17 Oct, 2019
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International Actors

The United Nations and the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO)

In 1991, a ceasefire sponsored by the UN and the Organization of African Unity – now the African Union – was signed, and the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) was deployed to begin preparations for a democratic referendum for the Saharawi people. MINURSO’s original mandate included – and includes – the identification of voters for a referendum, the organization of said referendum, and the maintenance of the ceasefire. Each year between 1991 and 1996, the UN stated that it planned to hold the referendum by the following year. Nonetheless, because of challenges to the voter lists by both sides, work was painstakingly slow. In 1999 and 2000, MINURSO finally published its lists: 250,000 Saharawis were identified, and just over 86,000 were determined to be eligible voters. Both sides were then allowed to submit appeals – over 130,000 were submitted in one month, causing MINURSO to abandon its referendum preparations. The key issues remain the eligibility of Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara to participate in the referendum process and the participation of the various members of the Saharawi diaspora, both in the refugee camps and beyond.

In 1997, the UN then appointed James Baker, a former U.S. Secretary of State, as the Secretary General’s Personal Envoy, to try to break the impasse with the voter identification process. In 2001, Baker submitted his first Peace Plan, which would have made the Western Sahara an autonomous region of Morocco. This proposal was accepted by Morocco but rejected by the Polisario Front.

Baker submitted a revised plan in 2002, which suggested a provisional government chosen by the voters on MINURSO’s list, followed by a true self-determination referendum for Saharawis on the list and all residents who had lived in the Western Sahara since 1999. To the general surprise of all those involved, the Polisario accepted Baker Plan II, but the Moroccans rejected it – stating that they refused to support any plan that allowed for a vote on full independence. With the failure of his second plan, Baker resigned.

The second Baker Plan was the closest the UN has come to finding a solution to the conflict. In 2007, the UN called for direct negotiations between the Polisario and Morocco. Five rounds of negotiations later, neither side has been willing to compromise on its position. The Secretary General’s new Personal Envoy, Christopher Ross, another former U.S. diplomat, has traveled extensively throughout the region in an attempt to build the political capital needed to resolve the conflict.

Meanwhile, MINURSO remains deployed in the Western Sahara – its headquarters located in the Moroccan-controlled territory and protected by Moroccan security forces. Today, it is the only UN peacekeeping force in the world that does not include a human rights monitoring component in its mandate. While opponents suggest that the force is too small to monitor the well-documented human rights abuses by Moroccan security forces in the Western Sahara and the alleged abuses by the Polisario in the refugee camps, the Saharawis have been adamantly advocating for the inclusion of such a component. Each year the UN Security Council considers the extension of MINURSO’s mandate, and for the past several years, the debate has revolved around the human rights issue. As has happened in the past, France – Morocco’s biggest supporter in the Security Council – refused to allow any wording related to human rights to be included, despite strong backing from the United Kingdom. Political support for Morocco in the Security Council has thus hampered the UN’s role as a credible peacekeeper and negotiator in the Western Sahara.


While Libya was the first country to support the Polisario and provide it with arms, Algeria soon became the Saharawis’ most vocal supporter. The reasons for Algeria’s interest in the conflict are many. First, Moroccan and Algeria are engaged in a power struggle in North Africa, which has resulted in the closing of the Moroccan-Algerian border for almost two decades. The incorporation of the Western Sahara into Morocco would extend Morocco’s territory, threaten Algeria’s influence, and allow Morocco’s advanced military to focus elsewhere along its borders. Second, Algeria may also fear that if it secures control over the Western Sahara, Morocco will go after other territories that were part of the historic Greater Maghreb, including parts of Algeria itself.

According to the Algerian leadership, however, it supports the Polisario Front because of its own history and ideology. The Algerians waged a particularly brutal anti-colonial war in the 1950s and 1960s. The Algerian military and political elite argue that these are the only reasons for their support of the Polisario.

Algeria provides assistance to the Saharawis in a number of ways. First, the Algerian military provided training and arms to the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army [ALPS] throughout the 1970s and 1980s, although such military aid has greatly reduced since the signing of the ceasefire and end of the Cold War. Secondly, the Algerian government provided and continues to provide – although numbers are not public – financial assistance to the Saharawi leadership to run the refugee camps, and continue its active diplomacy campaign, and run the SADR government. Even more importantly, the government granted the Polisario considerable independence in the refugee camps outside of Tindouf, which allowed the Saharawi fighters a safe-haven to recuperate, develop strategy, store ammunition and supplies, and keep Moroccan prisoners of war. The Tindouf refugee camps also provide a much-needed location in exile for the Saharawis who have joined the Polisario against Morocco. In return for inhabitance within Algerian borders, the Saharawi Army helps its Algerian counterpart patrol the huge desert borders of the North African country.

Algeria provides international support in a number of forums. Ambassadors in the U.S. consistently lobby the U.S. Congress and Department of State to support the Saharawis’ right to self-determination. Algeria has also been instrumental in helping the SADR gain international recognition. Finally, its growing economy and power have given it increasing influence in the United Nations and the African Union, despite its loss of status as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. In these organizations, the Algerian representatives constantly encourage the international community to put pressure on Morocco to allow for a referendum on self-determination in the Western Sahara. Because of its proximity and influential role in the conflict, the UN has often allowed Algeria to participate as an observer in negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front, and UN Special Envoy Christopher Ross frequently meets with the Algerian leadership to include them in his efforts to find a lasting solution to the conflict. Despite its continued support, however, Algeria’s enthusiasm in defending the Saharawi cause has been partially diverted to other issues, primarily because it has had to focus inwardly on a long civil war in the 1990s and the growing threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] in the past decade. The Algerian population has begun to challenge its government’s funding of an international movement. Conversely, the Saharawis at times argue that the Algerians could and should be doing more to support their cause. While the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front are the only UN-recognized parties to the conflict, without the continued support of Algeria, it is unlikely that the Polisario Front would be able to sustain the campaign for statehood and freedom in its current form.


Cuba has long been a close supporter of the Polisario Front, going back to the former’s role as a key sponsor of anti-colonial independence movements throughout the Third World during the Cold War. While the Caribbean nation has offered both financial and weapons support to the Saharawis, its most important role has been the education of the Saharawi youth. Primary schooling is mandatory in the Tindouf refugee camps, but no secondary or advanced educational opportunities are available there. Therefore, Cuba has welcomed thousands of Saharawis to the island for continued education, often in technical and medical fields. Many Saharawi refugees – jokingly referred to Cubarawis – have spent up to 24 years in Cuba, receiving degrees in engineering, literature, languages, and medicine in exchange for mild manual labor on the island. In the early 2000s, three disgruntled Saharawis accused the Polisario Front of stealing children from their families and sending them to Cuba for hard labor and communist indoctrination. Hundreds of Cubarawis in the camps today refute such claims, insisting that their time in Cuba was a benefit they received from the Polisario and the Cuban government.


Spain is technically still the administering power of the Western Sahara, as it never complied with the UN’s requests to arrange a referendum for the self-determination of its former colony. The Spanish government has refused to take a clear stance on the issue out of fear of upsetting Morocco, the closest North African country to its borders and a dominant political actor in the region. Spain is concerned with the trafficking of both illegal narcotics and immigrants from Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar and to the Spanish Canary Islands. Furthermore, it is worried that a change in the status of the Western Sahara could spur further Moroccan pressure over its North African enclaves of Spain in Ceuta and Melilla – which are both located on the North African coast, though they are considered integral parts of Spain. Opposition parties in Spain routinely challenge the majority party’s handling of the Western Saharan case, but no party in power has been willing to put real pressure on Morocco.

Spanish civil society, however, actively supports the Saharawis’ right to self-determination. Associations of the Friends of the Western Sahara exist in almost every major Spanish city and arrange frequent trips of solidarity to the Saharawi refugee camps. These associations also arrange for Saharawi children from the camps to spend the unbearable Saharan summers with families throughout Spain. Protests supporting the Saharawis do occur in Spain, but the Spanish government has refrained from taking a significant active role in supporting Saharawi self- determination.


France has been Morocco’s strongest international ally with respect to the Western Saharan conflict. This is partly due to France’s historically tense relations with Algeria, going back to the bloody war for Algerian independence in the 1950s and 1960s. France has supplied Morocco with strong military and diplomatic support. The Moroccan army is equipped with French planes and weapons. Likewise, France has backed Morocco consistently in the UN Security Council, including its refusal to allow human rights monitoring in MINURSO’s mandate.

United States

While the U.S. has never come out with a concrete position on the Western Saharan issue, in 2007, the Bush Administration lent its unofficial support to Morocco’s autonomy plan as the most realistic solution to the enduring dispute. The U.S. government and Morocco are close allies, as Morocco was the first nation to sign a treaty with the independent United States of America. Likewise, the United States has long appreciated Morocco’s positive efforts in attempting to find a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and, more recently, has counted on the close cooperation of Morocco in the Global War on Terror, as each nation seeks to combat the threat posed by violent, radical Islamic extremism. Morocco was named a major non-NATO ally by the U.S. in 2004, opening the Kingdom to increasing military support through the provision of funding, intelligence, and weapons. Thus, the United States’ position can be viewed as one of tacit support of Morocco’s de facto control over the Western Sahara.

“To the United States we ask one simple request – allow a democratic solution to the Western Saharan conflict, on the basis of the great principles on which that country was founded.”
-Mohammed Abdelaziz, Secretary General of Polisario Front - President of the SADR

At the behest of current UN Special Envoy to the Western Sahara Christopher Ross, the U.S. Department of State has ceased to make statements supporting either party in the conflict. President Obama has offered his public support for the UN’s efforts in the resolving of the conflict and has encouraged both Morocco and the Polisario to cooperate with the international organization. Some members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate advocate on behalf of Saharawi self-determination, while others support Morocco’s position.