Western Sahara Territorial Dispute

Written by: Lim Junheng, Jovan (20-O5), Soh Iwin (20-E5)

Designed by: Sargun Kaur (20-E4)

When hearing about Africa, what comes to mind? Other than the oft-mentioned Sahara Desert, the pyramids of Giza, or the African powerhouses of South Africa and Nigeria, how many of us have actually taken notice of the contended dispute between Morocco and Western Sahara, in the African region just east of the Atlantic? Surely, you might quickly dismiss this as something you would never need to know – after all, what’s there to learn about a conflict 12,000 kilometres away from home? That’s where you’re wrong! Well, with a stronger understanding and passion for our global happenings and the important issues plaguing our past and present, we learn valuable lessons and insights on how conflicts play the vital role of shaping our world today. Read on for more!

Who’s… fighting who?

Historically, Western Sahara, a territory abutting Morocco, used to be a region colonised by Spain. This lasted till 1975, when Spain abandoned ownership over it. Since then, Morocco asserted control over the region, which was met with opposition from the Polisario, a group of people from Western Sahara. The Polisario was against any form of foreign intervention and invasion such as that from the Spanish, and this did not alter when Morocco tried to claim sovereignty over Western Sahara. Consequently, the Polisario and Morocco engaged in a series of skirmishes, engendering attempts from the United Nations to broker ceasefires and referendums between the belligerents. While these stopped the fighting, to the international community’s dismay, this did not cease the fight for . In order to procure a share of Western Sahara and propound its national interests forth, Morocco started to garner support from international organisations such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and African Union. Morocco’s ability to attain the African Union’s support was rather surprising; however, this reflects its influential position in the conflict. This is because the African Union used to be a staunch advocate of the Polisario’s territorial integrity, and their stance bent towards that of Morocco when Morocco provided economic prospects by cooperating with the African Union on trade. 

Panning the spotlight to the international community, who do they recognise as Western Sahara’s rightful owner? For the United Nations, they recognised neither the Polisario nor Morocco to be sovereign over Western Sahara. As for the International Court of Justice, who sought to provide jurisdiction over this issue when it blew up, it did not recognise Western Sahara to be part of Morocco, and had no comments over the Polisario’s legal rights over the region. Overall, the UN and ICJ left the jurisdiction of the rightful owner as a hanging subject that was unanswered, causing the belligerents to continue positing their ownership over the region. 

What has been done to solve this issue? 

Throughout the history of the Western Sahara’s 40-year dispute, the two main counterbalancing forces to the conflict have been the continual ebb and flow of UN Personal Envoys to Western Sahara, as well as the “Western Sahara Autonomy Proposal” initiated by Morocco. 

In 1997, US Diplomat James Baker was chosen as the Personal Envoy of the UN General Secretary to Western Sahara. Under the auspices of Baker, the Houston Agreement was contrived — with its focus on an organisation of a referendum constituting an expression of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. This would determine if Western Sahara would become independent, semi-autonomous, or fully integrated within Morocco. Similarly, Baker Plan I was devised, bringing forth the idea that autonomy would be given to Western Sahara but with concessions about foreign affairs and defense, which were to be managed by Morocco. While Baker Plan I was endorsed by Morocco, the plan was greatly rejected by the Algeria-backed Polisario, who wanted nothing less than independence. This gave rise to the Baker Plan II, which called for a referendum after a five-year period under Moroccan sovereignty. This was not well-received by Morocco, as they argued that SADR’s independence was an undesirable outcome that they could not accept. This happened after a change in Moroccan leadership. Consequently, Baker resigned in 2004 after he failed to find a viable solution to the conflict.

Potential solutions for a brighter future

Undeniably, it is an onerous task to find an efficacious solution to mitigate the current catastrophe ahead of us. However, we believe that with compromise and cooperation, the prospects of a feasible solution may not be that blunt after all. This can be done through peace talks between the Polisario and Morocco from a third party mediator such as the Disarmament and International Security Committee, which is often seen as a “mini UNSC”. Why not have the UNSC as a mediator then? Morocco has tried to sway the UNSC over to support its stance before as previously mentioned; thus, it will be more difficult to buy the Polisario’s trust that the UNSC would not be biased in its mediation. Following on, referendums can be in place, such that the indigenious people of Western Sahara get to exercise their right to self determination and decide on whether they are really amenable to let Morocco have a share of the land. This is because should the solution not be favourable to them, this will engender larger scale conflicts in the long run. 

An alternative but rather hesitant approach would be to divide the land equally amongst Morocco and the Polisario, however such an approach may not receive international recognition, and can be rather shaky. A reason for this is because both Morocco and the Polisario may yearn for more control, which is attained through full ownership over the Western Sahara region. Lastly, let’s not forget the current humanitarian crisis looming ahead of the indigeneous Western Sahara populace. With the skirmish came refugees (from Sahara, who escaped to other countries) and a dearth of access to basic necessities such as food and education, which constitutes the human rights of a person. Thus, the United Nations should consider roping in UN councils such as the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee or the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to assist the dire refugee and humanitarian crisis. 

Tempering the flames of conflict stands an approximately 2,700-kilometre berm known as the Moroccan Wall, bisecting the Moroccan-controlled west, as well as the Polisario-controlled east which they declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). With the need of a physical barrier accentuating the divide between the two sections, it goes to show how the disputable conflict of the Western Sahara has become even more relevant today, certainly affecting the world in one way or another. This then shows the importance of arriving at a political compromise. Rather than have Morocco push for a full integration of Western Sahara, or have the Polisario separate from Morocco as an independent state, what serves as utmost cruciality is still the notion of a consensus, in order to prevent further regional instability or war (in its worst of cases). As evidenced by the inconsequential progress made since its 1991 ceasefire, it is still a contentious issue, although unfortunately neglected on the world stage.


  1. Kasraoui, S. (2018, December 14). Timeline: Western Sahara dispute from 1859 to 2017. Retrieved February 09, 2021, from https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2017/11/233515/morocco-western-sahara-polisario/
  2. Meservey, J. (2021, January 04). Israel-Morocco pact Brings Western Sahara Dispute back into focus. Retrieved February 09, 2021, from https://www.dailysignal.com/2020/12/22/israel-morocco-pact-brings-western-sahara-dispute-back-into-focus/#dear_reader

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