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  • Writer's pictureJorge Manso García

Spain and the last colonial territory: the Western Sahara conflict

46 years after the constitution of the Sahrawi Arab Republic, the Western Sahara conflict remains unresolved. The latest communications that have come to light between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Spanish government, show a historic shift in the latter’s position on this frozen conflict. This article aims to dust off and introduce a political dispute that is still unknown to many Spaniards and whose colonial origins are still vividly present today.

What is the Western Sahara and what does the conflict entail?

The country of Western Sahara is located in North Africa and is classified as a Non-Self-Governing Territory by the United Nations and covers an area of 266,000 km2. It remains one of 17 territories worldwide considered as a colony by the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation.  The territory is currently divided by one of the world’s largest military walls, more than 2,000 kilometres long, riddled with millions of landmines and even encroaching on Mauritanian territory. Its population, although the subject of much discussion and conflict, is around 567,000 according to the UN.

This north-south fragmentation caused by the wall presents a clear division between the western and coastal part, administered by Morocco, and the eastern part, administered by the Polisario Front, the national liberation movement and legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. Today, this area is known as the so-called Liberated Territories or Free Zone, where some 30,000 Sahrawis live in the middle of the desert, in very precarious conditions. To this must be added the more than 170,000 Saharawis living in refugee camps in the Algerian province of Tindouf.

Map showing the development of the Western Sahara wall

Development of the Western Sahara Wall. Source

The dispute over territory in the former Spanish colony, rich in phosphates, fisheries, and nature reserves, dates back to 1975 when Morocco annexed Western Sahara following the 350,000 civilians who entered the desert to reclaim the territory after Hassan II urged the Moroccan people to hold a march, also known as the Green March. Since then, the Moroccan government has taken advantage of the power vacuum to occupy Western Sahara, albeit in the face of opposition from the Sahrawi people led by the Polisario Front and with the support and supply of arms from Algeria. While there has been a declared ceasefire between Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario Front since 1991, it was broken after more than 30 years with the announcement of the Secretary General of the Polisario Front and President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Brahim Ghali. This followed the Moroccan bombing attacks on the military bases of Mahbes and Bagari and in the area of Guerguerat, which initially took place when Moroccan forces entered the demilitarised zone of Guerguerat, expelling Saharawi civilians who had been blocking the only commercial access route between Morocco and Mauritania since 21 October.

What is Spain’s historical role in this conflict?

The Berlin Conference (1884-85) was the main act by which the European powers divided up Africa, and by which Spain became the colonial power in this territory. Following Franco-Spanish negotiations between 1900 and 1912, it came to be known in Europe as the “Spanish Sahara”. In a context of decolonisation and the opening up of the Franco regime to the UN, Franco’s government chose to transform its colonies into overseas provinces of Spain in 1958, giving the Spanish Sahara the same status as the Balearic and Canary Islands, or any other province in the Spanish part of the Iberian peninsula.

Eight years later, the UN requested Spain to hold a referendum in accordance with the aspirations of the indigenous population of Western Sahara and in consultation with Morocco, Mauritania and any other interested parties. A sum of important factors such as the UN pressure on Spain, the loss of the rest of Spain’s colonies, and the moribund state of Francoism, or the aforementioned Green March, led the Saharawis to undergo a hastily imposed decolonisation process imposed from the Spanish capital city. With the Madrid Treaty of 14 November 1975, the metropolitan government ceded the territory to the Kingdom of Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, lowering the flag for the last time on 28 February 1976. The day before, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro – the Polisario Front – which had been fighting since 1973 against Spanish colonialism and had been recognised by the UN as the sole and legitimate representative of the Sahrawi population, had proclaimed its own state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

What does international law say and how did it come to this point?

Months before the signing of the Madrid Accords in 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled on the opinion commissioned by the UN General Assembly at Morocco’s request, not recognising any kind of sovereignty of Rabat over the Sahara. The occupation of the territory envisaged by the Spanish capital agreements did not, however, accord with international law and the UN, which from 1976 onwards considered Spain to be the de jure administering power and Morocco and Mauritania to be invading powers.

Unlike Morocco, Mauritania relinquished this territory and signed a peace agreement in 1979 with the Polisario Front, which now claims sovereignty from Morocco, with whom it reached a ceasefire agreement between 1988 and 1991. During this period, the UN Secretary-General published the Sahara Referendum Plan together with the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). It made clear that the OAU would be responsible for administering the Sahara until the results were declared and would have military and civilian security units, MINURSO (United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara).

However, such a referendum has not taken place at the time of writing, leading to years and years of stalled negotiations. Since then, the various UN proposals, both the plans for voter identification and subsequent census, as well as the replacement of the referendum with a plan for limited autonomy in which the territory of Western Sahara would be controlled by Morocco, have been denied by the Polisario Front.

This conflict would finally come to an end in 2007, when Morocco presented its proposal for an autonomy proposal for the territory of Western Sahara to the United Nations (UN). Morocco would allow administrative and fiscal powers to be run from within the Sahara, while control over religious and security matters remained in its hands. The proposal was described by Morocco as “serious, realistic and credible”, as was the Spanish Prime Minister at the time, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who called the proposal a “positive contribution” to the solution of the conflict.

Since that year, the UN has avoided using the expression “referendum” in successive resolutions on the dispute, despite Polisario’s demands for a referendum since the Moroccan annexation of the territory.

Spain’s change of position and the reasons for this turnaround

During Spain’s 40 years of democracy, the foreign policy of all governments has enjoyed a consensus regarding the position to be taken on Western Sahara. As the former minister of foreign affairs and cooperation, José Manuel García-Margallo y Marfil, commented, Spanish foreign policy is subject to parliamentary control under the law on foreign action, and for this the government needs to draw up foreign action plans. During the government of Pedro Sanchez, these two actions have called for respecting this line of consensus based on the approval of UN resolutions and the holding of a referendum.

El conflicto del Sahara Occidental exige una “solución politica justa, duradera y aceptable para todas las partes” de acuerdo con las Resoluciones del Consejo de Seguridad que “prevea la libre determinación del pueblo saharaui”. España no debe apartarse del derecho internacional. — Ione Belarra (@ionebelarra) March 18, 2022

Podemos Minister for Social Rights and Agenda 2030 disagreeing with the Government new stance.

On 14 March, the president of the Spanish government expressed his new position towards the monarch Mohamed VI, in which it is made clear that Spain is taking a stand on the Moroccan proposal, as revealed by El País journalist Miguel Gonzalez. Sánchez decided to take a step away from what Spain had done so far and described the Moroccan autonomy proposal presented in 2007 as the most serious, realistic and credible basis, leaving aside the option of a referendum on self-determination.

What could have influenced the president to take such a historic turn in the most sensitive area for Spain in foreign affairs, without consulting either the Cortes or the Council of Ministers?

The current diplomatic crisis between the Spanish and Moroccan states has raised tensions to levels previously unknown to either side. While Spain decided to provide COVID-19 medical care to Polisario Front leader Brahim Gali, Morocco recalled its ambassador to Spain for consultations. In addition, Morocco increased its pressure by opening the jointly managed borders, using migrants as a political weapon and generating a political crisis that would end with the lives of two of them. However, this pressure on key relations between the two countries, maintained by trade, the fight against jihadism and the Muslim population in Spain, can only be complemented by an international context favourable to the kingdom of Mohammed VI.

On 10 December 2020, US President Donald Trump announced the recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara by the United States. From this point onwards, and with France in Morocco’s favour, the entire map of international relations changed and the Maghreb country had a new card to play. With the support of these two Western countries, and the addition of more and more Arab countries, the only remaining key pieces on the chessboard were Spain and Germany.

The case of Germany is unique. Following Trump’s decision, Germany called on the UN Security Council to discuss the situation. This led to the Moroccan ambassador to Berlin being recalled for consultations in May 2021, as well as any cooperation activities between the two countries. Despite this negative tone, the arrival of the new government led to a new rapprochement between the two countries, with Scholz´s government stressing its commitment to the UN-led process for the Sahara and referring to Morocco’s “important contribution” in 2007 with an autonomy plan.

Tension in Spain and a population without rights

The Spanish government’s decision has also generated a lot of criticism and tension over foreign policy issues at national level. On the one hand, the coalition partners in the government consider that the Saharawis’ right to self-determination must be respected. On the other, opposition parties have complained that such an important issue should have been debated in Congress. Finally, even within the PSOE, the leading party in government, all sides appear willing to support the recent proposal condemning Sánchez’s turnaround on the Sahara. This proposal, amended by Unidas Podemos, ERC and EH Bildu, brings to the plenary session a non-legislative proposal that will force the rest of the groups, all of them opposed to Sánchez’s decision, to take a vote on the change of position adopted by the president of the government. 

Spain’s duty as an administering colonial power for the self-determination of this territory appeared to be a consensus line, albeit with difficulties of action. The search for a normalisation of relations with Morocco through this declaration signifies a further step in the Iberian country’s refusal to take charge of its responsibilities in a unique conflict in the world. In the meantime, the passage of time will do nothing but further Morocco’s advance into Saharan territory and thus put the brakes on the holding of a referendum as established in 1991 by the United Nations.



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