria’s own history. Algeria financially backs the Sahrawi refugee camps and recognizes the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic diplomatically. ThisAlignment with Polisario also expands Algerian influence across North Africa and the Sahel. But some criticism suggests Algeria uses the intractable conflict to undermine Morocco while avoiding accountability for lack of progress.[8] Resolving Western Sahara would remove a key pillar of Algerian regional policy.


Mauritania originally joined Morocco in the 1975 invasion of Western Sahara as it also claimed portions of the area. But military defeat prompted Mauritania’s withdrawal in 1979, whereupon it recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Ties with Morocco deteriorated. However, Mauritania has since shifted to a more neutral stance on resolving the disputed territory, seeking to balance regional relations. It remains involved in ongoing UN talks but without strongly backing either party. Mauritania prioritizes stabilizing North African security and trade.

United Nations

The UN has aimed since 1991 to broker an independence referendum for Western Sahara and maintain the ceasefire. But it relies on voluntary cooperation by the conflicting parties who retain decision-making authority. Morocco has leverage to obstruct voting by disputing voter rolls. Some criticize the UN’s passivity and failure to enforce its mandates. But options are limited absent political will by key players. MINURSO’s peacekeeping approach also draws criticism for freezing rather than resolving conflict dynamics.[9] The UN’s credibility is weakened as the colonial-era dispute persists unresolved.

United States

Historically the US officially supported UN led efforts on the Western Sahara issue. But recently Washington has quietly backed Morocco’s autonomy plan while no longer calling for an independent Sahrawi state.[10] This aligns with broader US policy valuing regional security and counterterrorism cooperation with Morocco. However, reversing the longstanding UN approach damages US credibility. European allies and the African Union largely retain stronger support for self-determination.


As the former colonial power, Spain claims a continuing role supporting the UN peace process. But some criticize Spain for abandoning the territory abruptly in 1975 without establishing an orderly transition process. Domestic political considerations led Madrid to disengage hastily rather than carefully arbitrating between parties or ensuring a credible referendum.[11] Spain also remains compelled to balance relations with Morocco and Algeria on issues like migration and energy. Resolving the colonial legacy in Western Sahara eludes easy solutions for Madrid.

Failed Settlement Proposals

The UN Settlement Plan

The UN Settlement Plan of 1991 proposed a transition to a referendum on independence or integration with Morocco. But ceasefire delays enabled Moroccan entrenchment while time eroded Polisario’s capacity to mobilize resistance. Disagreements over voter eligibility stymied voting, though over 80 countries recognize Sahrawi rights to self-determination.[12]

Morocco’s Autonomy Plan

In 2007 Morocco offered a plan for limited Western Saharan autonomy while retaining sovereignty. But Polisario insists on full independence. They argue autonomy fails to offer sufficient local control over resources, security and foreign relations. Neighboring states also worry autonomy could destabilize regional ethnic politics.[13]

US-backed Framework Agreement

In 2020 the Trump administration supported a Moroccan sovereignty-based proposal involving limited autonomy and Sahrawi leadership positions. But Polisario and Algeria protested the UN abandoning self-determination principles. The agreement remains stalled despite US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara to incentivize acceptance.[14]

Third Way Proposals

Some observers propose compromises like a Sahrawi entity in free association with Morocco, power sharing, or transitional autonomy leading toward an eventual independence vote. But gaps remain wide between maximalist positions on both sides. Enforcement mechanisms and safeguards also require strengthening for credible future settlements.[15]

Intractable Legal Ambiguities

Textual Interpretations

Referendum advocates insist the original 1991 Settlement Plan and norms of postcolonial self-determination still legally compel a vote with independence as an option. But Morocco argues subsequent Security Council resolutions referring only generically to resolving the dispute supersede that specific mandate. This leaves space for alternative solutions based on Moroccan sovereignty.[16]

Precolonial Ties

Morocco highlights ICJ findings validating some precolonial ties between Sahrawi tribes and the Moroccan sultanate. But the same opinion rejected those links as establishing full sovereignty. The Polisario instead stresses traditions of Sahrawi self-rule until disrupted by Spanish colonization. Precolonial power relations fail to clearly resolve themodern territorial dispute.[17]

Resource Rights

Access to fisheries and potential offshore oil deposits raise the conflict’s economic stakes. Morocco benefits from existing access and investments by ignoring Polisario resource claims. But international law principles disfavor using force to deprive inhabitants of resource rights without consent. This adds ambiguity on governing Western Sahara’s natural wealth.[18]

Humanitarian Dimensions

The protracted conflict and refugee situation creates significant suffering often overlooked by parties focused on sovereignty disputes. Human rights advocates demand greater priority for social, economic and humanitarian needs of Sahrawi civilians and refugees caught in political gridlock.[19] But dialogue remains stalled despite costs to vulnerable populations.

Force and Consent Principles

Fundamental tensions persist between Western Sahara’s right to self-determination and the reality of Moroccan control. Independence supporters contend territorial integrity cannot legally be altered by force. But Morocco and autonomy advocates argue that after decades, at some point practical exigencies require acknowledging de facto control, or else incentives to compromise weaken.[20] Prioritizing principles versus stability leaves no easy answers.

Diplomatic Recognition Politics

Most nations recognize Western Sahara’s right to self-determination, but practical stances vary.[21] African Union members strongly back independence, viewing decolonization as incomplete. In contrast, France and Russia extend greater legitimization to Morocco’s claims in pursuit of strategic ties. US policy has shifted more favorably towards Moroccan control. These divides impede unified international messaging needed to achieve progress.

New Conflict Risks

Frustration over forty years of stalled diplomacy risks escalations if negotiations remain frozen. Morocco appears unlikely to relinquish territorial control. But a return to open conflict could generate wider regional instability. Sahrawi refugees increasingly see independence hopes fading. Militant factions may decide armed struggle is the only path left.[22] Violence would sacrifice decades of fragile progress. All sides must reassess entrenched positions to enable realistic compromise.


The Western Sahara conflict has persisted across generations with political compromise elusive despite repeated attempts. Challenges include overcoming legal ambiguities, reconciling regional power dynamics, addressing humanitarian needs, and basing dialogue on societies’ contemporary interests rather than rigid historical claims. There are no easy answers. But creative diplomacy and political courage focusing on Sahrawi populations’ welfare offer the best hopes after so many years adrift. All parties should reflect on costs of intransigence and renew meaningful engagement toward a shared future.


[1] Zoubir, Y. H., & Pazzanita, A. G. (1995). The United Nations’ failure in resolving the Western Sahara conflict. Middle East Journal, 614-628.

[2] Shelley, T. (2004). Endgame in the Western Sahara: What future for Africa’s last colony? Zed Books.

[3] International Court of Justice. (1975). Western Sahara Advisory Opinion. I.C.J. Reports.

[4] BBC News. (2020). Western Sahara profile.

[5] Slyomovics, S. (2005). Western Sahara and Morocco: staging histories, strategies of remembrance. Culture and History Digital Journal, 4(2).

[6] Theofilopoulou, A. (2019). United Nations–Western Sahara: A Never-ending Affair. United States Institute of Peace.

[7] Zunes, S., & Mundy, J. (2010). Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution. Syracuse University Press.

[8] Mehdi, T. (2002). Western Sahara Under Polisario Control. Review of African Political Economy, 29(91), 291-300.

[9] Ramos-Horta, J. (2019). The Workings of the United Nations Security Council in the Western Sahara Conflict. Academia Diplomática del Perú Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.

[10] Theofilopoulou, A. (2021). US Recognizes Morocco’s Sovereignty over Western Sahara: Implications. United States Institute of Peace.

[11] Barreñada, I. (2020). The Role of Spain in the Western Sahara Conflict. E-International Relations.

[12] Jensen, E. (2005). Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[13] International Crisis Group. (2007). Western Sahara: The Cost of the Conflict. Middle East/North Africa Report 65.

[14] White House. (2020). President Donald J. Trump’s Support for Morocco’s Serious, Credible, and Realistic Autonomy Proposal.

[15] International Crisis Group. (2018). Western Sahara: New Light in an Old Box. Middle East/North Africa Report 236.

[16] R iedel , U. (2011). In pursuit of statehood: The Moroccan sovereignty policy and the Western Sahara conflict. The Journal of North African Studies, 16(4), 575-590.

[17] San Martin, P. (2010). Nationalism, identity and citizenship in the Western Sahara. The Journal of North African Studies, 15(4), 565-592.

[18] Hagen, R. (2016). Maps against autonomy: self-determination for Western Sahara. Leiden Journal of International Law, 29(4), 1021-1039.

[19] Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2011). Protracted Sahrawi displacement: challenges and opportunities beyond encampment. Refugee Studies Centre.

[20] Zoubir, Y., & Benabdallah-Gambier, K. (2005). The United States and the North African Imbroglio: Balancing Interests in Algeria, Morocco, and the Western Sahara. Mediterranean Politics, 10(2), 181-202.

[21] Barreñada, I. (2016). The politics of indifference: the European Union and the symbolic recognition of Western Sahara. The Journal of North African Studies, 21(4), 626-643.

[22] International Crisis Group. (2021). Healing the Break as Western Sahara’s War Risk Grows. Middle East & North Africa Report 236.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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