On a typical map of the world, a sliver of the northwest African coast is shaded in grey. The dashed border outlines an area called ‘Western Sahara’ that the United Nations lists as a non-self-governing territory. Yet this 260,000 square kilometre, former Spanish colony is home to half a million people and a national liberation movement for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). It is the Sahrawi claim to independence from Morocco that put UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at the centre of a diplomatic dispute in March 2016.
In 1884, Western Sahara was occupied by Spain, which treated it primarily as a commercial fishing colony. By the 1970s, under pressure from the UN General Assembly, Spain agreed to hold a referendum on independence. The neighbouring states of Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco all expressed an interest in the outcome. The latter two claimed historic rights to the territory that they said had been seized from them by Spain while Algeria supported the region’s independence. A deal was reached to split the territory between the administration of Mauritania and Morocco, but it ignored the demands of the Polisario Front—the indigenous independence movement backed by Algeria. The deal disintegrated when Moroccan troops entered the territory in 1975, leading to a multisided war that forced Mauritania to withdraw its sovereignty claims in 1979. The conflict ended in 1991 with a ceasefire and de facto Moroccan control of the region.
The ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front was contingent on the holding of a referendum for either independence or full integration into Morocco. However, the deal immediately ran into difficulty identifying those eligible to vote. Tens of thousands of Moroccans have settled in Western Sahara since the 1970s and Rabat considers them legitimate citizens. Their inclusion in any vote would significantly sway the results. Morocco has also stepped away from the offer of independence and now argues the alternative choice to integration should be autonomy. Its long-stalled negotiations with the Polisario Front have been further undermined by its view of the organisation as an Algerian pawn.
The Polisario Front has continued to press for SADR’s independence, which is recognised by several dozen states, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America. It occasionally threatens to resume conflict in protest of the delayed referendum, but without support from Algeria it cannot mount an effective guerrilla campaign. Consequently, the Polisario Front supported spontaneous protests favouring independence that broke out in May 2005 as a substitute path to self-determination. Yet without outside intervention, the protracted dispute seems destined to drag on.
Ban Ki-Moon stumbled over the politics of the situation in March when touring a refugee camp of Sahrawi people in southern Algeria. Ban’s visit was to be the first step towards restarting negotiations, but his use of the word ‘occupation’ to describe Morocco’s administration of Western Sahara provoked a harsh reaction from Rabat. It withdrew $3 million in funding to the UN peacekeeping mission to the territory, which it threatened to expel entirely. It also ordered the UN to pull out over 70 civilian staffers and close the mission’s military liaison office. Since then the mission has not been fully operational, and on 16 August, the Polisario Front accused Moroccan troops of violating the 1991 ceasefire by sending troops and equipment into its territory.
The flare up prompted by the Secretary-General is more than a reminder of the plight of Western Saharans. It provides an important lesson in the risk of strategic shock. World politics is often seen to pivot on the whim of great powers, but the catalyst of history altering events is usually sparked in the most unexpected places. The prime example is the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a group of Serbian nationalists, which ignited the First World War. A contemporary case is the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi that prompted the Arab Spring. They are a warning to those engaged in global politics, from academics to policymakers, not to become complacent about the current world order.
Ban Ki-Moon’s intervention in Western Sahara is unlikely to change the situation for the Sahrawi people. The world’s major powers hold a relatively neutral and ambiguous position on the territory and there is no sign of their behaviour changing. But as numerous global disputes in recent years show, previously overlooked flashpoints can escalate suddenly and with lasting consequences. Little known conflicts, as in Western Sahara, deserve regular attention. Otherwise their inhabitants may remind the world of their struggle in dramatic fashion.
William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Western Sahara (Flickr: Creative Commons)