Western Sahara Dispute on Self-Determination

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 13
Words: 3647
Reading time:
13 min
Study level: PhD


General Overview

Western Sahara is one of the disputed territories in the globe. It is located in the Maghreb region in the northern part of the African continent. It is bordered by Morocco to the north, Mauritania to the south and east, and Algeria to the northeast (Jensen 12). The Atlantic Ocean borders the territory to the west. The Western Sahara landscape mainly consists of desert flatlands. The area does not favor agricultural activities. Consequently, it is one of the regions with the lowest population density in the globe. It is occupied by approximately 500,000 individuals. It is estimated that 40 percent of these persons live in El Aaiún, its largest city. In 1963, the region was classified as a special territory by the UN. It was categorized as a non-self-governing enclave. Its inclusion was a result of demands by Morocco to offer it the status (Pabst 24). The region was traditionally colonized by Spain. It was granted independence following a UN General Assembly resolution. The declaration required the colonialists to leave the colony in 1965. The request is considered to be the UN’s first resolution on the Western Sahara dispute. In 1966, the general assembly adopted the second decree on the territory. It requested Spain to conduct a referendum on self-determination.

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Starting from 1965, Western Sahara was no longer under Spain. Despite the independence, Spain continued to administrate the territory for ten years (Jensen 12). However, it gave up the region in 1975. Administrative control was left to Morocco and Mauritania. The former had already laid claim to the territory in 1957. After Spain pulled out, a war erupted between Morocco, Mauritania, and the Sahrawi National Liberation Movement. The movement is popularly known as the Polisario Front. It claims that the region is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). According to it, the territory has a legitimate government-in-exile (Fregoso and Zivkovic 143). At the time, the SADR governing organ was based outside the region. It was operating from the Tindouf region of Algeria. Members of the group insisted that the interference by the two neighboring countries had resulted in political instability (Pabst 24). Mauritanian authorities gave up their supposed rights over the region in 1979. Morocco, on the other hand, took over most parts of the enclave. It took over most of the natural resources and cities within Western Sahara. It considers these areas to be its Southern Provinces. However, a portion of the territory remained under the Polisario Front. There has been continued hostility between the two parties. The result has been decades of civil war within the region. In an attempt to end the strife, the UN called for a ceasefire in September 1991.

The UN has made efforts to resolve the sovereignty issue in Western Sahara. To this end, it has taken a neutral position on the matter. It recognizes neither SADR nor Moroccan claim over the region (Fregoso and Zivkovic 143). There have been attempts to hold a referendum within the territory. The main aim of the exercise is to help resolve the stalemate. Consequently, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was developed. Through MINURSO, repeated direct talks have been held between the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco. The referendum has not been held over two decades after the UN called for a ceasefire (Jensen 12). Many democratic nations argue that self-determination is the most effective way to address the issue. For example, the 2011 referendum ended tensions between Northern and Southern Sudan. However, there are various legal and political issues that affect the self-determination campaign.

Justification and Motivation behind the Study

Interventions by the international community are not always successful in conflict resolution. Despite the many principles put in place by the UN to govern international relations, cases of conflicts persist across the globe. Conflicting interests lead to aggression (Fregoso and Zivkovic 143). One of the major causes of conflicts is sovereignty. The UN recommends that such disputes should be settled through self-determination. A referendum is held to determine the course of action preferred by the people. However, such calls are not always effective. The reason is that there are complex legal and political issues affecting self-determination (Pabst 24).

The proposed study seeks to examine the legal and political perspectives of the ongoing self-determination discourse concerning the Western Sahara dispute. The research will provide information on the issues surrounding the dispute. By examining these elements, the UN and other parties seeking to solve the conflict can better understand the divergent interests of the two warring parties. Consequently, better conflict resolution measures can be developed.

Relevance of the Study

The study will be of great importance to the researcher. It will help them gain a better understanding of how international relations play a role in the formulation of foreign policies. The researcher’s area of study is international relations. The knowledge acquired from the study will provide insights into the way countries and territories relate to each other. The role of the international community in times of dispute will also be highlighted. Most importantly, the responsibility of the UN as an international body will be addressed. The issue of sovereignty will also be discussed. The researcher will learn of the various ways in which sovereignty is promoted or hindered (Jensen 12). The principles adopted by the international community through the UN General Assembly will also be analyzed.

The study will help develop better strategies aimed at addressing issues touching on sovereignty. The researcher will make recommendations on how the Western Sahara dispute may be resolved once and for all. The reason is that factors hindering the self-determination process will be identified. It will be easier for MINURSO to come up with appropriate guidelines to end the stalemate (Jensen 12). The study will also help the international community to view conflicts from different perspectives. As such, persons charged with the responsibility of solving sovereignty-related issues will be able to focus on these perspectives. Of importance are the legal and political elements. Future disputes will be solved with relative ease. As a result, fewer lives will be lost in conflicts. Peace will also prevail, creating an enabling environment for development.

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Research Questions

The study will respond to the following questions.

  1. Who are the stakeholders in the Western Sahara dispute and what are their interests?
  2. Is self-determination an effective dispute resolving measure for the Western Sahara conflict?
  3. What are the legal and political perspectives of the self-determination debate in Western Sahara?

Literature Review

Parties to the Western Sahara Dispute

Five major stakeholders have been involved in the conflict since its start in 1975. They include the Kingdom of Morocco, Polisario Front, Mauritania, Algeria, and the UN (Pabst 25).

The Kingdom of Morocco

Since 1963, Morocco continues to insist that Western Sahara is part of its kingdom. The authorities regard the territory as the Moroccan Sahara. It also regards it as the Saharan or Southern Province (Fregoso and Zivkovic 147). The government maintains that its army was instrumental in fighting the Spanish colonialists in 1958. The Moroccan Army of Liberation almost succeeded in driving the colonialists out of the Spanish Sahara. The administration also maintains that most figureheads leading the movement are descendants of the Moroccan Southern Army. As such, the leaders who claim to be citizens of Western Sahara actually originate from Morocco. Consequently, the government of Morocco has branded Polisario Front as a separatist movement used by Algeria. The leadership feels that the movement should be vanquished.

Polisario Front

The organization considers itself a supporter of the SADR. It fights alongside the National Liberation Movement to oppose the invasion of Western Sahara by Morocco. As a result, the Moroccan administration considers it to be a separatist organization (Jensen 16). The movement was started by students from the territory. They resented the Moroccan and Spanish control over their region. The front was initially formed to fight for the independence of the territories. However, after decolonization, Mauritania and Morocco denied Western Sahara its sovereignty. The organization was involved in guerilla warfare with the armies of the two countries. It also facilitated the relocation of the Sahrawi people to immigrant settlements in Tindouf. The movement accused the aggressors of targeting civilians in their efforts to take control of the region. It was believed that they used white phosphorus and napalm against the immigrants settled within the region.

The front supports the calls for self-determination. The UN has failed to declare the SADR as a legal nation. However, the international organization acknowledges that Polisario is one of the parties to the conflict. In 1979, the agency declared the movement to be the legal agent of the Sahrawi population. As a result, it features in discussions held by the international body to look for solutions to the dispute. The front also argues that Moroccan interests in Western Sahara are purely political and economic (Fregoso and Zivkovic 143). The government of Morocco wants to cement the king’s position on the matter. It is also accused of exploiting Western Sahara’s natural resources. The resources include phosphate and fertile fishing grounds. The territory also has potential oil reserves. The extraction of this wealth would have positive effects on the Moroccan economy.


It is another party to the dispute. It laid claim over the region in the early 1960s before the territory was decolonized by Spain. In 1975, Mauritania moved its forces into the southern sections of the region. The incursion occurred after Spain moved out of the enclave. At the time, Morocco was also launching a similar invasion against the northern region (Jensen 14). In April 1976, the two countries partitioned the territory into three portions. Mauritania was to take over the southern regions. For four years, the Polisario Front fought off the government occupation. They targeted mine trains at Zouerate. Similar attacks were also conducted against Nouakchott. A coup d’état took place during this time. As a result, Ould Daddah was overthrown. The developments prompted the Mauritanian government to recognize the strength of the front. Subsequently, the Mauritanian forces withdrew from Western Sahara in the summer of 1979. The withdrawal was done after the signing of the Argel Accord between the Polisario Front and the government of Mauritania (Jensen 12). In the accord, Mauritania recognized the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. Morocco proceeded to seize control of the region formerly under Mauritania immediately. However, Mauritania gave up its claims over the territory. On February 27th, 1984, the government stated that it recognized SADR.


It is the fourth stakeholder. Since 1975, the government has supported calls for the sovereignty of the Western Sahara people. At first, the support was diplomatic since the country was already experiencing its own liberation war. However, in 1976, things changed. The government was directly involved in the dispute. The country was engaged in a military confrontation with the Moroccan army at Amala. The Algerian government felt that such confrontations would threaten its political stability (Fregoso and Zivkovic 144). Since then, the Algerian government’s involvement in the dispute has been indirect. However, the authorities continued to offer political and military support to the Polisario Front. The government of Morocco has continued to criticize the involvement of Algeria in the Western Sahara dispute. Since March 6th, 1976, Algeria has continued to recognize SADR.

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United Nations

Since 1988, the UN has been directly involved in the Western Sahara dispute. Its involvement is a result of the growing need to find a lasting solution to the conflict. The UN has supported conflict resolution through self-determination (Sven 261). In 1988, the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government came to an agreement. They agreed to hold a referendum on the issue. The process was to be supervised by the UN. The aim was to allow the people of Western Sahara to choose whether to be integrated with the Kingdom of Morocco or to be independent. In 1991, the UN called for a ceasefire since the referendum was scheduled for the following year. However, the referendum never took place. The reason is that there were disagreements over voter qualification. In 2000, the government of Morocco indicated that in the future, it will not consider any option leading to the independence of Western Sahara. The UN, however, went on to convene the Manhasset negotiations in an attempt to resolve the conflict. The Arab League got involved as well. It recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed enclave.

Self-Determination Debate on the Western Sahara Dispute

Self-determination is one of the cardinal principles governing international relations. Each and every nation has a right to it. It is in line with the UN Charter, which states that all nations need to be treated equally and with fairness (Sven 261). All people across the globe also need to be given equal opportunities to participate in global politics. Their right to choose their sovereignty freely was also guaranteed in the Atlantic Charter. In addition, there would be no external interference and compulsion in matters concerning sovereignty. The charter was signed by the United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the United States of America (USA) president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, on August 14th, 1941. The charter formed the basis of self-determination. It was mainly meant to fast-track the decolonization process.

However, the charter failed to state categorically how decisions on matters surrounding sovereignty were to be made. The outcomes of the self-determination process were not stated clearly (Spector 130). It was not clear what the sovereignty of a people meant. The distinctions between freedom, coalition, self-rule, protection, association, and complete integration were not clear. The charter also failed to determine what would constitute a nation. As such, there was widespread confusion on just how nations should relate with each other (Spector 132). As a result, upon decolonization, many regions, especially in the African continent, were claimed by other nations. An example is Western Sahara.

Legal and Political Perspectives of the Self-Determination Debate in Western Sahara

The Polisario Front and the Moroccan government are the main parties to the Western Sahara conflict. As a result, the legal and political perspectives highlighted mainly touch on the two countries.

Legal perspectives

There are a number of legal issues that have affected the self-determination debate in Western Sahara. To begin with, there are no international laws aimed at protecting the sovereignty of nations. The Atlantic Charter is one of the few legal documents that advocate for the sovereignty of a people (Spector 130). However, it fails to give clear guidelines on the process to be followed by a nation to achieve sovereignty. The charter also does not indicate the possible outcomes of such a process. Consequently, Morocco feels that its claim over Western Sahara is valid. The charter is also not clear on what constitutes a nation. In fact, the UN has failed to recognize Western Sahara as a nation following the dispute. As such, the UN Security Council cannot intervene. Morocco, on the other hand, considers the region as part of its southern territories. As such, it has a right to administrate it.

The constitution is the supreme law of any nation (Young 14). The Moroccan constitution fails to acknowledge the sovereignty of Western Sahara. As such, it is argued that the government of Morocco is acting lawfully by laying a claim over the territory (Spector 118). Western Sahara, on its part, has faced political instability ever since it attained its independence from Spain. However, it has a constitution that was promulgated back in 1976. The SADR government proclaimed by the Polisario Front operates in exile. The constitution of Western Sahara considers the territory to be an independent nation. As such, analysts argue that there are conflicting statements in the constitutions of the two warring parties.

Political perspectives

The issue of citizenship is the greatest hindrance to the self-determination debate on Western Sahara. In 1988, the front and the Moroccan government had settled for a referendum. The people of Western Sahara would finally get an opportunity to determine whether they preferred to be a sovereign state or to get assimilated into the kingdom of Morocco as the southern provinces (Pabst 26). However, it was difficult to determine who the genuine inhabitant of the region was. As a result, the referendum was not held until 2000 when the government of Morocco stated that it no longer supported the self-determination of Western Sahara. There are also no clear political boundaries separating Western Sahara from Morocco. Prior to colonialism, there were no apparent political boundaries. After independence, the Kingdom of Morocco expressed its desire to take over the enclave. It is difficult to determine whether the claim is legitimate or not.

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There are also claims that the Moroccan Liberation Army was instrumental in the fight for the decolonization of Western Sahara. The government of Morocco has supported this claim by stating that some of the Polisario Front leaders are sons of members of the Southern Army. As a result, they are technically Moroccan citizens (Pabst 24). The Kingdom also feels that it played a crucial role in Western Sahara’s attainment of independence from Spain. The involvement of Algeria in the dispute has also had a major effect on the self-determination process. To begin with, it has put immense pressure on Morocco to grant Western Sahara independence. On the other hand, it has increased the need by the Kingdom of Morocco to enhance its military and political dominance in the region. Morocco, Algeria, and the Algerian forces had engaged in a military confrontation in 1963 during the Sand War. Consequently, agreeing to the calls for self-determination of Western Sahara by Morocco would be viewed as a sign of weakness


Research Design

The proposed research will adopt a literature review study design to assess the legal and political perspectives of the self-determination debate in the Western Sahara dispute. To achieve this objective, the researcher will obtain secondary data from a variety of existing literature to draw conclusions on the matter. The use of already existing literature will enable the researcher to gain an in-depth understanding of the issues revolving around the Western Sahara dispute. Besides, the use of this information will help the researcher to learn about emerging trends on the issue (Merriam 24).

The target population for the study will be made up of the Western Sahara territory, Morocco, and the international community as a whole. The research will attempt to highlight the legal and political perspectives to the self-determination debate on Western Sahara (Merriam 24). It will help the UN develop better conflict resolution measures in the future for areas faced with a similar problem.

Sources of Data

Books and journal articles will be used as sources of data for the research. Two major databases will be used to obtain these materials.

  • Databases used
  • University e-service library
  • Google Scholar
  • Search terms and keywords used

Various search terms and keywords will be used to retrieve the materials needed for the research from the selected databases. They include the following:

  • Western Sahara,
  • Western Sahara Sovereignty,
  • Southern Provinces of Morocco,
  • Self-determination,
  • Polisario Front, and
  • Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic

The keywords and search terms will be used in various combinations depending on the information the researcher wants to access.

Exclusion and inclusion criteria

Articles from political and academic journals will be the most preferred for the research. A large number of articles and books will initially be accessed. However, the researcher will need only the most relevant resources for the study. To this end, inclusion and exclusion criteria will be adopted. The two will be aimed at examining the extent to which a source would be of benefit to the completion of the research.

Inclusion criteria

With regards to inclusion criteria, all the resources to be used will require to be relevant to the research topic and objectives. In this case, it will be important for the title of the books or the journal articles to correspond to the issue in question. Articles and books with more than one author will be preferred to eliminate bias on any particular issue. In the case of journal articles, those with a large number of volumes released will be preferred.

Exclusion criteria

With regards to the exclusion criteria, the secondary sources of data will be checked for relevance. The resources whose titles do not seem to relate to the research questions will be excluded. The articles not reported in academic and political journals will also be eliminated. Articles published in fairly new journals will also be avoided (Merriam 25).

Methods of Data Collection

After obtaining the secondary sources required for the research, the next step will be to gather data. The title, objectives of the study, and research questions will assist the researcher to identify the information relevant to the study (Merriam 21).

Data Analysis

It is important to note that the data obtained from the research design used for this study will be qualitative in nature. The researcher will read extensively what the selected secondary data sources have to say about the issues being investigated and draw conclusions on each of them carefully (Merriam 29).


Western Sahara is considered by the UN as a disputed territory. The reason behind this is that Morocco has laid claim over it since it attained its independence. Morocco and Mauritania moved in shortly afterward. The incursion took place in 1975. It happened after the withdrawal of Spanish forces from the area. A war ensued with the Polisario Front defending the sovereignty of Western Sahara. Eventually, Mauritania withdrew its claim over the territory following four years of guerrilla warfare with the group. The conflict between Morocco and the front, however, continued. The dispute has attracted the attention of the international community. The UN has advocated for self-determination through a referendum. However, political and legal issues have been a hindrance to conflict resolution in the region. The elements will be explored in detail in the proposed study.

Works Cited

Fregoso, Carolina, and Nikola Zivkovic. “Western Sahara: A Frozen Conflict.” Journal of Regional Security 12.31 (2012): 139-150. Print.

Jensen, Erik. Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005. Print.

Merriam, Sharan. Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation. 3rd ed. 2009. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Print.

Pabst, Martin. “The Western Sahara Conflict.” South African Journal of Military Studies 2.9 (2012): 24-30 Print.

Spector, Samuel. “Negotiating Free Association between Western Sahara and Morocco: A Comparative Legal Analysis of Formulas for Self-Determination.” International Negotiation 3.1 (2011): 109-135. Print.

Sven, Simon. “Western Sahara.” Self-Determination and Secession in International Law 5.29 (2014): 255-72. Print.

Young, Marion. Global Challenges: War, Self Determination and Responsibility for Justice, Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.