Can Europe, UN Ensure the Sahrawi Right to Self-Determination? 

Published December 20th, 2022 - 12:09 GMT
Sahrawi children
Sahrawi children attend a class to read, write and recite the Koran using wooden plates, at a camp for refugees from Awsard, in Tindouf, where the Polisario independence movement is based in far southwestern Algeria near the borders with Morocco and Western Sahara, on October 14, 2022. Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony is disputed between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario, which claims it as the Sahrawi Arab Republic. (Photo by Ryad KRAMDI / AFP)

Though the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, MINURSO, was established in 1991, the Sahrawi people are still waiting for its delivery; an opportunity to vote for their self determination, as is their right under international law. Morocco controls 80 percent of the Western Sahara territory while 20 percent is governed by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Morocco’s presence constitutes illegal occupation, and the UN frequently reaffirms the Sahrawi right to a referendum for self-determination with an annual renewal of MINURSO, most recently on 27th October 2022. Despite this, no referendum has been delivered, and thousands of Sahrawi refugees continue to live in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, relying on international aid to survive. 

The Western Sahara region was controlled by Spain until 1975 and then ceded to a joint administration of Morocco and Mauritania. A war ensued between the administering countries and the Polisario front– the Sahrawi nationalist leadership– and fighting continued until the UN ceasefire agreement in 1991 (though Mauritania withdrew in 1979).

Since the ceasefire, the UN has supported the Sahrawi right to self-determination, and recognised the legitimacy of the Polisario Front as their representative. However, little action has been taken to deter Morocco from maintaining the status quo. 

Multilateral engagement by the UN Security Council has failed to deliver a political settlement furthering Sahrawi self-determination. The UN Security Council’s approach of facilitating dialogue between the involved parties to develop a mutually agreed plan, naively hoping for a “negotiated political settlement”, has effectively allowed events to be controlled by Morocco due to its territorial advantage. It has rejected any political outcome that cedes territory.

The UN’s original goal of self-determination for the Sahrawi people has been replaced with the pursuit of a ‘realistic’ peace process that gives Morocco veto power over Sahrawi proposals. What’s more, the US, under the Trump administration, engaged with Morocco bilaterally, illegally declaring support for their sovereignty in Western Sahara on the condition Morocco normalise relations with Israel. 

Deterrence, meanwhile, is not being pursued with enough vigour by Europe, despite their means to influence Morocco’s behaviour. The courts have set clear legal parameters; in 2021, the European Court of Justice rejected the extension of operations of the EU-Morocco agricultural and fishery agreements in Western Saharan territory, preventing EU fishermen with Moroccan permits to fish in Western Saharan waters, and excluding Moroccan agricultural exports from the territory from preferential EU tariffs.

This decision was made because the SADR could not be consulted, and sets a good precedent in differentiating between Western Saharan and Moroccan territory. However, the EU swiftly undermined this decision by stating it would continue bilateral trade with Morocco, as it does not want to provoke Rabat and destabilise relations with the North African region. Shying away from peace talks and continuing trade, the EU is not following its self-conferred duty to uphold the Geneva Convention and the ICCPR to ensure ‘all people’s … right of self determination’.

Spain, in particular, could leverage its relationship with Morocco to help Sahrawi people, but is instead making concessions. It has capitulated to Morocco’s ‘weaponisation of migration’– an established Moroccan tactic of deliberately relaxing border control at Ceuta and Melilla– Spanish enclaves on the Northern tip of Morocco– to allow people to enter, and letting dozens of migrant boats reach the Spanish Canary Islands.

Spain changed its diplomatic stance on Western Sahara from neutral to pro-Morocco in March 2022– aligning itself with France and Germany’s position– to halt this movement of migrants. This caused an uproar in Spain, as 70% of the public favour Sahrawi independence. 

However, far from needing to concede, Spain has the tools to deter Morocco from taking this aggressive action. It could leverage Ceuta and Melilla’s economic importance to North Morocco, the gas it sends to Morocco through the Maghreb-Europe pipeline, development aid, and Spain’s support of Morocco in EU institutions, to pressure them to enact the referendum and enable engagement with SADR. 

Interestingly, Algeria, SADR’s most ardent supporters and host to their government-in-exile in Tindouf, have adopted deterrent strategies against Spain for their pro-Morocco stance, increasing the price of gas they export to Spain. Europe should take a leaf out of Algeria’s book, and leverage resources to change Morocco’s behaviour and enact a referendum. This would reflect the values that the European Union claims to champion, reflect the European Court of Justice’s verdict, and support the official UN position on Sahrawi self-determination.

George Kerr contributed this article to Albawaba.

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