Western Sahara

Free to choose: A new plan for peace in Western Sahara

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Summary

The recent violent end of the ceasefire in Western Sahara means the EU and the UN should pay renewed attention to resolving the longstanding conflict between the native Sahrawis and Morocco.

Various peace-making efforts over the years have led the Sahrawis’ representative organisation, Polisario, to make concessions to Morocco. However, Morocco remains insistent on an autonomy option for the Sahrawis – not independence.

The UN should pursue a “free association” option for Western Sahara – a third way that offers a realistic means of fulfilling Sahrawi self-determination.

France, along with the US, should encourage this by removing their diplomatic protection for Morocco both within the EU and at the UN.

Correctly aligning the EU’s political and trade relations will be vital to bringing this conflict to a close. It is in EU member states’ interest to ensure a stable southern neighbourhood.

Introduction

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the creation of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The mission was originally tasked with laying the groundwork for Sahrawi self-determination while monitoring a ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario – the Western Sahara national liberation movement. In setting up the mission, the United Nations promised to end the long-running conflict in what remains Africa’s only territory still awaiting decolonisation. Yet, three decades later, the UN has little to show.

Self-determination for the Sahrawi people appears more remote than when MINURSO was first launched in 1991. Meanwhile, the ceasefire is unravelling after the resumption of armed attacks by Polisario against Moroccan forces, stemming in large part from the absence of a viable peace process and the strengthening of Morocco’s hold over the territory. Diplomatic inaction has been compounded by the lack of a UN personal envoy, two years since the most recent appointee resigned in May 2019.

The UN Security Council and its permanent members, which have shepherded peace talks since the 1990s, hold much responsibility for this state of affairs. Under their watch, self-determination and decolonisation were replaced with a peace process that has given Morocco veto power over how the Sahrawi people fulfil their internationally recognised rights.

Stuck on the sidelines has been the European Union. The actions of two of its members, France and Spain, have helped keep the conflict rumbling on. Yet, as a bloc, the EU has maintained its distance from peace talks despite the implications that Western Sahara’s future will have for north-west Africa, whose stability and prosperity is a key European interest. To the extent that it has been involved in Western Sahara – through its trade relations with Morocco – the EU has actually harmed prospects for resolving the conflict. Europe is far from an uninvolved observer; indeed, it is directly implicated in the conflict. Bearing testament to this is Morocco’s recent decision to allow thousands of migrants to make for the Spanish North African town of Ceuta in response to Spain’s hosting of Polisario leader, Brahim Ghali, for medical treatment and (in Rabat’s eyes) because of Spain’s insufficient support for Moroccan positions on Western Sahara. This summer’s anticipated decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to invalidate the EU’s inclusion of Western Sahara in its trade and fishery agreements with Morocco is yet another sign of how implicated the bloc is in the unfolding conflict.

International neglect is having an adverse impact on the calculations of both main parties, demonstrating to Morocco that the UN Security Council has acquiesced to its continued control over Western Sahara. Moreover, in his final weeks as US president, Donald Trump recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara – in contravention of international law. Receding prospects for a negotiated solution will convince the Western Sahara national liberation movement that diplomacy and international law have failed it, and that an intensification of armed confrontation with Morocco is the only way forward.

Drawing on interviews with serving and former officials, and with leading experts and academics, this paper argues that, at this critical juncture, European governments – including those with a seat on the UN Security Council – must urgently relaunch a viable UN-led peace process. In doing so, they should avoid repeating the mistakes of old. They must put their full weight behind the appointment of a UN personal envoy tasked with formulating a new plan for Sahrawi self-determination. This plan should set out a third way for Western Sahara – between full independence and formal integration into the territory of the Kingdom of Morocco – based on the concept of “free association” in which Polisario, as the representative of the Sahrawi people, delegates powers both to Morocco and to a newly created state of Western Sahara. A UN-backed process cannot succeed without the active political support of European governments. How they align their political and trade policies will greatly influence the prospects for resolving the Western Sahara conflict and the future of the region.