A Forgotten Conflict in a Forgotten Region: Western Sahara and its 9 Million Landmines

Conflict in Western Sahara has prolonged for more than 40 years.

By Adil Khan

Western Sahara, the heavily disputed territory located in northwest Africa, has been experiencing rising tensions lately. After almost 40 years under Moroccan rule, some refugees living in exile feel their quest for independence is stagnating and could potentially lead to a return to hostilities. International aid is also in decline, and the organisation representing many of the refugees, the Polisario Front, is ‘deeply concerned’ over the current political predicament. With UN attempts to foster a climate of cooperation and find viable solutions to decades of unrest allegedly being hindered by Moroccan authorities, will the international community actively intervene in this dispute, and are effective measures being sought to help this territory overcome its recent turbulent history?

The Human Impact

In 1976 Morocco consolidated its territorial dominance over the majority of Western Sahara after Spain withdrew from its former colony. It is estimated that 300,000 Moroccans subsequently migrated south, with many encouraged to make the transition with tax incentives along with subsidised housing as entire towns sprung out of the desert.Morocco’s actions also brought them into conflict with many of Western Sahara’s Sahrawi population as the two belligerents engaged in a guerrilla war.

It is the Sahrawi people who formed the Polisario Front; a military resistance organisation supported by Algeria with aims of eventually gaining independence. The Polisario also established the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a government in exile with hopes of one day wielding complete autonomy over Western Sahara.

The conflict forced thousands of Sahrawis to flee into neighbouring Algeria, where many have had to endure living in refugee camps for almost 40 years. UNHCR figures estimate that there are currently 116,000 people in such camps, however the Algerian government claims that the number is actually closer to 165,000. Meanwhile in an expanse of land which was once largely inhabited by the Sahrawi people, it is believed that ‘Moroccans now outnumber Sahrawis by at least 2 to 1 in Western Sahara’.

The war itself ensued until 1991 when a ceasefire was brokered and a peacekeeping initiative led by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), was created in order to regulate the terms of the truce. MINURSO also aimed to help implement a referendum process, whereby Western Saharans would decide between independence or integration with Morocco. However complexities over voter eligibility nullified this course of action and a referendum is still yet to come to fruition; as such the majority of the territory remains under Moroccan occupation. And with the Sahrawi people living in an exiled state without the prospect of a vote to influence their fate, it is not unexpected that the Polisario Front is considering re-engaging in violent hostilities with Morocco.

Perceived instances of social injustice and alleged human rights abuses by Morocco could also be determining factors for re-igniting war. For example, tensions have resulted in claims of ethnic discrimination within schools, hampering the idealistic notion of integration. Further amplifying matters, in Morocco life expectancy is reportedly 72, whereas in Western Sahara it is 54, which demonstrates the wide gulf between living standards and facilities. Allegations of ‘ill-treatment’ and ‘torture’ also continue to be made. Moreover, protests against the territory’s occupation occur frequently, with Moroccan authorities reportedly using heavy-handed approaches to shut down many demonstrations. For instance, according to an article in Al Jazeera, in October 2010 ‘between 11 and 36 Sahrawi were killed as well as eight members of the Moroccan security forces’ after protests turned into violent clashes.

And what may be viewed as the most potent symbol of repression, the 2,700 km long wall of sand splitting the territory in half. This berm was built in the 1980s to separate Moroccan forces in the west and the Polisario Front in the east; however in the process this is also caused many families to be stranded on either side of the wall. An estimated 9 million landmines also litter the desert around this separation structure, posing a significant risk to locals, ‘nomadic populations, refugees, United Nations Military Observers’, and explorers passing through this mainly desert terrain. This was also an issue I encountered when I travelled through this territory. I was informed by the Moroccan military that there are unsuspecting areas of land, some of which are located a mere several metres away from main roads, that contain live mines. This came to my attention after inadvertently venturing into one of these sections of desert when travelling off-road, and it highlights the wider issue of the huge scale of unexploded ordnance. Indeed, Western Sahara is perhaps ‘one of the most heavily contaminated territories in the world’.

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Mines are also scattered across a 3 mile stretch of track between the borders of Western Sahara and Mauritania, placed by Morocco to repel Mauritania. Whilst crossing this border I observed blown-up cars in a vehicle graveyard that was reminiscent of a Mad Max-esque, post-apocalyptic world. More importantly however, instead of being the creation of fantasy, this is the brutal reality that many residents have to face on a regular basis. This small strip of land is a glimpse into the much greater adversities and violent threats to individuals in this territory, both Moroccan immigrants and the Sahrawi population. It is a reminder of the troubling consequences of a forgotten war in a forgotten region; as well as being a representation of what could transpire in the other areas where the 9 million landmines are located.

Such risks mean that the Moroccan military presence is felt throughout the western half of the territory. Every so often a UN plane also comes into view at an airbase, a sign that steps are being taken to ease some of the safety concerns. Indeed, MINURSO have been working in partnership with UNMAS, the UN’s arm tasked with mine and ordnance disposal. As of August 2014, amongst other developments, approximately 33.3 million ‘square metres of hazardous areas have been released for productive use’. Training and education has also been provided to more than 30,000 individuals including residents and nomads, to advise them on the security risks and how best to approach potentially dangerous areas. Despite this progress, UN figures still suggest that the ‘35 known minefields will take a minimum of 10 years to address’. Additional funding in the region of $3.4 million is also sought for the 2014/15 year alone, in order for the UN to more effectively carry out its operations in accordance with its objectives for Western Sahara. Should this financial shortfall be left unaddressed, it could prove damaging to the UN’s overall agenda as fewer resources will be dedicated to the decontamination process and the territory’s rehabilitation timescale may be delayed significantly.

International Perspectives

Sovereignty over Western Sahara legally lies with the Sahrawi people, according to an International Court of Justice ruling. Many nations including the United Kingdom also do not ‘recognise Morocco as the legal administering power in the Western Sahara’. This is a sentiment shared by the United States and could be partially responsible for previous disagreements between Rabat and Washington. In 2013 tensions flared due to the US suggesting in a draft resolution that the human rights situation in Western Sahara should be examined by the UN. This incident spurred France, a longstanding ally of Morocco, to challenge the resolution as well as any potential human rights peacekeeping operations which could have followed. This draft also resulted in Morocco abandoning planned joint military exercises with the US.

The Western Sahara issue has also been a source of contention between Morocco and its neighbour, Algeria. Algeria’s support of the Polisario Front, as well as possibly using its ties with the rebel organisation as a means to strengthen its own position in the region, has on occasions caused a strain in Moroccan-Algerian relations. Recently when the Egyptian Foreign Minister reportedly ‘reaffirmed Egypt’s attachment to Morocco’s territorial unity’, Algerian ‘pro-regime media’ allegedly lambasted Cairo for backing Rabat.

According to the Sahara Press Service (SPS), last month SADR also approached the African Union (AU) in a bid to collectively pressurise Morocco into complying with international law and therefore resolve this crisis. Alleged human rights violations in Western Sahara were also discussed during an AU presentation. However in a recent report by an AU sub-committee, it was noted that the ‘African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ are yet to produce substantive conclusions regarding theses matters, due to what SPS describes as ‘Moroccan obstructions’.

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Future Prospects for Western Sahara

Is the Western Sahara quandary unsolvable? In almost 40 years no permanent solutions have transpired and over 100,000 Sahrawi refugees continue to exist in exile in ‘one of the world’s least reported crises’. And perhaps more importantly, is it in Morocco’s interests to allow a referendum which could challenge its regional hegemony? The lucrative rewards of the territory significantly favour Morocco at this point; in 2013 phosphate mines in the occupied territory yielded approximately $330 million for Morocco, according to a report by Western Sahara Resources Watch (WSRW).

Also in that same year, the European Parliament voted in favour of a fisheries agreement with Morocco. In return for the African nation receiving €30 million per year, 11 EU countries – including the UK, France, and Spain – are allowed to send vessels into Moroccan waters. However, several MEPs voted against the deal, claiming that ‘“it does not exclude the waters of the Western Sahara coast”, and underlined that the Sahrawi population had not been consulted’. Critics may note that should any EU vessels actually venture into these disputed waters, it may be deemed as exploiting this territory at the expense of the Sahrawi population.

Independence advocates may also argue that rather than the EU interceding on behalf of the Sahrawis, they are in actuality impeding on their territorial rights to this area of West Africa. Furthermore, given the human rights rhetoric which is consistently evident within the European political landscape, could agencies such as NGOs and think tanks play an increasing role in influencing and recommending governments to turn such human rights discourses into practices, and turn human rights mandates into reality? Indeed in Western Sahara many would feel that currently the human rights of the Sahrawi population are being ignored. An issue made more ethically troubling considering the widely documented claims of human rights abuses that Sahrawis have already endured as a result of Moroccan occupation.

Conversely, arguments could be made pointing to the infrastructural projects and social progress made in Western Sahara as a result of EU-Moroccan partnerships as well as the ‘exploitation’ of the land which has allowed Morocco to reap financial benefits and more crucially, reinvest these finances into Western Sahara’s economy, thus spurring developments. According to a report by Forbes, poverty has fallen and Morocco has contributed billions of dollars towards ‘airports, ports, schools, mosques, health care facilities, and providing water and electricity’. It is not unexpected then that a number of Sahrawis wish to ‘remain under Moroccan rule’.

Furthermore, if one then perceives Morocco to be the instigators of positive development, then are Algeria and the Polisario responsible for undermining these efforts to bring growth? This issue provides international policymakers with a further dilemma to consider, according to Forbes. Indeed, which factions are the international community inclined to support? An article in Open Democracy points to:


  • Either a nation which is accused of human rights abuses, but with whom regional security interests are already shared which has resulted in a vital and advantageous relationship. (Also to note according to Foreign Policy, Morocco has attempted to strengthen its own cause be spending an estimated $20 million on ‘lobbying policymakers and soliciting sympathetic coverage from journalists in the United States’).
  • Or a rebel organisation which – although is pursuing means to reclaim sovereignty over what it perceives to be the Sahrawi homeland – if it does eventually achieve its goal of decolonisation and independence, may lead to an environment of even greater instability which could be filled by alternate militant groups.

Considering that for almost 40 years Morocco’s policies have been relatively unchallenged, when it comes to the Western Sahara issue, perhaps the international powers could be described as being meek for their inaction in terms of finding tangible solutions to these matters. Or maybe they are in fact ‘applying Realpolitik, prioritising geopolitical and economic interests over international law and human rights’. Suggesting that for the foreseeable future at least, Western Sahara is to remain in its state of limbo, and the realism of its current state will prevail over the idealism of independence advocates.