On Feb. 27, the Polisario Front marked the 45th anniversary of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which it declared in 1976 to be the rightful government of the territory of Western Sahara. During the celebration -- which took place in the refugee camps of Tindouf, in the Algerian desert, where the seat of the SADR government is located -- the Polisario decried the continuing political impasse over the territory, which Morocco also claims. The deadlock must be broken – and the European Union should help.
The EU’s connections to Western Sahara are extensive. Beyond their geographical proximity, Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony with deeply rooted and often personal ties to Spain. For the thousands of Spaniards who have shared their homes with young Sahrawis summer after summer, the issue of Western Sahara is a heartbreaking family affair.
After Morocco took control of Western Sahara, the Sahrawis faced mass displacement, and many now languish in desert camps, with few options but to depend on humanitarian aid. Now, they may be about to become even more vulnerable. Although Western Sahara has been in limbo for decades, a series of recent developments raises the specter of a new wave of violence, which could hurt the Sahrawis above all.
Last November, the Polisario declared null and void the 1991 United Nations-backed ceasefire that ended a 16-year-long insurgency, leaving the SADR in control of about 20 percent of the territory and Morocco holding the rest. The Polisario cited Morocco’s deployment of troops in a UN-patrolled buffer zone to reopen an important road linking Moroccan-controlled areas of Western Sahara and neighboring Mauritania. The Front had blocked the road a month earlier, arguing that, because it did not exist at the time of the truce, it was illegal.
Morocco says it continues to support the ceasefire. But it also announced that it would resume military operations in the buffer zone.
A few weeks later, then-US President Donald Trump strengthened Morocco’s position, when he announced by tweet that the United States would recognize its sovereignty over Western Sahara, in exchange for Morocco’s normalization of ties with Israel. The US is not alone in backing Morocco in the Western Sahara dispute: at the end of 2020, 18 Sub-Saharan and Gulf countries had opened, or expressed their intent to open, consulates in Western Sahara, implying a tacit recognition of Moroccan sovereignty.
But the Polisario Front also has plenty of supporters, including Germany, which criticized Trump’s action. This, together with its decision earlier last year not to invite Morocco to a conference it had organized aimed at addressing the conflict in Libya, apparently motivated Morocco’s recent decision to suspend all contact with the German embassy in Rabat.
The Western Sahara dispute has long been muddied by conflicting public perceptions. While the Polisario have worked hard to shape international public opinion in their favor, Morocco has remained largely silent. This is not because Morocco is less committed to the cause. Rather, the country’s leaders have nothing to discuss: Western Sahara is part of their sovereign territory. End of story.
But Morocco’s quietly resolute approach has left room for the Polisario to pursue a wily policy of judicialization, using courts and legal mechanisms to shape answers to thorny moral and public-policy questions. For example, the Polisario Front recently challenged (unsuccessfully) the legality of agricultural exports and fisheries agreements between Morocco and the EU before the European Court of Justice, arguing that Morocco is plundering the resources of a territory that doesn’t belong to it.
Such efforts to apply economic pressure on Morocco overwhelmingly harm the Sahrawis, whom the Polisario Front purports to be protecting. In fact, the Sahrawis have been taken hostage by the Polisario in order to sustain the narrative that Morocco is an occupier.
It is a narrative that is not borne out by international law. The law of occupation – a body of international humanitarian law -- is not applicable. Of the 47 UN General Assembly resolutions on Western Sahara adopted since 1975, occupation was mentioned in only two -- in 1979 and 1980 -- both of which were highly controversial. None of the 69 Security Council resolutions on Western Sahara makes any reference to occupation.
What those resolutions do instead is exhort the parties -- in mind-numbingly repetitive terms -- to negotiate a political settlement, whether in the form of a straightforward independence referendum, as the Polisario demands, or an agreement to establish Western Sahara as an autonomous region, as Morocco has proposed. To that end, the Security Council has repeatedly extended the mandate of the UN Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in Western Sahara.
The Polisario Front says the UN hasn’t done enough to deliver the referendum. UN-led negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario, with Algeria and Mauritania as observers, have been suspended since early 2019.
The status quo in Western Sahara -- and the Maghreb more broadly -- is not sustainable. Warfare, should it return, would fuel political instability across the region. Fortunately, US President Joe Biden has publicly committed his administration to the relaunch of negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario. (He does not seem likely to reverse Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, as Europe had hoped.)
The EU should take a leading role in this initiative. Europe’s connections to Western Sahara -- and the EU’s core values -- demand nothing less.
Ana Palacio, a former minister of foreign affairs of Spain and former senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group, is a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University. -- Ed.