“Words uttered at night are erased by day” Sahrawi proverb.


The story of the Western Sahara conflict is filled with heartache and loss. For over a century and a half, its indigenous population, the Sahrawi people, have been colonised and invaded, massacred and separated; persecuted and disappeared. Ultimately, they have also been betrayed by promises not fulfilled. But above all, the story of the conflict in Western Sahara is one of struggle against colonialism and occupation, and of extraordinary resilience and resistance in the face of international neglect.

Western Sahara suffers from one of the world’s most protracted and invisible conflicts. After Spanish colonial rule, a brutal invasion by Morocco, a 16-year war and a 29 year-old ceasefire, Sahrawis still wait for a long-promised referendum on self-determination that the United Nations fails to deliver. For the past decades, they have used diplomacy and creative non violent resistance against an illegal, violent occupation.

On 13 November 2020, the 29-year ceasefire brokered by the UN came to an end. Following a military operation carried out by Morocco against a group of peaceful Sahrawi civilians in a buffer zone located in the southern tip of Western Sahara, a grave violation of the ceasefire accord, the Polisario Front proclaimed the end of the UN-led peace process, and consequently the resumption of war. With the escalation of war between Morocco and Polisario, there was a serious crackdown against Sahrawis in the occupied territories of Western Sahara. Weeks later on December 10th, International Human Rights Day, former president Donald Trump issued a proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in contravention of International Law, becoming the first country in the world to do so.

Spanish colonization and the Moroccan invasion

A century and a half of Spanish colonialism partially destroyed Sahrawi culture and traditions, as nomadic groups were corralled into new colonial cities and forced into sedentary life and the territory’s vast phosphate reserves were exploited by the Spanish. Those who resisted colonialism were detained, tortured, killed and disappeared. At a time when other parts of Africa were decolonized, in 1973 the Sahrawi organised into a national liberation guerrilla force known as the Polisario Front in opposition to entrenched Spanish rule.

As Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lay dying in late 1975, Spain finally withdrew from the territory. But instead of giving way to a process of decolonization, Madrid allowed neighbouring Morocco and Mauritania to invade. Aspiring to expand its borders to create a “Greater Morocco”, Rabat accompanied the military invasion with a large-scale re-population campaign known as the Green March, with hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians lured to the territory by King Hassan II and settling there with the promise of financial incentives. The invasion was supported militarily by the United States and France, Morocco’s Cold War allies.

Moroccan forces began a campaign of killing and persecution against Sahrawis and thousands of people, including pregnant women and children, fled into the desert by foot, camel and jeeps, leaving family members and homes behind. Morocco bombed the fleeing Sahrawis with napalm and white phosphorous using French-built warplanes. Many more died in the exodus.

Exhausted and terrified, survivors eventually arrived in Southwestern Algeria, where they built and settled in refugee camps in the heart of the Sahara Desert. While the men went to war with Morocco and Mauritania, the women ran the camps and created a society and government in exile known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a founding member of the African Union that has been recognized by over 80 nations.

Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara in 1979. The war between the Polisario and Morocco ended in 1991 with a UN-brokered cease-fire accord and a promise of a “free and fair” referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people.

Current situation and return to war

Since then, Morocco has blocked attempts to organize the population census and the vote, and the UN Security Council has refused to implement its own referendum plan or allow its peacekeeping mission, known as MINURSO, to monitor the human rights situation in the territory —a key demand of Sahrawis and international human rights organizations. Economic and geopolitical interests have kept the world’s major powers from allowing Western Sahara’s people to choose their own future through a democratic vote on self-determination.Today, Western Sahara legally remains a non self-governed territory pending decolonization.

The last resolution approved by the Council on a plan for self-determination called for a five-year autonomy under Sahrawi political leadership followed by a referendum that would allow Sahrawis to choose between remaining under Moroccan rule, becoming an autonomous region or full independence. Known as the Baker Plan (named after former US Secretary of State James Baker, who was then the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Western Sahara), it languishes since 2003, when it was approved. Morocco has refused to allow the plan to go forward and insists that the option of independence is off the table.

As a stalwart Moroccan ally, France has been a major obstacle to a resolution and blocked all attempts for human rights monitoring by the UN peacekeeping mission. Spain has also refused to assume its responsibilities as a former colonial power and has repeatedly sided with Rabat in its proposed plan for autonomy for Western Sahara, which the Polisario rejects. The UN Security Council convenes each year to renew MINURSO’s mandate with little additional debate, a time when Sahrawis usually take to the streets to demand the adoption of human rights monitoring and the celebration of the referendum.

On November 13, 2020, Moroccan forces launched a military intervention in Guerguerat, a buffer zone in the Southwest tip of Western Sahara, targeting nonviolent Sahrawi protesters who had blocked a Morocco-built road in the zone since 20 October. The road, paved by Morocco in 2016 in contravention of the UN-sponsored ceasefire and military accords between Morocco and the Polisario Front, is a strategic route for Morocco to import and export goods, including those plundered from Sahrawis, towards Mauritania and West Africa, and the blockade had resulted in long lines of backed up traffic in both directions.

Reports on the ground indicated that the Moroccan military entered the buffer zone by making a breach in a wall built by Morocco that separates the Polisario-controlled Western Sahara from the territory occupied by Morocco, and that Polisario whisked the civilians to safety. The Polisario responded to the Moroccan intervention stating that it was a serious breach to the 29-year-long ceasefire between the two parties and declaring it to be over.

On November 13, the same day as the end of the 29-year-long ceasefire, a wave of Moroccan military, gendarmerie, police and intelligence forces entered the cities of the occupied territory, imposing an unprecedented siege and an initiating a crackdown against the Sahrawi people that last to this day.

The culture of impunity reigning in occupied Western Sahara has put Sahrawi human rights defenders and journalists at particular risk for gross human rights violations by police and military agents that act without fearing consequences. This sense of impunity increased with the December 10, 2020 proclamation by Donald Trump that recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and put the United States at odds with International Law, including rulings by the International Court of Justice denying Moroccan aspirations over Western Sahara. Trump’s proclamation, a deal that included the resumption of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel as part of the Abraham Accords, was widely condemned by US politicians from both political parties, international legal experts and human rights organizations.