In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Western Sahara

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks on Self-Determination
  • Histories
  • Spanish Administration
  • Boundaries and Delimitation
  • Parties to the Conflict
  • International Relations and Politics
  • Comparative Perspectives

International Law Western Sahara
Rosa Riquelme, Juan Soroeta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0095


Western Sahara is the only non-self-governing territory on the African continent still awaiting the completion of its process of decolonization and, as such, it has been listed by the committee established for the implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples for half a century. While Spain and France were responsible for the delineation of land borders between 1900 and 1912, the delimitation of maritime boundaries is a pending issue. Spain began its colonization of the territory shortly before the Berlin Conference (1884–1885). Despite the fact that since 1961 it had been providing the UN General Assembly with the information required under Article 73 (e) of the UN Charter, it was only in 1974 that it assumed proper responsibility for its obligations as administering power, when it decided to organize a referendum on self-determination, to be held in the first half of 1975 under the auspices of the United Nations. As a result of a series of events, that plan was ultimately frustrated. The first such obstacle was the postponement of the referendum by the General Assembly, after it had decided to ask the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on the relationship between the Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco. The court’s ruling confirmed the international status of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory. The second obstacle was the so-called Marcha Verde (Green March) on Sahara, organized by the King of Morocco, Hassan II, to demonstrate his intentions with regard to Western Sahara. Soon afterwards, Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania issued a declaration of principles on 14 November 1975 (also known as Madrid Agreements) whereby Spain not only ratified the decision to decolonize the territory and abandon its active presence on the territory but also committed itself to establishing a temporary administration together with Morocco and Mauritania and the collaboration of the Yemáa (Assembly of Sahrawi notables). For its part, Morocco occupied northern Western Sahara, which led to the conflict between Mauritania and Morocco and the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y de Río de Oro (Frente Polisario—Polisario Front), the Sahrawi national liberation movement created in 1973, which in turn proclaimed the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976, which has been recognized by more than eighty states and has been a member of the African Union since 1984. The conflict with Mauritania ended in 1979, but the war with Morocco dragged on nearly a decade. The ceasefire agreement came into force in 1991. That same year Security Council Resolution 690 adopted the settlement plan agreed by the two parties and established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Once MINURSO had published a provisional electoral list for the holding of the referendum (February 2000), Morocco accused the members of the mission of bias and abandoned the peace plan. The core of the conflict lies in the fact that Morocco will only accept an autonomy formula for Western Sahara, which would remain an integral part of its national territory and under its sovereignty, whereas the Frente Polisario holds that the only acceptable solution to the conflict is holding a referendum on self-determination in which independence is an option.

General Overviews

Western Sahara studies may take place in a wide variety of settings. The following texts include at least two forms, overviews and collections, and provide a mainstream view of what are usually the most discussed elements of the topic. Since Spain acted as the administering power of the colonial territory, much of the literature has been published in Spanish. Because of the active presence of Arab countries in the conflict, French contributions are likewise abundant. Barbier 1982 is a good example of this. In addition, good mainstream views can be found in Franck 1976, Riquelme Cortado 2013, and Soroeta Liceras 2014, which focus on the legal concerns that the application of international law raises. Approaches that put a premium on the peace process, the holding of the referendum and the autonomy formula in particular, are employed in El Ouali 2008. Along this line, Zoubir and Volman 1993 combines an international view with a regional perspective on the conflict after the signature of the ceasefire agreement. See also Marauhn 2012.

  • Barbier, Maurice. Le conflit du Sahara occidental. Paris: Harmattan, 1982.

    An all-encompassing volume with historical, political, and legal elements of the conflict; holds that the solution resides in the principle of self-determination and its subsequent exercise by Sahrawi people.

  • El Ouali, Abdelhamid. Saharan Conflict: Towards Territorial Autonomy as a Right to Democratic Self-Determination. London: Stacey International, 2008.

    A comprehensive treatment of the Morocco’s autonomy initiative; in the author’s view, this formula represents the only viable solution to the conflict.

  • Franck, Thomas M. “The Stealing of the Sahara.” American Yearbook of International Law 70.4 (1976): 694–721.

    DOI: 10.2307/2200382

    Franck’s understanding rests on the premise that the right to self-determination of peoples applies to the case at hand. However, although the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice had considered that sovereignty ties between the territory of Western Sahara and Morocco cannot overlap this right, this author insists on this idea.

  • Marauhn, Thilo. “Sahara.” In The Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law. Vol. 8. Edited by Rüdiger Wolfrum, 1095–1106. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Reviews, if briefly, some key aspects of the conflict, such as the period of Spanish colonization and the efforts made by the United Nations to achieve decolonization; special emphasis is placed on natural resources and humanitarian issues. This article was last updated in May 2010.

  • Riquelme Cortado, Rosa. “Marruecos frente a la (des)colonización del Sahara Occidental.” Anuario Mexicano de Derecho Internacional 13 (2013): 205–265.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1870-4654(13)71042-0

    Argues that the Western Sahara conflict is an issue of decolonization whose solution lies in the exercises by the population of its right to freely determine its future via referendum, independence being one of the options. The author analyzes the United Nations Security Council resolutions, especially those adopted after the Moroccan Initiative for Negotiating an Autonomy Statute for the Sahara Region.

  • Soroeta Liceras, Juan. International Law and the Western Sahara Conflict. Oisterwijk, The Netherlands: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2014.

    Probably the most in-depth legal analysis offered from the standpoints of international law; covers a vast range of issues, including the Spanish colonization period and the standstill of the peace plan.

  • Zoubir, Yahia H., and Daniel Volman, eds. International Dimensions of the Western Sahara Conflict. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.

    Explores regional and international dimensions of the conflict after the ceasefire agreement reached between the Polisario Front and Morocco in 1991.

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