The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic: conventional constructivism and self-determination of the SADR.

by Daan de Kruijf

The lingering dispute regarding the status of the Western Sahara is centred around the question of governance and self-determination. A constructivist approach to the application of self-determination theory in this dispute provides handles in determining the formation of identities in the region, and the right of self-determination that comes with that. By expounding the connotations that come with the right of self-determination, a constructivist perspective indicates the deficiencies of the theory and therewith shows that the theory is only partly applicable in the case of the Western Sahara dispute. By appointing the short- sighted nature of the ontological definitions that lie in the rather positive nature of self- determination theory, this paper shows that the situation regarding the governing status of the Western Sahara could have been different from its contemporary structure, if self- determination theory was applied by the UN through a less positive framework. 

[Keywords: Self-determination theory, constructivism, Western Sahara, indigenousness, independence.]

The large, stretched piece of land locked between the south of Morocco in the north, the Mauritanian and Algerian border in the east and south, and the North Atlantic Ocean in the west lays a stretched piece of land what is known as the Western Sahara. Western Sahara is plagued by violent military offences and dispute resolution since the decolonisation process from the Kingdom of Spain commenced in 1975 [1]. From 1884 till 1975 this sandy strip of West-African land was known as the Spanish Sahara, as it was governed by the Spanish Kingdom. Since 1963 the UN designated the area as a colony and demanded self- determination in accordance with 1960 General Assembly Resolution 1514 [2]. Due to the Moroccan Green March and under severe Moroccan and international pressure, Spain acknowledged to give up its claims on its African territory in November 1975. On November 14 of 1975, the Madrid Accords were signed by Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania, which concluded that Morocco would obtain administrative control of the two northern parts of the territory, and Mauritania of the southern part [3] . The new allocation of this West-African soil was without the consent of the indigenous population, the Sahrawi people. From this stage in early 1975 Algeria supported the Polisario Front, which is a liberal movement and the legitimate representative of these indigenous Sahrawi people. Algeria also sustained the Sahrawi’s right of self-determination.

Armed struggles in the region started from 1975 and are flagged as the Western Sahara War. The Algerian Boumédiène government supplied the Polisario Front with weapons and refuge in their western Tinduf province. When Spain officially withdrew all their assets from Western Sahara on the 27th of February 1976, the Polisario Front formally proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). In January 1976, after the first battle of Amgala, Algeria retreated from the conflict [4]. Mauritania withdrew itself from the conflict in 1979, after signing a peace treaty with the Polisario front [5]. As part of the Settlement Plan between the Polisario Front and Morocco the Misión de las Naciones Unidas para la Organización de un Referéndum en el Sáhara Occidental (MINURSO) audited a cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front on the 6th of September 1991 [6]. The Settlement Plan vowed a referendum on independence, which was said to happen in 1992. Due to conflicting claims and Moroccan obstruction, and despite numerous attempts, this referendum never took place. Currently the territory and its status remain disputed although the whole region is occupied by Morocco, and a smaller strip of territory in the east is governed by the SADR, led by the Polisario Front.

On the 13th of November 2020 Morocco allegedly broke the in 1991 agreed upon cease-fire, after the Polisario allegedly blocked the main and only road that connects Morocco to Mauritania, in Guerguerat from halfway October 2020. Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces have reopened the road on the 14th of November 2020 as the Moroccan government stated that it had to “assume its responsibilities” and put an end to Polisario’s “dangerous and unacceptable provocations.” [7] Tensions between Morocco and the Polisario have lately become more vivid than it has been in nearly 30 years. If the new developments in the region influence the possibility of the SADR ever becoming a sovereign state is not clear yet.

The identity of the Western Sahara <
Several scholars who adhere to a constructivist approach trace the core of identity back to the notion that ideas construct reality and that all structures and agents are mutually constituted. A socially constructed nature of identity is imperative as the concept of identity is the first brick in building a wall that represents states’ interest [8]. A constructivist approach entails that states can have several identities, as the social construction is formed through interaction with actors [9] .To determine what identity should be attributed to the Western Sahara, or to determine which identities are being formed in the area, the actors need to be distinguished.
State identity is a non-material factor that differs from but is tightly connected with other non-material factors like culture, belief, ideas, and norms. According to Hidemi Suganami, constructivists continuously mix up the concepts of culture norms and identity. Though, many constructivists agree that state identity is seen as a part of culture. Culture then again is mostly defined as shared beliefs [10]. Considering that shared beliefs are undeniably centralised in the recognition of a state, shared beliefs form the basis in conceptualizing Western Sahara’s identity. These shared beliefs do not only concern certain beliefs that connect the people living in this area, but I also rest assured that this concept of belief should include the collective belief of the future of the ‘state’. In this sense, a secessionist view on what the Western Sahara is, is aptly, as it views the state as a catalyst for communal identification of the people. A secessionist view also underlines the importance of a larger collective good, in which the individual is subordinate to the importance of the whole community [11]. The Moroccan claim of having identity-related ties with the region is based on the implication that the territory had formerly been a part of their kingdom for centuries [12]. This claim was officially made in 1956 by the Istiqlal party when the Moroccan Kingdom gained its independence. The claim was that the Western Sahara formed a part of ‘Greater Morocco’, referring to parts of the west of the Sahara, historically associated with the Moroccan sultan [13]. Because of these historical bounds with the territory, Morocco claims to be the rightful owner of the Western Sahara [14]. This irredentist claim is based on an argumentation which connects the Moroccan claim of being connected with the area, based on identity, with a classical Hobbesian way of thinking, instead of a secessionist way. In the Hobbesian model of self-determination and the indication of what identity encompasses is set forth that the authentic expression of human nature in archaic communities is fundamentally negative [15]. Nations are said to be ‘artificial entities.’ This indicates that the Moroccan claim of the Western Sahara having connections with the current Moroccan Kingdom, is merely based on the idea that the identity of the people living in the Western Sahara is formed by the existence of a state. The state is in this view the holder of the collective good, namely identity. I argue that the state indeed might be a catalyst for communal identification, but certainly not the source creating identity in the first place. Constructivism states that (state)identities are formed by the process of interaction, and that the interest of states is shaped by their identities [16], not the other way around as what the Moroccan claim is based on.
The ontological notion of identity for the Sahrawi people is based on a claim of indigenousness [17]. Due to the harsh living conditions in the area the Western Sahara was historically ‘inhabited’ by Babini people, a group of nomadic Arabs who commonly spoke Hassānīya [18]. Though, the Sahrawi and therewith the Polisario’s claim of indigenousness is likely to date back further as the privileged position of the woman within the Sahrawi communities indicates a formation that pre-exists Arabian influences [19]. Daadaoui mentions that the Sahrawi identity only developed itself since the Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara territory. The Polisario Front claims that their identity is distinctive from the Moroccan identity [20], and therefore expound that self-determination is their legal right. The alleged process of Sahrawi that blended in with ethical Moroccans hampers possible identification of the ancient Sahrawi identity, while implying that the current population that is classifying themselves under a group possessing the Sahrawi identity, is created by interaction and originates from the indigenous population, sustaining the constructivist definition of how identities are being shaped [21].

Self-determination and the SADR
The 1975 UN visiting mission to Spanish Sahara filed a report on October 15, 1975, in which the General Assembly was urged to ‘‘(…) take steps to enable those population groups to decide their own future in complete freedom and in an atmosphere of peace and security’’. The question on the right of self-determination was essentially answered by the International court of justice, on the 16th of October 1975. In an advisory non-binding opinion, the ICJ mentioned that the Spanish Sahara was inhabited by the Sahrawi people at the time when the colonial occupation initiated, but that areal ties with nor Morocco nor Mauritania were sufficient enough for these states to claim sovereignty [22]. From a constructivist view on the issue, in accordance with the previously reasoning on the identity of the Western Sahara, this opinion of the ICJ should be undisputed.

The right of self-determination appears in UN’s resolution 1514, and it is also highlighted in The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. Part one, article one states that ‘‘All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development’’ [23]. The UN Charter acknowledges self-determination being a fundamental principle of international law, which is exactly on what The Polisario Front claims its right of self-determination [24]. I firstly like to argue that based on this covenant on Civil and Political Rights prima facie the Sahrawi people bear the right of self-determination in the sense that the population acquires a more independent statehood encompassing the Western Sahara (or partially), or an autonomous status within the Kingdom of Morocco, while pointing out that the Kingdom of Morocco never signed this covenant. Reasoning for this is that whilst Morocco does sustain the idea of autonomy for the Western Sahara, its definition is slightly different. Morocco’s view of autonomy does not encompass a complete independence, which is why the covenant was not signed [25]. Noteworthy is that the Kingdom of Morocco cannot legally determine how the right of self-determination should be executed, as the Sahrawi people just as much hold this fundamental human right [26].

Self-determination, based on the definition as stated above, allowing ‘all peoples’ to have the right to self-determination conflicts with the international system of sovereign states. To determine the applicability and the refinement of the self-determination theory some boundaries regarding the terminology need to be predetermined. Self-determination should not be mixed up with territorial integrity. Under international law, and anchored in Article 2, Chapter 1 of the UN Charter, the territorial integrity principle protects the sovereign state against all sorts of violations of its territory [27]. Considering the premier involved parties here are the Moroccan Kingdom and the Sahrawi people, presented by the Polisario Front, reasoning regarding self-determination nuance or explanation is noteworthy. It is relevant to note that the Moroccan attitude was initially positive regarding the UN Framework Agreement on the status of Western Sahara as written in June 2001. The attitude was affirmative till a degree in which it would give exclusive competences to the Kingdom of Morocco, and an autonomous Sahrawi population under Moroccan sovereignty. [28] From a historical point of view, self-determination in a context of international law limited itself to the creation of new sovereign entities, merely concerning a political background [29].

The UN General Assembly Resolution 1514, as adopted on the 14th of December 1960 point five, notes that steps will be taken (by the UN): 

‘‘in (…) territories which have not yet attained independence, to transfer all powers to the peoples of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire, without any distinction as to race, creed or colour, in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.’’ [30]

The MINURSO’s mission as part of the settlement plan, established in 1991 under UN Security Council Resolution 690 [31] should have organised a referendum to determine if the Sahrawi’s would get independence or integration with Morocco. This referendum never took place due to the astounding number of obstacles it faced. Even a sole political solvation of the lingering dispute, through the creation of executive and legislative governing bodies for the population of the Western Sahara, imposed by United States secretary Baker in 2001 was rejected by both parties [32]. Baker resigned in 2004 as he believed there was no possible solution regarding solving the dispute. The succeeding emissary Annan has not engendered any new probable solution for the conflict ever since.

The scant ability of the UN to clarify the boundaries, limitations, and specifications of what the concept of identity entails, plus the limited knowledge of tribal governing have attributed to the SADR’s inability of blossoming into an independent entity, not even mentioning the inability of becoming an actual sovereign state as was initially an option as a part of the MINURSO referendum. Self-determination theory in International Relations, and through the eyes of the UN is seen as a concept that could bring good reasoning in a case study of a dragging conflict like in the Western Sahara. The short-sighted nature of the ontological definitions that lie in the rather positive nature of self-determination and the concept of indigenousness [33], could be diverted if a more constructivist approach of the concept of identity and therewith indigenousness would have been applied. In this case the social construction of identity (and culture) would become a heavier decisive element in the definition of self-determination theory, more than the weight of historical continuity as is the case in the contemporary refinement of the concept.

In the pursuit of appointing the applicability of self-determination theory when it is examined through a constructivist lens, this limited research utilises the Western Sahara conflict as an exemplification to underline the deficiency of self-determination and its effect when put into practice. I conclude that self-determination theory is only partly applicable in the case of the Western Sahara dispute, due to the inaccurate nature of the theory in determining what the concept of identity may encompass. The short-sighted nature of the ontological definitions that lie in the rather positive nature of self-determination and the concept of indigenousness could be improved when a stronger constructivist view would be applied instead of the rather positive view that is currently the case. In terms of the practical consequence of these flaws, I conclude that the situation regarding the governing status of the Western Sahara could have been different from its contemporary structure, if self-determination theory was applied by the UN through a less positive framework. The concept of identity, certainly in the complex dispute of the Western Sahara, is evidently harder to denote than it looks at the first glance. The interpretive way of doing this research was in hindsight indeed a proper way of conducting this research, although a stronger emphasis on identity-influencing factors would have enforced the argumentation.

Daan de Kruijf
International Relations MA Student

December 2020

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[18] Barreñada, I. (2017). Western Saharan and Southern Moroccan Sahrawis: National Identity and Mobilization, Global, Regional and Local Dimensions of Western Sahara’s Protracted Decolonization, P. 278

[19] Morris, L. (16 July 2013). Women on Frontline in Struggle for Western Sahara. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/16/women-western-sahara-independence-morroco

[20] Committee on the United Nations. (2013). The Legal Issues Involved In The Western Sahara Dispute The Principle of Self-Determination and the Legal Claims of Morocco. New York, NY: New York City bar association, P. 57

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[25] Kamal, F. (2006). Second international decade for colonialism. Pacific regional seminar on the implementation of the Second International Decade for the eradication of colonialism: priorities for action. United Nations, CPR. 16, P. 4

[26] Ibid.

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[28] United Nations General Assembly. (20 June 2001). Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara. S/2001/613

[29] Grovogui, S. (2002). Regimes of Sovereignty: International Morality and the African Condition, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 8. P. 316-317

[30] United Nations General Assembly. (1960). Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. (Report No. 1514(XV)), Retrieved from: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3b00f06e2f.html

[31] United Nations Security Council. (1991). The situation concerning Western Sahara. (Report No. 690) New York: United Nations

[32] United Nations General Assembly. (2001). Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara. (Report No. 613). New York: United Nations

[33] Kingsbury, B. (1998). Indigenous peoples’ in international law: a constructivist approach to the Asian controversy. The American journal of international law, 92, P. 414

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