The Western Sahara territory, which was under Spanish colonial rule until 1976, was declared as a "non-self-governing territory" in 1963 by the UN General Assembly in Resolution 1541 XV (1963) (see PDF below). At the end of the Spanish colonisation both Morocco and Mauritania affirmed their claim over this territory. In 1973, Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro) was established to represent the Saharawi people who claimed independence.
In 1975, an ICJ advisory opinion
stated that any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity did not exist; thus, the appliction of General Assembly Resolution 1541 XV (1963), concerning the decolonisation of Western Sahara and of the principle of self-determination of the people of the territory, should not be affected.
Nevertheless, the "Madrid Agreement" (1976), a secret plan that put an end to Spanish control, divided the area between Morocco and Mauritania. However, in 1978 Mauritania renounced all its territorial claims, while Morocco maintained its control and continues to claim sovereignty over most of the territory that was annexed.
In February 1976, Polisario declared the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). SADR is a party to the African Union since 1984, while Morocco is the only state on the African continent not a party (it removed its membership in 1984).
Backed by Algeria, Polisario led a guerrilla war for independence against Moroccan forces until 1991.
In April 1991, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established following Security Council Resolution 690 (1991)
with the aim of implementing the "Settlement Plan", including a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and integration with Morocco. MINURSO is mandated to implement the "Settlement Plan"
by monitoring the cease-fire, identifying eligible voters for participation in the referendum, and creating the conditions and modalities for the supervision and conduct of the referendum. Since the deployment of MINURSO in September 1991, the ceasefire has generally held. The transitional period, however, has never begun.
In April 2007, after years of failed initiatives to impose settlement plans, Polisario and Morocco submitted their own settlement proposals to the United Nations.
According to the Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara (October 2007)
a first meeting of the negotiation process was held in the State of New York (USA) on 18 and 19 June 2007. The parties agreed to a communiqué stating that negotiations had started as requested by Security Council Resolution 1754 (April 2007)
and that the parties had agreed that the process of negotiations would continue in August 2007.
The parties participated in a second meeting on 10 and 11 August 2007. Algeria and Mauritania also attended as neighbouring countries. During the opening session, the parties made their respective statements in which they reiterated their commitment to implement Security Council Resolution 1754 (2007). Although they both confirmed their respect for the principle of self-determination and accepted Security Council Resolution 1754 (2007) as the mandate for the negotiations, their positions remained far apart on the definition of self-determination. Discussions over the April 2007 proposal are still ongoing.
"The Committee remains concerned about the lack of progress on the question of the realization of the right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara (Covenant, Article 1). The state party should make every effort to permit the population groups concerned to enjoy fully the rights recognized by the Covenant." (UN Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations, CCPR/CO/82/MAR, 1 December 2004, para. 8)
"The fact that no clear solution has yet been found to the question of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. The Committee notes, with concern, reports of the strained circumstances endured by people displaced by the conflict in Western Sahara, particularly women and children, who apparently suffer multiple violations of their rights under the Covenant." (CESCR, Concluding Observations, E/C.12/MAR/CO/3, 4 September 2006, para. 13b)
African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, Res.45(XXVII)00, Resolution on the Western Sahara (2000)
For more information:
Secretary General reports on the situation concerning Western Sahara (1998-today)
Human Rights Watch, "Keeping it secret - the UN operations in Western Sahara", 1995
International Crisis Group Report (2007)