The U.S. recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara. Here’s what that means

A demonstration in Malaga, Spain, last month in support of Sahrawi rights in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony. (Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)
A demonstration in Malaga, Spain, last month in support of Sahrawi rights in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony. (Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)

On Dec. 10, President Trump upended 45 years of U.S. policy by stating that the United States recognizes Morocco’s claim over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Trump also announced that Morocco will normalize its relations with Israel, a deal that analysts describe as a quid pro quo. Israel reportedly lobbied the U.S. government over the past year to recognize Morocco’s claim.

Trump’s decision is unlikely to shift the long-standing political impasse between Morocco and the Western Saharan independence movement, but it may make it more difficult for the United Nations to help resolve a conflict that has recently seen the collapse of a 29-year-old cease-fire.

Unilateral U.S. recognition of Morocco’s contested claim also might invite counter-meddling from other powers, such as Russia, a concern the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), raised in his criticism of the administration’s move.

How did this conflict start?

Since Morocco’s King Hassan II invaded and occupied Western Sahara in 1975, successive U.S. administrations have refused to recognize Morocco’s assertion of historical rights to the former Spanish colony. Presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama appreciated the extent to which the stability of the close U.S. ally Morocco was tied to Western Sahara. But they also recognized that any effort to impose a solution on the Sahrawi people would not resolve the conflict.

Official U.S. recognition also will do little to change international law. Western Sahara’s status is one of the most complicated and contested in the world. The territory — a Colorado-size piece of northwestern Africa that Madrid carved out for itself in 1885 — has a native population of no more than half a million ethnic Sahrawis, 170,000 of whom have lived as refugees in Algeria since 1976.

The territory is “Africa’s last colony”

Western Sahara has the distinction of being the largest U.N.-recognized “non-self-governing territory.” When Spain agreed to cede control of its desert colony to Morocco and Mauritania in November 1975 under a Moroccan threat of military invasion of Western Sahara, Madrid hoped to avoid a war with Morocco that would interfere with Spain’s transition to democracy. But a 2002 opinion of the U.N. Office of Legal Affairs made clear that colonizing powers cannot simply hand the keys to another country. Portugal tried to do the same in East Timor, also in 1975, only to resume its legal responsibilities in the 1990s once its legal debt to its former colony had been recognized.

Nonetheless, Morocco found itself locked in a 1976-1991 armed struggle against the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, a political-military organization founded to fight Spanish colonialism. In the context of the Cold War, the United States tried to apply generous military aid to help bolster the Moroccan monarchy but also to leverage a political solution to the conflict.

Though the fighting stopped in 1991, efforts by the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to organize a plebiscite on self-determination were suspended in 2000 when the U.N. secretary general said the Security Council would not force Morocco to accept a vote on independence. In the two decades since, successive U.N. envoys, including James Baker when he was U.S. secretary of state, have not been able to bridge the gap between Morocco’s claim of sovereignty and the territory’s independence claims.

To whom does Western Sahara belong?

In 1975, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a landmark ruling, finding no convincing historical evidence that Western Sahara belonged to anyone but the indigenous Sahrawi inhabitants. Recent opinions of the European Court of Justice have reinforced that so long as Western Sahara is denied its right to self-determination, it is a non-self-governing territory. The African Union, meanwhile, recognizes both Morocco and Western Sahara as full member states.

The 2002 U.N. opinion also makes clear that Morocco does not have the status of being Western Sahara’s de facto administering power, as such a status does not exist under international law. For many legal scholars, the African Union, the European Union and the U.N. General Assembly, Morocco’s presence in the territory is an illegal occupation. As such, the Moroccan government’s policies of encouraging thousands of Moroccans to settle there and tapping into the territory’s rich fisheries and phosphate deposits violate international humanitarian law.

Much like U.S. recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, Trump’s proclamation will do nothing to change Western Sahara’s international status. And like Israel’s settlement of the West Bank, Morocco has accelerated its infrastructural and demographic annexation of Western Sahara so as to make integration seem the only possible solution.

What happens next?

Eyes will now turn to France, Morocco’s strongest ally. It’s not clear if French President Emmanuel Macron, facing his own domestic battles over a security bill, will go out on a limb for Trump and Morocco. Doing so could risk French relations with Algeria, Morocco’s neighbor and the strongest supporter of Western Saharan independence.

What President-elect Joe Biden might do in January also is unclear. Leaving Trump’s proclamation untouched could further embolden Morocco to continue stalling all diplomatic initiatives that involve self-determination plans for Western Sahara. At the same time, the entanglement of Trump’s proclamation with Moroccan recognition of Israel — hot on the heels of formal recognition of Israel by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan — means that it will be difficult for any U.S. administration to backtrack, given the strong bipartisan support in Washington for the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations.

And then there’s Russia, which has grown increasingly vocal in its opposition to U.S. leadership on the Security Council when it comes to Western Sahara, repeatedly abstaining in votes on an issue that had been managed by consensus for nearly three decades. But even if Moscow sits back and does not assume a more active role in the conflict, Trump’s unilateral decision to take sides on the issue creates a leadership vacuum on the question of Western Sahara in the Security Council that no other permanent member could credibly fill. For Western Sahara, the Trump policy announcement could not have come at a worse moment: After a nearly three-decade hiatus, Morocco and Polisario resumed military operations against each other in mid-November.

Jacob Mundy (@mundyprof) is an associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University. An updated version of his co-authored book (with Stephen Zunes), Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution, will be published by Syracuse University Press in a revised paperback edition in 2021.

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