The conflict over Western Sahara between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front, a rebel movement striving for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco, has been on the agenda of the UN Security Council since 1991. However, despite recent positive developments toward peace, Western Sahara is likely to remain on the UN's unfinished business list for years to come.

The settlement plan that came into effect that year envisaged a referendum on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara with the choice of either integration with Morocco or independence. This "win or lose" approach is responsible for the "take no prisoners," zero-sum attitude adopted by both sides ever since. It has caused both parties to miss opportunities for a solution that would have allowed each to get some of what it wanted while allowing the other to save face. It has also paralyzed the UN from taking decisive action that could have resolved the conflict.

There has recently been some excitement about the autonomy proposal given by Morocco to the Secretary General. (The Polisario Front gave its own counter-proposal to the Secretary General the day before Morocco did so.) The resolution adopted by the Security Council on April 30, 2007 calling on the two parties to enter into negotiations in good faith and without preconditions has also engendered some hope. However, in spite of these developments, Western Sahara is likely to remain on the UN's unfinished business list for years to come. Both parties consider their respective proposals as avenues to bring about the mutually acceptable political solution that the Security Council has been calling for since April 2004. This would be a promising start if the two proposals were not irreconcilable and if each side did not consider the other side's position a non-starter.

Arriving at the Current Stalemate
Map of Western Sahara.
Map of Western Sahara. (Courtesy: University of Texas Libraries)

In March 1997, former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, was asked by then Secretary General Kofi Annan to assist the parties in finding a solution to their conflict after they had completely blocked implementation of the settlement plan. Baker worked on this conflict for seven years, first breaking the impasse in the implementation of the settlement plan through the Houston Agreements and then, when progress toward that goal collapsed, working to devise a mutually acceptable political solution. In February 2002, Baker and Secretary General Annan informed the Security Council that such a solution would not be possible because both sides had rejected the two solutions suggested to them by Baker: Polisario would not accept the Draft Framework Agreement that Morocco had accepted and Morocco would not even discuss a possible division of the territory that Polisario and Algeria favored.

Based on that, the Secretary General and Baker proposed to the Security Council four options to resolve the conflict, none of which would require the concurrence of the parties. However, disagreements among members of the Security Council and members' unwillingness to ask the parties to accept a non-consensual option led to the rejection of that proposal. In the end, Baker was asked to produce another political solution that would provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.

Baker's renewed efforts resulted in the Peace Plan for Self-determination of the People of Western Sahara, which Baker delivered to the two parties as well as to Algeria and Mauritania in January 2003. Despite both parties' strong reservations toward several aspects of the Peace Plan, Polisario, with Algeria's encouragement, overcame its doubts and in July 2003 accepted the document. By then, however, Morocco's dislike of several key provisions of the Peace Plan—the most significant being a referendum with independence as one of the choices—was quite evident.

Despite strong lobbying by Morocco and France, its main supporter in the Security Council, the Council supported by consensus the Peace Plan through resolution 1495 of July 2003 and asked the parties to work toward its implementation. Morocco attempted to present its own counter-proposal, the "Draft Autonomy Status," which in Morocco's view would "enable the Saharan populations to manage their own affairs freely, democratically, and in full respect of the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Morocco, its territorial integrity and its national unity." Baker tried discreetly to help Morocco adjust its proposal so that he could introduce it as a basis for discussion. But he did not succeed, and in April 2004, Morocco rejected the Peace Plan.

Security Council resolution 1541, adopted by the Council in April 2004, was a regression from the Council's earlier unanimous support of the Baker Peace Plan. The Council reverted to pre-1495 language and talked about a mutually acceptable political solution, which it strongly supported, although it had been told in February 2002 that such a solution could not be possible.

Was the Council aware of the implications of such language for the resolution of the conflict? France, with its unfailing support of Morocco; Spain, with a new government that had made improvement of relations with Morocco a priority; and the United States, which had started considering Morocco essential in its counterterrorism efforts, definitely were. For these countries, bilateral relations with Morocco took precedence over decisive action to resolve the conflict. The majority of the other members expressed hope that Baker would continue working with the parties toward finding a solution.

Not surprisingly, on June 1, 2004, Baker informed the Secretary General that he wished to resign from his duties as his personal envoy, as he had done all he could to resolve the conflict. Baker pointed out in his letter that in the final analysis, only the parties themselves could exercise the political will necessary to reach an agreed solution. He added that the United Nations would not solve the problem of Western Sahara without requiring one or both parties to do something they would not voluntarily agree to do.

In response to the impasse created by Baker's resignation, the Secretary General wrote to the Council and to the parties announcing that he was requesting his Special Representative, Alvaro de Soto, to work with the parties in pursuit of a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution that would provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. From that point onward, the Secretary General and his representatives never mentioned in any of his subsequent reports the Baker Peace Plan as a solution to the conflict, despite the fact that it was the last concrete offer by the UN to have received the unanimous support of the Security Council.

The easy abandonment of the Baker Peace Plan by the Secretary General and his senior staff, following its weakened support by the Security Council, made Polisario and its supporters suspect that senior UN leadership was once again capitulating to Moroccan pressure. Hurrying to appoint a replacement to Baker was unlikely to get the parties' attention. (When someone of Baker's stature resigns because the parties will not assume their own responsibilities, the Secretary General should pressure them rather than act as if it is business as usual.) However, the divisive nature of the conflict in Western Sahara has also permeated the Secretariat. There have been those who feel that if the UN wants to resolve the conflict, it needs to push the parties to take some hard decisions and assume their responsibilities. There are others who feel that the UN can go on pointing to the maintenance of the ceasefire as its major achievement, even if such a position makes the search for a solution even more elusive.

The current parlance within the Secretariat is "negotiations without preconditions." After Morocco rejected the Baker Peace Plan and neither the Secretary General nor the Security Council attempted serious soul-searching as to what next, personal envoy Peter van Walsum, who was appointed in August 2005 and who continues in this capacity, rightly came to the conclusion that proposing another plan would be pointless given the parties' entrenched positions. He concluded that there were two possibilities: either continuation of the current impasse, which he called "a recipe for violence," or negotiations without preconditions. This would mean that Morocco would not require Polisario to recognize Morocco's sovereignty over the territory before discussing autonomy; and that Polisario would not demand discussion of a referendum with independence as one of the options before the negotiations.

Not much has changed since April 2004 in the way the Secretariat, the Security Council, and most individual states have been handling the conflict. The Security Council has adopted resolution after resolution extending by six months each time the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. It has never placed any demands on the parties to do anything and merely reiterated in the introductory section of the resolutions its call to them to continue to cooperate with the UN toward ending the current impasse.

The positions of the parties, if anything, have become even more entrenched. There were reports after Baker's resignation that Spain proposed the creation of a "quartet" on Western Sahara, with Algeria, Morocco, France, and Spain as members. It was reported in the press that Algeria rejected that notion. Then Spain and France discussed moving the process away from the Baker Peace Plan. Naturally, these events did not inspire confidence on the side of Polisario and Algeria.

Autonomy Proposal by Morocco - Too Little, Too Late

While the Security Council has not called on Morocco to actually present an autonomy plan for Western Sahara in any of its resolutions, , Morocco itself has been promising to do so since the time of Baker's resignation. Member states, both within the Security Council and without, have been calling on Morocco to submit such a proposal. But it is not clear that those who have been requesting such a proposal have given much thought to the implications of Morocco doing so.

Morocco has consistently stated that in presenting an autonomy proposal for "its southern provinces," it will do so within the framework of the Kingdom's sovereignty, national unity, and territorial integrity. In its recently divulged "initiative for negotiating an autonomy statute for the Sahara region," Morocco states that it expects the Secretary General and his personal envoy to "exert efforts to convince the other parties to seize the chance for peace brought by this initiative." The implication is that if the Security Council and the Secretary General accepted this invitation from Morocco, they would be in effect recognizing Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara. By its passage of resolution 1754 adopted on April 30, 2007, which called on the parties to negotiate under the Secretary General, the Council showed it is not quite prepared to recognize Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara, despite characterizing the Moroccan proposal as serious and credible.

Morocco's current autonomy proposal, while not much different in substance to what was given to Baker in December 2003, follows a different strategy. Claiming to be open to negotiations, it does not go into the details of the previous autonomy project. Instead, it defines the outline and principles governing autonomy, allowing for the proposal "to be enriched by the other parties during the negotiations phase." For example, unlike the proposal given to Baker in 2003, which clearly defined the electorate body for the regional legislative assembly, the current proposal leaves this issue to be negotiated. Given the history of the conflict on the very subject of defining the electorate in Western Sahara, the prospects of reaching agreement through negotiations between the two sides, as the Moroccan proposal suggests, do not appear hopeful. The conflict has been stuck since 1991 precisely because the two parties cannot agree on the definition of the electorate and the UN has been incapable of convincing them to agree.

The proposal is ambiguous regarding the role of the head of the local government and that of the representative of the [Moroccan] state. While the 2003 proposal foresaw two different roles ,with the head of the local government subordinate to the state representative, it is unclear whether the new proposal recommends one office holder or two. In its 2003 proposal, Morocco made a vague reference to the UN involvement in the repatriation of the Polisario leadership and to the returning Saharan refugees from Tindouf and other places, although Morocco would provide the guarantees for their safe return. Its current proposal makes no mention of any UN role during the whole operation. The role envisaged for the Secretary General and his personal envoy is to work toward persuading "the other parties" to accept the Moroccan autonomy offer.

Direct Negotiations Between the Parties?

The day before Morocco was supposed to deliver its autonomy proposal to the Secretary General, Polisario presented its own peace proposal, thereby managing, as it has done repeatedly in recent years, to turn the tables on Morocco.

Both sides in their proposals to the Secretary General have indicated their willingness to negotiate. In addition, the Secretary General and his current personal envoy have been calling for "negotiations without preconditions" to break the current impasse. However, it hardly seems that everybody is talking about the same thing.

Although Polisario does not say anything new in its proposal, it nevertheless presents a coherent and compelling case for reaching a solution through the Baker Peace Plan. It recommends that its representatives sit down with those of Morocco and negotiate the holding of a referendum on self-determination (with independence as one of the options) and the granting of post-referendum guarantees to Morocco and to Moroccan residents in Western Sahara. It proposes to hold these negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations and with the approval and support of the Security Council.

Morocco proposes to negotiate with the "other parties" without defining who they might be. It is clear, however, that Algeria is foremost in Morocco's mind, with Polisario a distant second. Morocco sees the conflict over Western Sahara as one between Morocco and Algeria and considers Polisario to be secessionists protected by Algeria. Morocco insists that its proposal is in the context of its sovereignty over the territory and its territorial integrity.

The Secretary General has proposed that the two sides sit down and discuss a possible solution to the conflict that would allow for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara without requiring Polisario to accept Morocco's sovereignty over the region. Polisario, on the other hand, is expected to stop equating self-determination with independence, as it has done over the years, but be open to see how it can achieve the former without necessarily reaching the latter. Other than this vague formulation, it is not clear what kind of proposals the Secretary General will put to the parties for negotiations.

Under Baker, the parties met face-to-face seven times; several times in 1997 to negotiate certain aspects of the settlement plan which culminated in the Houston Agreements, and on other occasions in the summer of 2000, after the implementation of the settlement plan became deadlocked, to try to find a mutually acceptable political solution. The sessions were difficult and painful at times and the results did not bring about a long-term, sustainable solution. However, there was little doubt in the mind of anybody familiar with the conflict that one or both parties would not adhere to the agreements and that sooner or later, progress toward implementation of the settlement plan would collapse.

The direct talks of 2000 had even less success. The parties were unwilling to submit any proposals to resolve their differences, and any talk by Baker about a political solution outside the plan was turned down by Polisario. When Morocco finally made its offer in September 2000, Polisario rejected it outright.

Knowledge of the parties' history and attitudes as well as a dispassionate look at their current proposals do not give cause for optimism. Despite the political reality of Morocco's presence in the territory for 30 years, the fact that the autonomy proposal comes from Morocco, preconditioning acceptance of Morocco's sovereignty over the territory makes it impossible forPolisario to accept as basis for negotiations. For this reason, neither the Secretary General nor the Security Council could have suggested that it do so, because this would have constituted recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over the territory.

Clearly, the Security Council was mindful of that and in its resolution 1754 of April 30, 2007, it called "upon the parties to enter into negotiations without preconditions in good faith, taking into account the developments of the last months, with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara." Quite predictably, as it has done over the years, the Council threw the ball back in the court of the Secretary General and his personal envoy.

Given that the personal envoy had been suggesting direct negotiations without preconditions since January 2006, only to be ignored by the Council in its previous resolutions, it is worth asking why this proposal was suddenly taken up. There are several possibilities. It could be that Morocco's supporters in the Security Council were waiting for Morocco to make its autonomy proposal, hoping that they could persuade Polisario and its supporters to accept it. Morocco's autonomy proposal does not leave room for that. Alternatively, it could be that Polisario's supporters in the Council refused to go along with the Moroccan proposal, which would all but admit that the Security Council recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. A third possibility is that the Security Council followed its usual modus operandi of pushing the problem at the Secretary General, expecting him to deal with it.

Considering the parties' dismal history of direct negotiations and their incompatible proposals, what are the chances for the new negotiations to bring about some results? More than likely, the current impasse will go on for some more years. Given the absence of will by members of the Security Council to take a clear and determined position and the general preference for "make believe" action, this is quite probable. The UN has had a reasonable plan on the table that met all the specifications laid out by the Security Council to Baker when he was asked in July 2002 to pursue his efforts to find a political solution. It has expressed its readiness to consider any approach that would allow for self-determination. After initially supporting the Baker Peace Plan, the Council changed its position once one of the parties raised objections. Instead of taking a firm position, it vacillated. The Secretary General followed suit.

The current proposal by the Secretary General, at odds with the proposals of either side, holds little promise to resolve the conflict. The UN has several more years of stalemate ahead of it, which seems to be the fate of the Western Sahara conflict.



This USIPeace Briefing was written by Anna Theofilopoulou, a former United Nations official who covered Western Sahara and North Africa in the Department of Political Affairs from 1994 to 2006. Theofilopoulou worked closely with former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, throughout his appointment as personal envoy of the Secretary General on Western Sahara from March 1997 until his resignation in June 2004. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.


The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.

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