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.