Western Sahara Conflict: Analyzing the Illegal Occupation (1973-Present)

Photograph Source: Zarateman – CC0

Stephen Zunes is an international relations scholar, activist, and professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. Zunes, the author of numerous books and articles, including his latest, Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, revised and expanded second edition, 2021) is a widely read scholar and critic of American foreign policy.

In this extensive interview, Zunes breaks down the history (1973-2022) of the political instability in the region. Zunes also traces Presidents George W. Bush (2000-2008) to Joseph Biden (2020-Present) as he highlights US diplomatic history, geography, and people of this historic borderland. He states how the press is “largely non-existent” on the matter.

Zunes talks about how this foreign policy and human rights issue is to play out since the election of Biden as he further unpacks Western Sahara-Morocco-US relations in terms of a thematic bipartisan consensus. He breaks down MINURSO (the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) and provides to the reader the background, proposed goals, and the state of the political situation, or dialogue, at the institutional level.

Zunes and Falcone are interested in historical parallels. They also analyze how and why plans for autonomy have fallen short for Western Sahara and what constitutes the balance between what academics discover and what the public provides, concerning the study of the prospects for peace in the region. The implications of Morocco’s ongoing rejections for peace and progress, and the media’s failure to report on them directly, stem from United States policy.

Daniel Falcone: In 2018 noted academic Damien Kingsbury, edited Western Sahara: International Law, Justice, and Natural Resources. Can you provide for me a brief history of the Western Sahara that’s included in this account?

Stephen Zunes: Western Sahara is a sparsely populated territory about the size of Colorado, located on the Atlantic coast in northwestern Africa, just south of Morocco. In terms of history, dialect, kinship system, and culture, they are a distinct nation. Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Arab tribes, collectively known as Sahrawis and famous for their long history of resistance to outside domination, the territory was occupied by Spain from the late 1800s through the mid-1970s. With Spain holding onto the territory well over a decade after most African countries had achieved their freedom from European colonialism, the nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed independence struggle against Spain in 1973.

This—along with pressure from the United Nations—eventually forced Madrid to promise the people of what was then still known as the Spanish Sahara a referendum on the fate of the territory by the end of 1975. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard irredentist claims by Morocco and Mauritania and ruled in October of 1975 that—despite pledges of fealty to the Moroccan sultan back in the nineteenth century by some tribal leaders bordering the territory, and close ethnic ties between some Sahrawi and Mauritanian tribes—the right of self-determination was paramount. A special visiting mission from the United Nations engaged in an investigation of the situation in the territory that same year and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence under the leadership of the Polisario, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania.

With Morocco threatening war with Spain, distracted by the imminent death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco, they began receiving increasing pressure from the United States, which wanted to back its Moroccan ally, King Hassan II, and did not want to see the leftist Polisario come to power. As a result, Spain reneged on its promise of self-determination and instead agreed in November 1975 to allow for Moroccan administration of the northern two thirds of the Western Sahara and for Mauritanian administration of the southern third.

As Moroccan forces moved into Western Sahara, nearly half of the population fled into neighboring Algeria, where they and their descendants remain in refugee camps to this day. Morocco and Mauritania rejected a series of unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and recognition of the Sahrawis` right of self-determination. The United States and France, meanwhile, despite voting in favor of these resolutions, blocked the United Nations from enforcing them. At the same time, the Polisario—which had been driven from the more heavily populated northern and western parts of the country—declared independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

Thanks in part to the Algerians providing significant amounts of military equipment and economic support, Polisario guerrillas fought well against both occupying armies and defeated Mauritania by 1979, making them agree to turn their third of Western Sahara over to the Polisario. However, the Moroccans then annexed the remaining southern part of the country as well.

The Polisario then focused their armed struggle against Morocco and by 1982 had liberated nearly eighty-five percent of their country. Over the next four years, however, the tide of the war turned in Morocco`s favor thanks to the United States and France dramatically increasing their support for the Moroccan war effort, with US forces providing important training for the Moroccan army in counter-insurgency tactics. In addition, the Americans and French helped Morocco construct a 1200-kilometer “wall,” primarily consisting of two heavily fortified parallel sand berms, which eventually shut off more than three quarters of Western Sahara—including virtually all of the territory`s major towns and natural resources—from the Polisario.

Meanwhile, the Moroccan government, through generous housing subsidies and other benefits, successfully encouraged many tens of thousands of Moroccan settlers—some of whom were from southern Morocco and of ethnic Sahrawi background—to immigrate to Western Sahara. By the early 1990s, these Moroccan settlers outnumbered the remaining indigenous Sahrawis by a ratio of more than two to one.

While rarely able to penetrate Moroccan-controlled territory, the Polisario continued regular assaults against Moroccan occupation forces stationed along the wall until 1991, when the United Nations ordered a cease-fire to be monitored by a United Nations peacekeeping force known as MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara). The agreement included provisions for the return of Sahrawi refugees to Western Sahara followed by a United Nations-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory, which would allow Sahrawis native to Western Sahara to vote either for independence or for integration with Morocco. Neither the repatriation nor the referendum took place, however, due to the Moroccan insistence on stacking the voter rolls with Moroccan settlers and other Moroccan citizens whom it claimed had tribal links to the Western Sahara.

Secretary General Kofi Annan enlisted former US Secretary of State James Baker as his special representative to help resolve the impasse. Morocco, however, continued to ignore repeated demands from the United Nations that it cooperates with the referendum process, and French and American threats of a veto prevented the Security Council from enforcing its mandate.

Daniel Falcone: You wrote in Foreign Policy Journal in December of 2020 about the scarcity of this flashpoint when discussed in western media in stating that:

“It’s not often that Western Sahara makes international headlines, but in mid-November it did: Nov. 14 marked the tragic—if unsurprising—breakup of a tenuous, 29-year cease-fire in Western Sahara between the occupying Moroccan government and pro-independence fighters. The outbreak of violence is concerning not only because it flew in the face of nearly three decades of relative stasis, but also because Western governments’ reflexive response to the resurgent conflict may be to upend—and thereby hamper and delegitimize for perpetuity—more than 75 years of established international legal principles. It is imperative that the global community realize that, in both Western Sahara and Morocco, the path forward lies in adhering to international law, not overriding it.”

How would you describe the media’s coverage of the occupation by the United States press?

Stephen Zunes: Largely non-existent. And, when there is coverage, the Polisario Front and the movement within the occupied territory is often referred to as “secessionist” or “separatist,” a term normally used for nationalist movements within a country’s internationally recognized borders, which Western Sahara is not. Similarly, Western Sahara is often referred to as being a “disputed” territory, as if it were a boundary issue in which both parties have legitimate claims. This comes despite the fact the United Nations still formally recognizes Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory (making it Africa`s last colony) and the UN General Assembly refers to it as an occupied territory. In addition, the SADR has been recognized as an independent country by more than eighty governments and Western Sahara has been a full member state of the African Union (formerly the Organization for African Unity) since 1984.

During the Cold War, the Polisario was inaccurately referred to as “Marxist” and, more recently, there have been articles repeating absurd and often contradictory Moroccans claims of Polisario links to Al-Qaeda, Iran, ISIS, Hezbollah, and other extremists. This comes despite the fact that the Sahrawis, while devout Muslims, practice a relatively liberal interpretation of the faith, women are in prominent positions of leadership, and they have never engaged in terrorism. The mainstream media has always had a hard time accepting the idea that a nationalist movement opposed by the United States—particularly a Muslim and Arab struggle–can be largely democratic, secular, and largely nonviolent.

Daniel Falcone: Obama seemed to ignore Morocco’s illegal occupation. How much did Trump intensify the humanitarian crisis in the region?

Stephen Zunes: To Obama’s credit, he did back away somewhat from the openly pro-Moroccan policies of the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations to a more neutral stance, fought off bipartisan efforts in Congress to effectively legitimize the Moroccan occupation, and pushed Morocco to improve the human rights situation. His intervention likely saved the life of Aminatou Haidar, the Sahrawi woman who has led the nonviolent self-determination struggle within the occupied territory in the face of repeated arrests, imprisonment, and torture. However, he did little to pressure the Moroccan regime to end the occupation and allow for self-determination.

Trump’s policies were initially unclear. His State Department issued some statements which appeared to recognize Moroccan sovereignty, but his National Security Advisor John Bolton—despite his extreme views on many issues—served for a time on a United Nations team focused on Western Sahara and had a strong distaste for the Moroccans and their policies, so for a time he may have influenced Trump to take a more moderate stance.

However, during his final weeks in office in December 2020, Trump shocked the international community by formally recognizing the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara—the first country to do so. This was apparently in return for Morocco recognizing Israel. Since Western Sahara is a full member state of the African Union, Trump essentially endorsed the conquest of one recognized African state by another. It was the prohibition of such territorial conquests enshrined in the UN Charter which the United States insisted had to be upheld by launching the Gulf War in 1991, reversing Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait. Now, the United States is essentially saying that an Arab country invading and annexing its small southern neighbor is OK after all.

Trump cited Morocco’s “autonomy plan” for the territory as “serious, credible, and realistic” and “the ONLY basis for a just and lasting solution” even though it falls far short of the international legal definition of “autonomy” and in effect would simply continue the occupation. Human Rights WatchAmnesty International and other human right groups have documented the Moroccan occupation forces’ widespread suppression of peaceful advocates of independence, raising serious questions about what “autonomy” under the kingdom would actually look like. Freedom House ranks occupied Western Sahara has having the least political freedom of any country in the world save for Syria. The autonomy plan by definition rules out the option of independence which, according to international law, the inhabitants of a non-self-governing territory like Western Sahara must have the right to choose.

Daniel Falcone: Can you talk about how the US two-party system reinforces the Moroccan monarchy and/or neoliberal agenda?

Stephen Zunes: Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have supported Morocco, often depicted as a “moderate” Arab country—as in supporting U.S. foreign policy goals and welcoming a neoliberal model of development. And the Moroccan regime has been rewarded with generous foreign aid, a free trade agreement, and major non-NATO ally status. Both George W. Bush as president and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State repeatedly showered praise on the autocratic Moroccan monarch Mohammed VI, not only ignoring the occupation, but largely dismissing the regime’s human rights abuses, corruption, and the gross inequality and lack of many basic services its policies have inflicted on the Moroccan people.

The Clinton Foundation welcomed the offer by Office Cherifien des Phosphates (OCP), a regime-owned mining company which illegally exploiting phosphate reserves in the occupied Western Sahara, to be the primary donor to the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative conference in Marrakech. A series of resolutions and Dear Colleague letters supported by a broad bipartisan majority of Congress have endorsed Morocco’s proposal for recognition of the annexation of Western Sahara in exchange for the vague and limited “autonomy” plan.

There are a handful of members of Congress who have challenged U.S. support for the occupation and called for genuine self-determination for Western Sahara. Ironically, they not only include prominent liberals like Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), but such conservatives as Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) and Sen. Jim Inhoffe (R-OK.)[1]

Daniel Falcone: Do you see any political solutions or institutional measures that can be taken to improve the situation?

Stephen Zunes: As happened during the 1980s in both South Africa and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, the locus of the Western Sahara freedom struggle has shifted from the military and diplomatic initiatives of an exiled armed movement to a largely unarmed popular resistance from within. Young activists in the occupied territory and even in Sahrawi-populated parts of southern Morocco have confronted Moroccan troops in street demonstrations and other forms of nonviolent action, despite the risk of shootings, mass arrests, and torture.

Sahrawis from different sectors of society have engaged in protests, strikes, cultural celebrations, and other forms of civil resistance focused on such issues as educational policy, human rights, the release of political prisoners, and the right to self-determination. They also raised the cost of occupation for the Moroccan government and increased the visibility of the Sahrawi cause. Indeed, perhaps most significantly, civil resistance helped to build support for the Sahrawi movement among international NGOs, solidarity groups, and even sympathetic Moroccans.

Morocco has been able to persist in flouting its international legal obligations toward Western Sahara largely because France and the United States have continued to arm Moroccan occupation forces and block the enforcement of resolutions in the UN Security Council demanding that Morocco allow for self-determination or even simply allow human rights monitoring in the occupied country. It is unfortunate, therefore, that there has been so little attention given to U.S. support for the Moroccan occupation, even by peace and human rights activists. In Europe, there is a small but growing boycott/divestment/sanctions campaign (BDS) focusing on Western Sahara, but not much activity on this side of the Atlantic, despite the critical role the United States has played over the decades.

Many of the same issues—such as self-determination, human rights, international law, the illegitimacy of colonizing occupied territory, justice for refugees, etc.—which are at stake in regard to the Israeli occupation also apply to the Moroccan occupation, and the Sahrawis deserve our support as much as the Palestinians. Indeed, including Morocco in BDS calls currently targeting just Israel would strengthen solidarity efforts with Palestine, since it would challenge the notion that Israel was being unfairly singled out.

At least as important as the ongoing nonviolent resistance by Sahrawis, is the potential of nonviolent action by the citizens of France, the United States, and other countries that enable Morocco to maintain its occupation. Such campaigns played a major role in forcing Australia, Great Britain, and the United States to end their support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, finally enabling the former Portuguese colony to become free. The only realistic hope to end the occupation of Western Sahara, resolve the conflict, and save the vitally important post-World War II principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter which forbid any country from expanding its territory through military force, may be a similar campaign by global civil society.

Daniel Falcone: Since the election of Biden (2020), can you provide an update on this diplomatic area of concern? 

Stephen Zunes: There was hope that, once in office, President Biden would reverse the recognition of Morocco’s illegal takeover, as he has some of Trump’s other impulsive foreign policy initiatives, but he has refused to do so. U.S. government maps, in contrast to almost any other world maps, show Western Sahara as part of Morocco with no demarcation between the two countries. The State Department’s annual Human Rights Report and other documents have Western Sahara listed as part of Morocco rather than a separate entry as they had previously.

As a result, Biden’s insistence regarding Ukraine that Russia has no right to unilaterally change international boundaries or expand its territory by force—while certainly true—are completely disingenuous, given Washington’s ongoing recognition of Morocco’ illegal irredentism. The administration appears to take the position that while it is wrong for adversarial nations like Russia to violate the UN Charter and other international legal norms forbidding countries from invading and annexing all or parts of other nations, they have no objections for U.S. allies like Morocco to do so. Indeed, when it comes to Ukraine, U.S. support for Morocco’s takeover of Western Sahara is the number one example of rank U.S. hypocrisy. Even Stanford professor Michael McFaul, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Russia and has been one of the most outspoken advocates of strong U.S. support for Ukraine, has acknowledged how U.S. policy towards Western Sahara has hurt U.S. credibility in rallying international support against Russian aggression.

At the same time, it is important to note that the Biden administration has not formally upheld Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s takeover. The administration supported the United Nations in appointing a new special envoy after a two-year absence and move forward with negotiations between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front. In addition, they have yet to open the proposed consulate in Dakhla in the occupied territory, indicating they do not necessarily see the annexation as a fait accompli. In short, they appear to try to have it both ways.

In certain respects, this is not surprising, given that both President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, while not going to the extremes of the Trump administration, have not been particularly supportive of international law. They both supported the invasion of Iraq. Despite their pro-democracy rhetoric, they continued to support autocratic allies. Despite their belated pressure for a cease fire in Israel’s war on Gaza and relief at the departure of Netanyahu, they have effectively ruled out putting any pressure on the Israeli government to make the necessary compromises for peace. Indeed, there is no indication that the administration will reverse Trump’s recognition of Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights, either.

It appears that the bulk of career State Department officials familiar with the region strongly opposed Trump’s decision. A relatively small but bipartisan group of lawmakers concerned about the issue have weighed in against it. The United States is virtually alone in the international community in having formally recognized Morocco’s illegal takeover and there may be some quiet pressure from some U.S. allies as well. In the other direction, however, there are pro-Moroccan elements in the Pentagon and in Congress, as well as pro-Israel groupings that fear that U.S. rescinding its recognition of Morocco’s annexation would therefore lead Morocco to rescind its recognition of Israel, which appears to have been the basis of last December’s deal.

Daniel Falcone: Can you go further into the proposed political solutions to this conflict and evaluate the prospects for improvement as well as share your thoughts on how to advance self-determination in this instance? Are there any international parallels (socially, economically, politically) to this historic borderland?

Stephen Zunes: As a non-self-governing territory, as recognized by the United Nations, the people of Western Sahara have the right to self-determination, which includes the option of independence. Most observers believe that is indeed what most of the indigenous population–residents of the territory (not including Moroccan settlers), plus refugees–would choose. This is presumably why Morocco has for decades refused to allow for a referendum as mandated by the UN. Though there are a number of nations that are recognized as part of other countries that many of us believe morally have a right to self-determination (such as Kurdistan, Tibet, and West Papua) and parts of some countries that are under foreign occupation (including Ukraine and Cyprus), only Western Sahara and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip constitute entire countries under foreign occupation denied the right of self-determination.

Perhaps the closest analogy would be the former Indonesian occupation of East Timor, which—like Western Sahara—was a case of late decolonization interrupted by the invasion of a much larger neighbor. Like Western Sahara, the armed struggle was hopeless, the nonviolent struggle was ruthlessly suppressed, and the diplomatic route was blocked by great powers like the United States supporting the occupier and blocking the United Nations from enforcing its resolutions. It was only a campaign by global civil society that effectively shamed Indonesia’s Western supporters into pressing them to allow for a referendum on self-determination that led to East Timor’s freedom. This may be the best hope for Western Sahara as well.

Daniel Falcone: What can be said currently of MINURSO (the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara)? Can you share the background, proposed goals, and the state of the political situation or dialogue at the institutional level? 

Stephen Zunes: MINURSO has been unable to fulfill its mission to supervise the referendum because Morocco refuses to allow for a referendum and the United States and France are blocking the UN Security Council from enforcing its mandate. They have also prevented MINURSO from even monitoring the human rights situation like virtually all the other UN peacekeeping missions in recent decades have done. Morocco also illegally expelled most of the civilian MINURSO staff in 2016, again with France and the United States preventing the UN from acting. Even their role of monitoring the ceasefire is no longer pertinent since, in response to a series of Moroccan violations, the Polisario resumed the armed struggle in November 2020. At least the annual renewal of MINURSO’s mandate sends the message that, despite the U.S. recognition of Morocco’s illegal annexation, the international community is still engaged on the question of Western Sahara.


Falcone, Daniel. “What Can We Expect from Trump on Morocco’s Occupation of Western Sahara?” Truthout. July 7, 2018.

Feffer, John and Zunes Stephen. Self-Determination Conflict Profile: Western Sahara. Foreign Policy In Focus FPIF. United States, 2007. Web Archive. https://www.loc.gov/item/lcwaN0011279/.

Kingsbury, Damien. Western Sahara: International Law, Justice and Natural Resources. Edited by Kingsbury, Damien, Routledge, London, England, 2016.

UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara, 19 April 2002, S/2002/467, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3cc91bd8a.html [accessed 20 August 2021]

United States Department of State, 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Western Sahara, 3 March 2017, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/58ec89a2c.html [accessed 1 July 2021]

Zunes, Stephen. “The East Timor Model Offers a Way out for Western Sahara and Morocco:

Western Sahara’s Fate Lies in the Hands of the U.N. Security Council.” Foreign Policy (2020).

Zunes, Stephen “Trump’s deal on Morocco’s Western Sahara annexation risks more global conflict,” Washington Post, December 15, 2020 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/12/15/trump-morocco-israel-western-sahara-annexation/