Can John Bolton Thaw Western Sahara’s Long-Frozen Conflict?

The Polisario Front has created an international diplomatic presence on a shoestring budget and sees the Trump administration as its best hope in decades to gain independence from Morocco.

Members of the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army take part in a ceremony to mark 40 years after the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was proclaimed by the Polisario Front in the disputed territory of Western Sahara at the Rabouni Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, on Feb. 26, 2016.
Members of the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army take part in a ceremony to mark 40 years after the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was proclaimed by the Polisario Front in the disputed territory of Western Sahara at the Rabouni Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, on Feb. 26, 2016. FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images

In March, the United Nations secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, hosted the second in a series of roundtable talks to move a long-frozen conflict toward a peaceful resolution. This conflict has been suspended in a stalemate since a 1991 cease-fire agreement halted a 16-year-long civil war between the Moroccan monarchy and Western Sahara’s liberation movement, called the Polisario Front.

In addition to fighting the U.S.- and French-backed Moroccan military for 16 years, Polisario built several sprawling refugee camps in southern Algeria to accommodate thousands of families who fled the violence. An estimated 165,000 Sahrawi refugees, as those who fled Western Sahara are known, continue to live in these camps, as they have since the conflict began.

Trying for the 10th time to negotiate a settlement to this seemingly intractable conflict at the roundtable in Geneva, the U.N. hosted representatives of the governments of Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania, alongside Polisario. A third round of talks is likely on the way. Both Moroccan and Sahrawi press outlets soon spun the events in Geneva, claiming the world supported their respective positions.

These positions originated in the cease-fire agreement, which called for a referendum and established the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Eight sluggish years later, the Moroccan government declared the 1999 list of eligible voters produced by the U.N. to be unacceptable because it excluded certain Moroccan nationals.

At the time, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s report noted that Morocco and Polisario “share the belief that the composition of the electoral body will predetermine the outcome of the referendum.” James Baker, the U.N. envoy to MINURSO at the time, drafted another comprehensive peace plan in 2003. It called for five years of autonomy for Western Sahara followed by a referendum that included the option of independence, and it used an expanded voter roll made up of all uncontested applicants from the 1999 list, the U.N. Nations High Commissioner for Refugees repatriation list, and all residents of the territory as of the end of 1999. The Security Council endorsed it unanimously, but the Moroccan government rejected it, and Baker resigned in exasperation. 

In 2007, the Moroccan government proposed a plan that would offer Western Sahara autonomy with no possibility of independence. At the time, the Security Council welcomed the plan as “serious and credible” and simply took note of Polisario’s position, which insisted on independence as an option. This was the birth of the current stalemate: “autonomy at worst” as the Moroccan position, and “referendum or bust” for the Polisario Front. This impasse has endured, Morocco has continued de facto control, and those 165,000 Sahrawi refugees have continued to endure decades of displacement in an insufferable rocky desert landscape. 

In this stalemate, the front lines have moved from the arid desert to the realm of media and diplomacy. Scholars of civil war and self-determination have shown that international perceptions of conflicts are one of the most important factors in determining their outcomes. International recognition establishes the state; sovereignty without recognition is incomplete. Knowing this, the Polisario Front has undertaken considerable efforts to ensure that governments around the world take notice of it. It is playing the role of a state for an international audience, just as it does in the Saharan camps, which Polisario has governed and administered independently of the U.N. since 1976. 

While many small countries maintain only a few embassies abroad, Polisario has a permanent representative in nearly every European Union capital, Russia, the United States, Australia, and many other countries, as well as representatives to the U.N., EU, and African Union. There are representatives of the Sahrawi Republic (the civilian government that operates parallel to Polisario in recognizing countries) in nearly every country that recognizes its statehood—the number of such countries fluctuates, but it currently stands at 39. My research using data from publicly available press releases and news reports shows that the Polisario and Sahrawi Republic representatives have met with representatives of the world’s governments over 250 times in the last five years.

A man in traditional dress walks through the Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, on Jan. 12, 2012.Stefano Montesi/Corbis via Getty Images

These diplomatic efforts are slowly paying off. Each year sees new calls for human rights monitoring to be included as part of MINURSO’s mandate in Western Sahara, an effort aggressively resisted by the Moroccan government. Moreover, official support for the Polisario position in many countries continues to grow. A recent summary of Swedish policy on Western Sahara asserted that it is “under occupation,” a term the Moroccan government condemns.

A few years earlier, in 2012, the Swedish parliament called for the unilateral recognition of the Sahrawi Republic. In October 2017, Italian Senator Stefano Vaccari testified before the U.N. General Assembly on the illegal exploitation of the territory’s resources. Polisario has earned allies like these in many foreign  governments. Although there is by no means unanimous support for Polisario, in the stalemate era, it has wasted no time in seeking new friends.

South Africa has been a particularly reliable ally of Polisario, even going so far as to seize a ship carrying a Moroccan cargo of Saharan phosphate, which had stopped over in Cape Town in June 2017. It confiscated the cargo, valued at $5 million, and in March 2018 handed it over to Polisario to sell. South Africa also advocates within the Southern African Development Community, an intergovernmental organization with 16 member states, for “unwavering solidarity with Western Sahara.” 

Polisario has built this diplomatic network on the most austere of budgets. Most of these diplomats run one-man or one-woman operations, living and working out of studio apartments. According to an interview with a Polisario foreign minister, their representative in Washington has a budget of around $6,000 per month, stretched to cover his apartment, travel, and work expenses, including inviting politicians and staffers to conversations over fancy dinners and attending expensive events. The representative in London does the same on $4,500 a month. 

This shoestring existence is the norm for Polisario representatives from Paris to Madrid to Canberra to Stockholm. Most Sahrawi diplomats have families in the refugee camps in Algeria, whom they see for only a few weeks per year. Polisario is strategic about where its diplomatic talents are most likely to pay off, and it regularly moves representatives from capital to capital. For example, Oubi Buchraya Bachir, the current Polisario representative in France, has been moved at least four times since 2001: from the Netherlands to Britain to South Africa to Nigeria, then finally to Paris.

Polisario’s diplomatic push has forced the Moroccan government to sharpen its counteroffensive.

Bachir is known to have a particular talent for countering Moroccan messaging. Last year, he made a prime-time appearance on France 24 to dispute Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita’s incendiary allegation that Iran had been equipping and training Polisario fighters through Hezbollah. The French media is something of a lion’s den for Sahrawi voices; a Polisario rep managing to use the most prominent French media outlet to counter Moroccan claims before the public was considered a major triumph.

Polisario’s diplomatic push has forced the Moroccan government to sharpen its counteroffensive. Australia offers a useful case study. Polisario established a permanent presence in Canberra in 1999. At the time, the Moroccan government employed its Indonesian ambassador as a representative in Australia, as it had since diplomatic relations were established in 1976. Five years after the opening of Polisario’s office, Morocco finally established a standalone embassy to Australia (and New Zealand).


Sahrawi Diplomacy

Publicly reported diplomatic meetings between world governments and Polisario Front or Sahrawi Republic representatives, 2014-2019.

“Shoestring Diplomacy: Aspiring States and International Lobbying for Self-Determination,” R. Joseph Huddleston working paper, April 2019. Note: White indicates no data.

Morocco also employs more extreme measures. Many of the 40 or so withdrawals of recognition of the Sahrawi Republic since 1991 have come after aggressive lobbying by Morocco. For example, leaked diplomatic cables revealed several such dealings: The Moroccan government leveraged India’s dependence on phosphate imports to get it to derecognize the Sahrawi Republic in 2000; Kenya suspended relations with the Sahrawi Republic from 2006 to 2014 for access to Morocco’s “sizeable market”; Morocco refused to deploy troops as U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti in 2010 because the Haitian government recognizes the Sahrawi Republic.

Overall, Morocco is known for aggressive reprisals against countries taking positions it does not favor, or even using the wrong language. When, in 2015, the Swedish Foreign Ministry revisited the 2012 parliamentary vote on Sahrawi recognition, the Moroccan government immediately threatened to boycott all Swedish products if the policy was pursued; Sweden stuck with the status quo, backing U.N. efforts. In 2016, Morocco expelled dozens of MINURSO staffers and nearly withdrew all of its 2,300 soldiers involved in various U.N. peacekeeping missions after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used the term “occupation” in reference to the territory.

Ban’s rhetorical slip may have been taboo to Moroccan ears, but it wasn’t particularly controversial as a description of the legal status of Morocco’s presence in the territory. No country on earth officially recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. It may have the de facto rule of “occupation,” but it is far from having de jure authority. Western Sahara is considered a “non-self-governing territory” by the U.N. The beginning of this conflict in the 1970s was marked not only by violence and flight, but also by a historically unfavorable decision for Morocco by the International Court of Justice, which made a strong case for self-determination as defined by the territory’s residents. 

As a result, the Moroccan monarchy has stood on shaky international legal footing for decades. Thus, in addition to its hard-nosed lobbying efforts, it has relied on a huge military presence in the territory (at least 100,000 troops as of 2006, according to the Congressional Research Service), the suppression of free expression, and a ban on foreign press and U.N. human rights monitoring (although it has allowed some independent monitors, who advocate for U.N. monitoring), not to mention the mass transfer of at least 350,000 Moroccan civilians into the territory in 1975, where most remain—a move similar to the Chinese government’s long-running demographic engineering efforts in Tibet. 

According to the CIA, the Moroccan government continues ambitious civilian relocation policies, having “encouraged its citizens to settle there, offering bonuses, pay raises, and food subsidies to civil servants and a tax exemption, in order to integrate Western Sahara into the Moroccan Kingdom.” Buttressing this de facto control strategy has been the diplomatic protection of the French government and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

The same 1975 International Court of Justice decision established a strong international legal foundation for Polisario, making it unique among the world’s liberation movements. As continuing U.N. efforts at bilateral negotiation have faltered, Polisario has utilized its position to develop a legal strategy to disrupt the gears of international trade. It has won several European Court lawsuits against the EU and the Moroccan government for including exploitation of the territory’s fisheries in trade deals. It has also successfully disputed Moroccan authority over Western Saharan phosphate reserves and airspace. In response, the Moroccan government has relied on retribution, suspending contact with several EU institutions after one such ruling.

Polisario’s leadership knows recognition by most countries will not come without the fulfillment of the referendum guaranteed by the 1991 cease-fire agreement. Their efforts are therefore designed to make trade with Morocco in the territory legally dubious, so that international firms will no longer be able to count on the legality of deals made with the Moroccan government, and economic pressure will build to administer the referendum as approved by the U.N. in 1999. 

As a result of Polisario’s efforts, firms in all but three countries—India, China, and New Zealand —have discontinued the purchase of Western Saharan phosphates. And New Zealand companies are facing growing pressure to discontinue all phosphate imports originating in Morocco. Shipping the phosphates has grown strangely complicated. After the phosphate seizure in South Africa and another in Panama, cargo ships carrying Western Saharan phosphates now avoid passing both the Panama Canal and the Cape of Good Hope—this year, a Norwegian ship with a cargo of fish avoided Cape Town as well. 

Because of the legal precarity of the Moroccan position, Polisario leaders have grown to consider these challenges to exploitation of the territory’s resources one of the prime complements to diplomacy as they work to build the international legitimacy of their claim to the territory. After these legal setbacks, Morocco has taken to explicitly including the territory in recent international trade negotiations. Polisario considers this stance both a sign of the kingdom’s slipping grasp on the international legitimacy of its presence in Western Sahara and a continuing source of opportunity to showcase its sovereignty in both international and domestic courts.

Meanwhile, after years in desert camps, Sahrawi youth have grown impatient with diplomacy. Worst of all, trust in the cease-fire agreement itself has badly eroded as a function of so many failed negotiations to bring about MINURSO’s mandated vote, unchecked violations of the cease-fire agreement by both parties, and 28 years of confinement in desert refugee camps since peace was declared.

Polisario’s leadership is now looking hopefully to Washington. The group believes the next two years represent the most critical diplomatic opening they have had in decades. U.S. foreign policy has been unpredictable under President Donald Trump, with a president desperate for a foreign-policy victory, but there is a reason Sahrawis see the White House as a potential source of support. Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, has a long personal history connected to the Western Sahara conflict. From 1997 to 2000, Bolton repeatedly worked pro bono as Baker’s deputy. In 2006, as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., he threatened to dissolve MINURSO. He has visited the Polisario camps himself, a notch in the belt very few diplomats can claim.

Thirteen years since his term as U.N. ambassador, Bolton still has a transparent position on MINURSO: either fulfill the mandate for the referendum or dissolve it. There is little evidence that he is directly pressuring Trump, but he is almost certainly responsible for a recent change to MINURSO’s mandate, which is now renewed for only six months at a time—a major departure from the one-year routine of prior decades.

Bolton’s strong personal views notwithstanding, the Trump administration has basically followed the prior three administrations in quietly backing the efforts of the secretary-general’s personal envoy, who has now conducted face-to-face talks among Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and Polisario in December 2018 and March of this year. The White House has also declined to express preference for either a referendum or autonomy. Nevertheless, Polisario leaders believe the presence of Bolton in Trump’s inner circle represents a particularly positive moment for their hopes of self-determination.

In these circumstances, the status quo is unlikely to hold, and every party to this conflict has renewed reason to seek resolution, either to still the newly shifting sands or to preempt the churning foreign policy of prominent Western governments. As a non-self-governing territory, Western Sahara is unique compared to other territories with self-determination movements. Research on separatism shows that diplomatic recognition is rarely conferred against the will of the incumbent government; enduring settlements usually only proceed from mutual agreement or the decisive defeat of one party. 

Nearly three decades of stalemate have caused enough trouble to get both Morocco and Polisario back to the negotiating table. Whatever the next act may hold, Sahrawi leaders are impressively well rehearsed.

R. Joseph Huddleston is an assistant professor in the School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University. He is writing a book on diplomacy by self-determination movements. Twitter: @joeyhuddleston

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