The area widely referred to as Western Sahara is classed by the United Nations as a non-governing territory. Western Sahara lies on the Atlantic coast of North West Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the northeast and Mauritania to the south and southeast. Whilst the borders with Mauritania and Algeria are defined and accepted, the border with Morocco is disputed. The territory was a colony of Spain from 1884 to 1975, when it was informally referred to as "Spanish Sahara". The end of Spanish colonisation (1884 to 1975) was marked by the illegal partition of the territory by the Spanish dictator, Franco, Morocco and Mauritania. This partition was in contravention to previous Spanish commitments to comply with defined UN decolonisation procedures, particularly with respect to the organisation of a referendum of self-determination.

The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was proclaimed by the indigenous people of the territory of Western Sahara on 27th of February 1976, on final withdrawal of the Spanish colonial government and military. Since 1976 Morocco has illegally occupied Western Sahara, in contravention of the UN decolonisation procedure and has repeatedly frustrated the rights of the Saharawi people to self-determination.

The SADR is a full member of the African Union and is recognised internationally by over 70 countries.

The Saharawi people and their ancestors have lived and ruled Western Sahara since at least the first century BC. The Saharawi people are ethnically, culturally and linguistically distinct from the Moroccans.

Western Sahara has never been a part of the Kingdom of Morocco nor have the Saharawi people ever acknowledged Moroccan sovereignty.

The end of Spanish colonisation (1884 to 1975) was marked by the illegal partition of the territory by the Dictator Franco, Morocco and Mauritania. This partition was in contravention to previous Spanish commitments to comply with UN Decolonisation procedures, particularly the organisation of a referendum of self-determination. See the UN Legal Opinion:

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) examined Moroccan and Mauritanian claims concerning sovereignty over the Territory in 1975 and concluded 'that the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the Territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity'. The court did not find legal ties of such a nature as might affect the decolonisation of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory. Despite the ICJ opinion, Morocco and Mauritania immediately moved to occupy Western Sahara illegally. With Moroccan government coercion and financial incentives over 300,000 Moroccans were organised, under protection of the Moroccan Armed Forces, to participate in the so-called "Green March" to invade and settle Western Sahara. The UN Security Council adopted resolution 375 (in 1975) by which it requested the immediate withdrawal of the Green March participants from the Territory.

The invasion and occupation of Western Sahara, and Moroccan military air strikes against Saharawi settlements, led to a mass exodus of 165,000 Saharawi citizens over the eastern border of the Territory. The indiscriminate bombardments of the civilian population involved the use of both napalm and cluster bombs. Saharawi refugees settled in tented camps close to the border near the Algerian town of Tindouf where they have been living in dire conditions since 1975.

In 1979 Mauritania signed a formal treaty with Polisario agreeing to withdraw all territorial claims to Western Sahara and formally recognised the SADR as the legitimate sovereign authority of Western Sahara.

Moroccan forces immediately moved to occupy the territory vacated by Mauritanian forces. That fait accompli was vigorously condemned by the UN General Assembly resolutions 3437(1979) and 3519 (1980).

In the early 1980's Morocco, unable to win the war militarily, undertook the construction of a 2,200 km defensive wall (the berm) to protect its demoralised forces and to enclose the occupied territory with a view of initiating the exploitation of the Territory's mineral resources. This rock and sand installation stands approximately 3 meters high, has regularly spaced garrisons, has the foreground covered with trenches and barbed wire and is extensively defended with an estimated 3 million landmines and more than 120,000 soldiers.

In 1988 both parties to the conflict agreed to a UN and OAU Settlement Plan. The UN Security Council adopted the Plan in resolutions 658 (690) and 690 (1991), by which it mandated the establishment of the UN Mission for a referendum on the Western Sahara (MINURSO). This eventually led to the declaration of a cease-fire in 1991 with the aim of holding a referendum in February 1992 to determine the wishes of the Saharawi people.

Repeated Moroccan interference and objections to the work of the UN in establishing an electoral roll, has prevented this referendum being held. Several UN diplomats resigned during the initial UN electoral attempts citing unacceptable Moroccan interference in all aspects of the UN work.

In September 1997, under the auspices of former US Secretary of State, James Baker III, Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary General, the two parties signed the Houston Agreements, which constituted a major breakthrough.

MINURSO finally accomplished the identification process and published in February 2000, the lists of those eligible to vote in the referendum. This important progress, achieved by the UN at the cost of 6 years of efforts and more than 500 million US Dollars, resolved the principal problem that had been stalling the Peace Process.

Once again Morocco looked for ways to obstruct the process. It introduced 130,000 fake appeals on behalf of Moroccans who were already rejected by the UN Identification Commission to challenge the list of voters published by MINURSO.
In 2003 Baker put forward a new proposal called "Peace Plan for the self-determination of the people Western Sahara", contained in report S/2003/565 of 23rd May 2003.

These actions have demonstrated that Morocco's acceptance of the Settlement Plan was a tactical move, with the aim of ending the hostilities through a cease fire, but with no intention to resolve the conflict.

The Peace Plan establishes a transition period of 5 years, at the end of which the UN would hold a self-determination referendum for the Saharawi people.

The Polisario Front has responded favourably to Baker's proposal. Morocco, as it already did with the Settlement Plan of 1990-91, refuses to co-operate with the UN, and continues having the untenable position of opposing all solutions to the conflict that are based on the principle of self-determination.

The political situation remains as stark as the situation the Saharawi refugees faced 30 years ago. In the occupied areas, the Saharawi people continue to endure a premeditated campaign of human rights abuses, including murder, torture, disappearance and intimidation. The country has been partitioned into two by the Wall. Few journalists or independent observers have been able to gain access to the occupied area and Saharawi refugees remain in camps in the Tindouf area, facing hostile desert conditions and reliant on UNHCR aid programmes.

The natural resources of Western Sahara, particularly, phosphates and fisheries continue to be pillaged by Morocco in violation of international law. (See opinion of the UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, the Legal Counsel: )
The award of Reconnaissance Licenses for oil and gas exploration over the territorial waters of Western Sahara to both Kerr McGee and Total by Morocco in 2001 was condemned by the SADR as an overtly provocative act by Morocco designed to escalate political tension in the region.

The Under-Secretary-General of Legal Affairs at the UN, Mr Hans Correll, issued a legal opinion to the Security Council on the matter on 29 January 2002, in which he reaffirmed that Morocco has no sovereignty over Western Sahara. Mr Correll stated that if exploration and exploitation of the oil resources of the Territory "were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the international law principles applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories".

Total announced its withdrawal from the Territory in 2004 and a few seismic companies, including TGS/Nopec, have indicated that they will not become involved in the Territory without SADR permission.

Focus groups around the world have commenced drawing the attention of the shareholders in Kerr McGee to the illegal activities of their company in the Territory. It is hoped Kerr McGee will respond to shareholder concern and withdraw from the Territory.

The Government of the SADR considers the involvement of any oil companies in Western Sahara without the authorisation of the SADR to be illegal. The SADR government asserts its right, as the representative of the authority of the Saharawi people, to control and administer the exploration of its mineral potential, and encourages appropriately qualified and committed companies to consider partnership with the SADR government.

Additional information details and links can be found on the Western Sahara web site