By Kyle Sweitzer
“If tensions continues to rise, the Western Sahara has the makings to become an involved and violent escalation of conflict.”
Three Algerians were killed by a Moroccan airstrike on November 3rd, 2021, further violating a nearly 30-year ceasefire agreement in the region which collapsed in November 2020 when Moroccan forces fired upon protestors. This conflict has brought fears of an escalation in one of the least well-known contested territories of the world.
The Western Sahara is home to the longest UN peace-keeping mission ever. When Spain decolonized Western Sahara on November 14, 1975, Morocco and Mauritania both signed the Madrid Accords, effectively dividing up the area between both countries. However, Nearly 80% of Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco back in 1975 when fighting broke out between separatists and Moroccan soldiers.
In 1991, the separatist group, the Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) and Morocco agreed to the ceasefire hinging upon Morocco’s agreement to give independence and self-determination to the Sahrawi population of the Western Sahara. Further supported in the 1997 Houston Agreement, the Saharawi population voted on becoming an independent state backed by the International Court of Justice.
The U.N. set up MINURSO in 1991 (United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara) to help establish a referendum for the territory’s future. UNISMARO, however, is understaffed and underfunded with their hands caught in a delicate political conflict. Because of these circumstances, the referendum has never taken place.
In December 2020, Donald Trump in a quid pro quo move recognized Morocco’s control over Western Sahara in return for Morocco’s recognition and normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel in the Abraham Accords. The Moroccan King, Mohamed VI, still does not recognize Western Sahara as an independent state up for negotiation.
Currently, police violence, media suppression, and disappearances are common fates for Saharawi independence protestors. Morocco has become an intense surveillance and police state monitoring all activity in the region. Polisario, led by Brahim Ghali, sees the truce now as “null and void” and has escalated the fighting.
The United States has turned a blind eye to these issues because Morocco is a close ally. The Berm sand dune wall built in 1987 with the help of the United States is highly concentrated with landmines. The wall runs along the eastern border of Western Sahara. Morocco has been trying to repossess Western Sahara’s natural recourses. Moroccan outposts have established control over some of the world’s richest phosphate deposits. No doubt Morocco also has their eye on Western Sahara’s rich fishing grounds and offshore oil deposits to control as well.
In an effort to stop the Algerian backed Polisario separatist group from jumping between Algeria and Martinique to raid Moroccan outposts, Morocco has effectively stranded their refugee population in the Southern Algerian desert called “The Devil’s Garden.”
Both Polisario and Morocco are locked in brutal fighting, but Morocco’s violent occupation in Western Sahara threatens basic democratic freedoms. If Morocco does have legitimacy over the Western Sahara, they ought to take more responsibility to assist their estimated 165,000 own refugees that Algeria is feeding. Using intimidation, Morocco has instead invested more effort into plundering the natural resources of a declared sovereign state.
The United States in an attempt to help Israel (or perhaps Trump’s legacy) have inadvertently increased tensions in the Western Sahara. The United States has sided with Morocco’s sovereignty. It is therefore up to the global community to support Western Sahara’s sovereignty.
On October 29th of 2021, The U.N. Security Council called for a return to negotiations. This call, however, hinges upon a peacekeeping mission that lacks any capacity to bring tensions down. If tensions continues to rise, Western Sahara has the makings to become an involved and violent escalation of conflict.
Kyle is a senior studying political science and minoring in national security. Growing up in Hudson, Ohio, Kyle developed an interest in politics from studying the American Founding. Kyle is the senior class president in the student government association. Kyle also serves on the social executive team for orientation board, welcoming new freshmen on campus. Kyle is interested in the intersection of issues in criminal justice, communism, and Christian ethics.
This past summer, Kyle worked at the Acton Institute as part of their Emerging Leader Program. Kyle worked in the programs and development departments and furthered the pursuit of a free and virtuous society. He hopes to better educate the younger generations on key issues through non-profit work.