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The Western Sahara Dispute- UPSC Current Affairs

Jun 17, 2022

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Why in the News?

Probable Question

Key Points


International Court of Justice Verdict over Dispute

UN Brokered Deal

the western sahara dispute

Why in the News?

Recently, the Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced suspension of its 20-year-old treaty of “friendship, good neighbourliness, and co-operation" with Spain. 

  •  This is being seen as an intensification of Algeria’s anger over Spain’s recent foreign policy shift on the disputed Western Sahara region.

Image Source: The Hindu

Probable Question

India and Africa have been historically connected during different eras through culture, economics, and politics. Comment

Key Points


  • Spain was the former colonial power in Western Sahara until the region was annexed by Morocco in 1975.
  • Since then, it has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Saharawi people, led by the Polisario Front.
  • In March 2022, Spain endorsed a plan by Morocco which would give limited autonomy to Western Sahara, but still keep it under Moroccan rule. 
  • Before the recent shift, Spain had supported the United Nation’s mandate to hold a referendum in Western Sahara to allow self-determination.
  • In the wake of this dispute, Algeria had cut diplomatic ties with Morocco in 2021 and now set for suspension of its 20-year-old treaty of “friendship, good neighbourliness, and co-operation" with Spain. 

Image Source: The Hindu

Polisario Front: 

The Polisario Front is a politico-military group founded in 1973 with the help of Libya and Algeria, which have had historic ties with the indigenous population of Western Sahara.

It called for self-determination and enjoy the backing of Algeria.

The Polisario Front— also called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro— waged a successful guerrilla war against the Spanish colonialists, and Spain withdrew from the region in 1975. 

On February 27, 1976, a day before Spain formally exited the province, the Polisario Front declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in Western Sahara. While SADR does not have Western recognition, it has been recognised by 70 countries and is a member of the African Union.

Later, Both Morocco and Mauritania moved troops to Western Sahara to assert their claims. 

Mauritania signed a peace treaty with Polisario in 1979, consequently withdrawing from the region.

A Brief Timeline: The Western Dispute
1884- Spain colonised Western Sahara, an area formerly populated by Berber tribes.
1934 - Becomes a Spanish province known as Spanish Sahara.
1957 - Newly-independent Morocco lays centuries-old claim to Western Sahara.
1965 - The UN calls for the decolonisation of Western Sahara.1973 - Polisario Front, the indigenous Saharawi independence movement, is founded.
1975 - Morocco's King Hassan defies a Hague ruling in favour of Saharawi rights to self-determination and stages the "Green March" of 350,000 Moroccans into Western Sahara. Spain withdraws.

1975-91 - Polisario Front fights a 16-year-long guerrilla war against Moroccan forces, which ends with UN-brokered cease-fire.

1991-2000s - UN brokered cease-fire ends war but Morocco has yet to hold an agreed referendum on independence. Numerous UN-sponsored talks have failed to yield a breakthrough.

International Court of Justice Verdict over Dispute

  • In 1975, the UN General Assembly asked the International Court of Justice (ICC) at the Hague to decide whether Morocco and Mauritania’s claims over Western Sahara were authentic. 
  • ICC ruled that there was no evidence of “any ties of territorial sovereignty” between Western Sahara and either Morocco or Mauritania while stating that there were “indications” that some tribes in the territory were loyal to the Moroccan Sultan. 
  • The Court reaffirmed the UNGA 1541 resolution that called for the region’s decolonisation and complete compliance with the principle of self-determination.

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UN Brokered Deal

  • While the UN has been unsuccessful in its calls to hold a referendum since the ceasefire, it finally succeeded in bringing both Morocco and Polisario to the negotiating table in 2007. 
  • Morocco proposed a plan to grant Western Sahara limited autonomy under which the Sahrawis would run their government but under Moroccan sovereignty. 
  • Besides this, under the terms of the plan, Rabat would continue to control the phosphate reserves and fisheries, defence, and foreign affairs. 
  • Polisario rejected these plans and has continued to call for independence. Algeria has also opposed the Moroccan proposal.
About Western Sahara Region

Western Sahara is a vast, sparsely populated desert region in Northwest Africa, stretching across 2.5 lakh sq. km. 

It is bordered by Morocco in the North, Algeria in a small north-eastern patch, and Mauritania in the East and South. 

It also has a long coast with the Atlantic Ocean in the West and Northwest. 

It is a region rich in phosphates and other minerals and has a lucrative fishing industry on its Atlantic coast.

News Source: The Hindu

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