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Hotspot – Western Sahara

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28 Mar
Will Western Sahara ever gain full independence? Klaus Dodds investigates the issues at play

Earlier this year, it was noted that the UN Security Council was in full support for the recent visit by the UN Secretary-General to Western Sahara.

Such news is always of interest when the place in question is geopolitically unstable. UNSG visits, depending on the agendas of the interested parties, can either be helpful in raising the profile of a disputed place or potentially inflammatory.

In April, the UN Security Council will, it is expected, once again renew the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara for another year. Established in 1991, the mandate essentially calls upon the Moroccan government to hold a referendum on the future of Western Sahara. In essence, the people of the region would be asked whether they wish to become independent or to integrate with Morocco. As with the division of Cyprus, the future of Western Sahara continues to prove challenging.

The UNSG’s personal envoy to the region, Christopher Ross, is expected to submit a report in advance of the April mandate after his meeting with the Moroccan government and a delegation from the separatist entity, the POLISARIO.

The disputed territory of Western Sahara is somewhat larger than the United Kingdom but only has an estimated population of around 500,000. Occupied by Morocco since the 1970s, it has endured a complicated colonial history involving Spain, and was for a time the subject of a territorial dispute between Morocco and Mauritania. Despite its de facto control, Morocco’s authority continues to be disputed by the ongoing existence of the POLISARIO-controlled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which occupies the interior of Western Sahara. In effect, the country is split into two segments.

If, as expected, the referendum would favour independence, then the future of Morocco itself would radically change

The UNSG visit – which took place at the start of March – could be significant because the UN has called for both parties to make ‘substantive progress’ on the question of a referendum that has been delayed repeatedly for years. Ross’s visit is clearly intended to raise the political pressure on Morocco, which has been consistently opposed to granting any such referendum to those living in Western Sahara. Under the terms of the UN mandate, the special representative of the UNSG ‘was to be assisted in his tasks [holding the referendum] by an integrated group of civilian, military and civilian police personnel, to be known as the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.’

You might ask at this stage, why is Morocco reluctant to hold a referendum on the future of Western Sahara? You can probably guess the answer. Interested governments tend to support the call for referenda when they think they can predict the outcome. Or if they cannot anticipate such matters with any great confidence, then at least when they can accommodate a variety of possible results. In this case, Morocco has little to no confidence in the outcome going the way it would prefer. If, as expected, the referendum would favour independence, then the future of Morocco itself would radically change. For one thing, it would become dramatically smaller and its border would be closer in latitude to the Canary Islands rather than being beyond the Tropic of Cancer.

Algeria is also an interested party in this ongoing dispute. In the deserts of southern Algeria, there are long-standing refugee camps that hold tens of thousands of people who, in some cases, left Western Sahara in the mid-1970s after the annexation by Morocco. Since that time many more have been born in the camps and thus have become politically and geographically exiled. Should people hailing from Algerian refugee camps have the right to vote in any referendum on the future of Western Sahara?

The Moroccan authorities are suspicious of the role of Algeria. Some believe that POLISARIO is a front for Algerian-backed destabilisation of Morocco, while others contend that the displaced Sahrawi peoples living in refugee camps might be caught up in wider West African networks of radicalism and terrorism. There is no shortage of what we might term ‘conspiratorial geopolitics’ at play – with Morocco, Algeria, POLISARIO and others such as Spain and the US accusing interested parties of nefarious activities.

Meanwhile, with little apparent fanfare, the EU negotiated a fishing agreement with Morocco in 2013 that included the Western Sahara, and there is interest in oil and gas resources offshore. For the moment, fishing matters. The agreement is a concern because it covers the ‘waters falling within the sovereignty or jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Morocco as regards fishing’. Whenever there are disputed territories involved, one should always look very carefully at documents and see how they refer to offshore areas (for example ‘fishing zones’) and how jurisdiction is either implied or stated. If there is a licensing regime involved then one might reasonably ask where the money from fishing in waters off Western Sahara is being deposited? The European Court has already annulled a 2012 trade agreement between the EU and Morocco precisely because assumptions were being made about Western Sahara being under legitimate Moroccan jurisdiction.

So for those of us taking part in the UK referendum on the EU in June, spare a thought for the people of Western Sahara who have been promised a referendum for more than 40 years.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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