Western Sahara – The Partition

Western Sahara Map

Western Sahara Map,
originally uploaded by Western Sahara Project.

Most of the media stories about Western Sahara and the arguments over Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan” give the impression that the entire territory of Western Sahara has been annexed by Morocco. The implication is that the question of limited “self government” as part of a greater Morocco, as opposed to independence, is really one of whether the rest of the world should accept the done deal of Morocco’s occupation and annexation of Western Sahara.

However, the reality on the ground is more complex. Western Sahara is in actual fact partitioned into a region occupied by Morocco (about two thirds of the territory), and one controlled by the Polisario independence movement. The latter is known locally as the “Free Zone” and consists of all the territory to the right (east and south) of the red line shown on this UN map. The areas to the left (west and north) of the red line are those occupied by Morocco.

The red line itself represents the line of defensive works that Morocco has built to seal off the occupied territories from the Free Zone. This line of earthworks, which exploits the natural topography, is known as “The Berm”. Although this map shows the Berm as being contained entirely within the territory of Western Sahara, it actually extends into Mauritania, where the official border between Western Sahara and Mauritania makes a sharp turn to the east (i.e. where the Berm is shown as just about touching the border where the latter forms a right angle). Presumably the Mauritanians don’t feel inclined or able to make a fuss about this Moroccan annexation of an admittedly very tiny and not especially useful part of their country, and the UN don’t want to embarrass them by making public the fact that Morocco has taken some of their territory and they aren’t doing anything about it.

The point of all this is that, even if Morocco’s occupation in Western Sahara is “normalised” via international acceptance of its autonomy plan (as favoured by the United States and some other countries), the problem won’t be solved. A rump Western Sahara will still remain, controlled by the Polisario, which is under pressure from the 160,000 – 200,000 Sahrawi refugees in Algeria to renew the conflict. The autonomy plan will solve nothing, and the conflict will still fester. It may even explode into violence as the exiled Sahrawi and the Polisario feel they have nothing to lose, the rest of the world having betrayed the UN’s promise to arrange a referendum on self-determination. Self determination might be compatible with annexation in the tortuous Byzantine arguments of Morocco and it’s supporters, but the Polisario and the exiled Sahrawi (as well as many if not most of those living under Moroccan occupation) view it as meaning, well, the right to determine their own future and political status.

Unfortunately, most of the politicians tasked with deciding whether their countries should reward Morocco’s occupation and annexation of this disputed territory seem to be entirely unaware of the political and geographical realities on the ground. They seem to believe that by endorsing Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara they will help to solve the problem of Western Sahara’s status. They are wrong. Endorsing an annexation is morally reprehensible. Endorsing a partial annexation is just stupid.


8 Responses to Western Sahara – The Partition

  1. […] to maintain the fiction that this is actually a demilitarized “buffer zone”, and not an independent region within Western Sahara that Morocco has not managed to acquire, run by a government (the Polisario) with which Morocco is […]

  2. […] zone which Morocco has not occupied and in which Morocco has no presence (see earlier posts on the partition of Western Sahara). The Polisario and the exiled Sahrawi refer to this zone as the “Free […]

  3. […] I pointed out that the (often overlooked) existence of the Polisario controlled areas has important implications for the viability of the Moroccan autonomy plan as a “solution” to the […]

  4. […] As an “author many books on international justice, international legal order and refugees” [sic] professor El Ouali is presumably in a good position to make the case that the causes of justice and self-determination are served by denying the population of a partially occupied, disputed, non-self governing territory the right to vote on whether it wants its military occupation by an aggressive expansionist neighbour to continue or not. I’m interested to see whether he proposes any legal and just solutions to the plight of the 160,000 exiled Sahrawi refugees, perhaps involving their return to an occupied Western Sahara or on their dispersal throughout neighbouring countries. The former would not seem wise, given that it would result in the population of a Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara being dominated by Sahrawi who may not relish Morocco’s overlordship. The latter, a “solution” often proposed by Morocco and its supporters, does not seem particularly just. The only alternative to these two possibilities is for the Sahrawi to stay where they are, in the camps, which would hardly fulfill the lofty humanitarian ideals suggested by the publishers’ summary. Whatever one thinks of Morocco’s plans for Western Sahara in principle, it falls down when it comes to the practicalities of how to address the large population of exiled Sahrawi refugees (who are not keen on living in a greater Morocco), and the parts of Western Sahara not occupied by Morocco but controlled by the Polisario independence movemen…. […]

  5. […] in his speech). In brief, the autonomy plan provides for limited self-determination for the disputed territory of Western Sahara within a greater Morocco, while precluding the possibility of full […]

  6. […] Unusually for a mainstream media organisation, the BBC included in its article a map showing the partition of Western Sahara. Usually Western Sahara is reported simply as having been “annexed” […]

  7. […] of status under the terms of the ceasefire, and therefore in international law (see earlier posts here and here). To acknowledge this fact would be to admit that all its autonomy plan will do is […]

  8. […] ecosystems. It also helps to give Morocco political leverage over other nations, making its partial occupation of Western Sahara more secure (the United States, and enthusiastic support of the occupation, has […]

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