Review: “Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution” – Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy

“Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution” by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy is a masterpiece of history, international law, and the failure of UN conflict resolution. Zunes and Mundy identify and methodically examine the sources of the almost five-decade-long dispute and its intractability, including the Moroccan regime’s need for legitimacy leading to manifest destiny-like irredentism, Sahrawi nationalism born out of Spanish colonialism, the UN’s disastrous decolonization efforts in East Timor and West Papua, and Franco-American support for Morocco in the UN Security Council.

In 1975, shortly before the death of fascist dictator General Franco, Spain unilaterally withdrew from Western Sahara, leaving Morocco and Mauritania to annex the territory without legal basis and fight each other and Sahrawi insurgents led by Polisario for control. Mauritania withdrew from the dispute in 1979, but Polisario, supported by Algeria, and Morocco, supported by the US and France, fought each other to a military stalemate by 1991.

Zunes and Mundy reject two commonly held theories about the origins and intractability of the conflict: firstly, that Polisario and Sahrawi nationalism is a front for Algeria, and secondly, that Morocco’s primary motivation for annexing Western Sahara is resource extraction and exploitation.

Sahrawi nationalism is a product of Spanish colonialism and the colonial dialectic, and it exists independently of Algerian support. It is in the nature of colonialism to create social and geographic boundaries. Spanish colonialism and the social and geographic boundaries it created — real and imagined — played a substantial role in the development of the Sahrawi national identity. Even if Algeria were to withdraw its support for Sahrawi self-determination, Zunes and Mundy argue, Sahrawi nationalism would continue to exist, much like how East Timorese and West Papuan nationalism has survived Indonesian occupation and genocide without external state support. Algeria, however, is unlikely to withdraw its support for Sahrawi self-determination. The self-image of Algeria’s leaders rests upon their support for radical, anti-colonial nationalism. To withdraw support for Sahrawi self-determination would undermine the political power of Algerian leaders. Moreover, Sahrawi self-determination serves Algeria’s strategic interests vis-à-vis Morocco. Algerian-Moroccan enmity predates the Western Sahara conflict by more than a decade when Morocco invaded Algerian Sahara in 1963. A pro-Algerian state in Western Sahara would strengthen Algeria in its rivalry with Morocco for regional hegemony.

Moroccan irredentism is primarily ideological and not economic. Although the Moroccan regime and its clientelist network have profited from exploiting Western Sahara phosphates and fisheries, economic factors fail to explain Moroccan irredentism. According to Zunes and Mundy, King Hassan II was experiencing a crisis of legitimacy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with widespread dissatisfaction, multiple coup attempts, and deteriorating economic conditions. A war to “liberate” Spanish Sahara offered the monarchy a way out of this situation by rallying the Moroccan people around popular anti-colonial sentiments and the vision of a “Greater Morocco.” The need to reassert royal legitimacy in a period of widespread political crises, not a classic land grab, motivated Morocco to annex Western Sahara. Almost 50 years later, little has changed in Morocco. To recognize an independent Sahrawi republic in Western Sahara would jeopardize the monarchy’s main base of support: the military and clientelist interests that have enriched themselves off the Western Saharan conflict.

Since the ceasefire in 1991, both Morocco and Polisario have entrenched themselves in their pre-ceasefire positions, engaging in what Zunes and Mundy refer to as war by other means. Neither Morocco nor Polisario can win the war militarily, so both are involved in a political and diplomatic war over Western Sahara.

The UN has utterly failed to resolve the conflict. In 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that Morocco (and Mauritania) had no legal right to Western Sahara that would interfere with the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. However, Morocco has presented the UN Security Council and its closest allies, the US and France, with a fait accompli, in that Morocco controls most of Western Sahara. This leads to a cycle of irresolution. The Sahrawi people have the right to self-determination from Spanish colonialism and Moroccan occupation under international law, but the UN cannot endorse self-determination without a referendum on independence, which Morocco will not accept, and its allies on the Security Council (the US and France) will not enforce under Chapter VII. With US and French veto power, the UN can do nothing about Morocco’s flagrant violation of one of the most basic tenets of international law — the prohibition of wars of conquest. Moreover, with the Trump Administration’s 2020 recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, none of this is likely to change in the immediate future.

Zunes and Mundy offer an outstanding indictment of Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara and its egregious human rights record, the failure of the UN and international law to resolve this conflict, and US-led Western imperialism.

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