Morocco and The Polisario Front

Ryan Campbell

Since European colonists drew arbitrary borders in Africa to claim territory, the continent has dealt with ethnic and cultural divisions being broadly ignored. Border disputes are not entirely uncommon because of this. However, one of the most persistent disputes is between Morocco and Western Sahara, where an ongoing fight for independence has lasted since 1975. When Spain withdrew from its colony in the Western Sarah territory in 1975, two countries immediately acted to fill the void left and their sovereignty over Western Sahara: Mauritania and Morocco. While both violated international law, the UN has been slow to act and resolve the situation, leaving the territory in limbo- only for the dispute to flare up again recently.



International legal bodies, such as the International Court of Justice and the UN Office of Legal Affairs, have made it clear that a formerly colonizing power cannot simply give its territory to another country. However, this is precisely what Spain did when they withdrew from Western Sahara, splitting it between Mauritania and Morocco. This agreement ignored the indigenous Sahrawi people who had the more legitimate claim to the territory. In response, the Sahrawi people formed the Polisario Front to represent themselves on the international stage, declaring the establishment of the independent state of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976.

After years of engaging with Mauritania and Morocco in guerrilla warfare, Mauritania signed a peace treaty with the Polisario Front in 1979, formally recognizing the SADR as an independent state. However, Morocco immediately annexed the territory Mauritania gave up to the SADR. The fighting lasted until 1991- when Morocco and the Polisario Front signed a tenuous cease-fire agreement, but Morocco already had control over two-thirds of Western Sahara. The UN promised a referendum on the status of Western Sahara and to propose plans to settle the conflict, but this has yet to happen, resulting in decades of political stalemate.

Many international organizations have weighed in on the issue, though many support the Polisario Front. International law, as well as the European Union and the African Union, have backed the SADR. Algeria, an old enemy of Morocco, has shown perhaps the most support for the Sahrawi people, even hosting the exiled Polisario Front during the war. However, one extremely influential state seems to disagree: the United States. Former President Donald Trump unilaterally recognized Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara in 2020, and the Biden Administration has yet to reverse this statement. In response, the AU has emphasized that Morocco must respect colonial borders that existed at the time of independence, something determined in Article 4 of the AU Constitutive Act, and has urged the UN to take responsibility for the crisis.

But despite all of this pressure and complicated politics, nothing happened until November 2020, when the cease-fire was apparently broken. After 30 years of waiting, many Polisarian independence fighters had grown reckless and had again taken to protesting, specifically at a border checkpoint between Western Sahara and Mauritania. Sahrawi protesters blocked an economically important road between the two territories; on November 13th, 2020, Morocco responded by sending military forces into a demilitarized buffer zone between the SADR and themselves to expel the protesters in what is known as the Guerguerat Crisis. While no injuries or casualties were reported, the SADR declared war the next day, calling the act an attack on their rights.

Now, the mostly peaceful protests have devolved into waves of harassment on the border. Sahrawi citizens are being tracked, beaten, and killed near the border; Morocco claims to have conducted over 1,600 such attacks. And while the UN and other organizations are calling for restraint, neither side seems inclined to back down after 30 years of a stalemate. And though this situation has the potential to erupt into war again, the world largely continues to ignore the crisis.