Located on the north-west coast of Africa and bordered by Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria, Western Sahara and its territorial jurisdiction has been disputed for decades. This dispute became open conflict in 1975 when Spain began the process of relinquishing its authority over the region to the joint administrative control of Morocco and Mauritania. Asserting its own claims of authority, the Moroccan government organized a mass entry of Moroccan civilians and troops into the region. Known as the “Green March,” the entry of the Moroccan Royal Army into Western Sahara led more than 150,000 local Saharans, called the Sahrawi, to flee to Western Algeria. Soon thereafter, war erupted between three major belligerents: Morocco, Mauritania, and the POLISARIO Front, a Sahrawi nationalist movement seeking independence for the territory. Facing escalating warfare and continued losses, Mauritania withdrew from the region in 1979. On-and-off fighting between Morocco and the POLISARIO Front, however, would continue for years to come.
A UN-brokered ceasefire ended the war in 1991. Morocco now governs much of the territory as a province, while the exiled POLISARIO Front, based in Algeria, controls the Eastern portion of Western Sahara, designated the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). On April 29, 1991, the Security Council established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). At this time both sides agreed to allow MINURSO to monitor the ceasefire until a referendum on self-determination could take place.
The ceasefire established in 1991 remains in place, but negotiations between the two sides have repeatedly deadlocked, and a referendum has yet to occur. While Morocco has presented a plan to give Western Sahara autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, the POLISARIO Front maintains that a referendum on self-determination should include full independence as an option.
In 2007, talks on a political solution reignited, with UN sponsored discussions between Western Sahara and Morocco taking place in New York. They were the first such talks in over seven years, paving the way for further discussions to take place in 2008 and 2010. Though no solution was found, the discussions stand as evidence of the UN’s impact in helping to prevent a resumption of conflict by keeping the prospect of peaceful negotiations between the two parties alive. Since 2009, former U.S. Ambassador to Algeria and Syria Christopher Ross has served as the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara. In this capacity, he has sought to reenergize peace negotiations between the two sides, and recently intensified visits to the region and Europe to facilitate such talks. These efforts, while critical to the future of the region, have yet to bear fruit.
In March 2016, the Moroccan government expelled more than 70 civilian staff from MINURSO in protest against UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s use of the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara. The government also threatened to recall Moroccan nationals from other UN peacekeeping missions. The Security Council voted in April to restore the mission to its previous strength, but by late July 2016, MINURSO had not yet returned to full functionality.