Photo by Daniel Born on Unsplash
Madrid cautiously awaits Joe Biden’s policy towards the Western Sahara, following Donald Trump’s controversial declaration of support for Moroccan sovereignty over Spain’s former territory.
The Western Sahara might be a little-known desert region of North West Africa, but the ongoing crisis over the sovereignty of Spain’s final colony has had far-reaching ramifications for the international community ever since it withdrew from the territory in 1975.
Despite repeated attempts by the United Nations to complete the decolonisation process, many of its indigenous Spanish-speaking inhabitants have spent the last fifty years in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria.
The Spanish government found itself in a tight spot when former US President Donald Trump recognised Moroccan authority over the region during Israeli-Moroccan peace negotiations in December 2020. If Madrid condemns the position, it would risk losing Morocco’s support in the migrant crisis; By agreeing, it would fail to fulfil its obligation to the people of its former colony.
How Joe Biden develops US policy towards the Western Sahara will therefore have critical effects on Spain’s international position.
The Franco regime announced in early 1975 that it would withdraw from the Spanish Sahara, under pressures from The United Nations to “take all necessary measures” to organise a self-determination referendum in the region, and from indigenous activists who had mobilized themselves into an insurgency group called The Polisario Front.
The Spanish government has considered itself exempt from any responsibility for the Western Sahara since signing The Madrid Accords on the 14th November 1975. This agreement stated that there would be a temporary administration governed by Morocco and Mauritania, who both believed they had pre-colonial ties to the land. They were to collaborate with the Djema’a, a group of tribal leaders handpicked to represent the Sahrawi people, who were excluded from the negotiations.
It did not take long for the arrangements of the deal to crumble. The region went through military occupation and partition by Morocco and Mauritania (the latter would later withdraw its claim) before war was declared by The Polisario Front. Tens of thousands of the indigenous population fled and became displaced.
The United Nations achieved a ceasefire in 1991 by promising the Polisario Front a self-determination referendum. Morocco and the Polisario Front have never been able to agree on voter eligibility, leading to a thirty-year stalemate until skirmishes broke out once more in late 2020.
Spain’s present day responsibility
After Spain’s withdrawal, all those years ago, the government declared its intentions for the territory’s future: the safeguarding of Spanish values, the protection of the rights of Sahrawi people, and the observance of the will of the UN.
Some believe the second of these has been neglected: the Polisario Front says that Spain has failed to fulfil its ‘historical, legal, political and moral responsibilities’ with respect to the Western Sahara and should organise the self-determination referendum itself.
The Spanish government claims that the refugee crisis in the Western Sahara is one of the humanitarian contexts to which it gives the greatest financial support. Many programmes it supports, such as Vacaciones en Paz, provide temporary relief to young people who have grown up in refugee camps, but they do not address the problems at the core.
Many Spanish politicians have advocated passionately for the human rights of Sahrawi people - nine were deported in February 2020 by Morocco while in the region for related work. High profile ‘Podemos’ politician, Pablo Iglesias, protested in favour of self-determination in late 2020 following a declaration of war by the Polisario Front after Moroccan troops broke the cease-fire.
It would therefore be unfair to paint Spain’s exit from the Western Sahara as complete abandonment, as there is no country so committed to the humanitarian crisis.
The situation is complicated by the possible legal justification for the Polisario Front’s demand that Spain “assume responsibility” for the Western Sahara, leading to dispute over the question at the highest level. In 2002, Hans Correll, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs at the United Nations at the time, suggested that the Madrid Accords did not transfer Spanish responsibility for decolonising the region.
Legal responsibility or not, the crisis in Spain’s last colony still determines much of its policies towards Morocco, the European Union and the United Nations. If more international powers join the United States in making statements on the sovereignty of the Western Sahara, Spain will face greater pressure to settle on one side.
The main reason why Spain will not condemn the annexation of the territory is that it is reliant on support from Morocco to stem the flow of migrants across the Strait. This humanitarian issue has absorbed the resources of European governments, most exhaustively so in Spain. The Canary Islands saw the arrival of 22,600 migrants in 2020, making Spain the main point of entry to the European Union.
The position of Spain as the “back door” to Europe makes its response to the migrant crisis most crucial to the EU as the first defence against the waves of displaced peoples. Therefore, maintaining strong relations with Morocco is important for Spain’s European relationships, especially when France has been more forth-coming in supporting Morocco.
The approach of the international community towards the crisis since the stalemate of 1991 has been cautious; most agree that voicing support for one side of the conflict would be neglecting UN values around self-determination. Trump’s statement was so controversial because it crossed this long-established boundary; a criticism that has been compounded by the fact that the Western Sahara was irrelevant to the deal at hand and is of no significance to Israel, perhaps even making it reminiscent of the trading of territories by European powers in colonial times.
The disputed morality of President Trump’s statement does not hinder the catalytic role it is playing in the next chapter of the Western Sahara crisis. There is little that Joe Biden can do to calm raised tensions between the Polisario Front and Morocco without the US government being seen again to overstep; whatever he does choose will prove critical for Spain’s policy towards the Western Sahara.
A reversal by Biden would be the best outcome for Madrid, which so far has only reiterated its support for the United Nations. However, the normalisation of relations with Israel is a high priority for Washington and Biden could receive criticism for not fulfilling America’s commitment to the Moroccan side of the bargain.
If Biden defended the declaration, Spain would be in a very precarious position. Spain has a moral debt to the Sahrawi people, and to follow the US stance would be the ultimate abandonment.
As the conflict between the Polisario Front and Morocco once again intensifies, increased economic insecurity is forcing more refugees towards the Canary Islands. While a prompt reversal by Joe Biden would have relieved all European powers, it is Spain who is most anxious to hear the course he will now take.
Spain may have officially shirked its responsibility for the Western Sahara in 1975, yet it cannot escape the consequences of its hasty exit. The saga acts as a warning of the importance of ensuring that full self-determination of former territories is achieved, if only to save oneself from karma further down the line.