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The UK Government regards the status of Western Sahara as “undetermined”. In 2023, it said it supports UN-led efforts to “reach a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, based on compromise, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”

About Western Sahara

Western Sahara, in West Africa, is classed by the UN Special Committee on Decolonization as a non-self-governing territory. These are territories “whose people have not yet attained a full measure of self-government”. The territory has been under the de facto control of Morocco since Spain withdrew from its former colony in the mid-1970s.

The Polisario Front leads a nationalist effort calling for the people of Western Sahara to determine their future. The Front declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976, with a government in exile in Algeria. Algeria continues to support the group. The Polisario Front fought an armed campaign against Morocco until an UN-negotiated ceasefire came into effect in 1991. This ceasefire held until 2020.

The berm, an earthen barrier constructed by Morocco, separates the Moroccan-administered western portion along the Atlantic coast from the eastern part controlled by the Polisario.

Western Sahara has significant mineral resources mined by Morocco. The International Crisis Group says Morocco has “poured considerable resources into the territory” since the 1970s.

Numerous talks facilitated by the United Nations have yet to resolve territory’s future. Plans for a referendum, first proposed in the 1960s, to determine the future of the territory never materialised. The Polisario Front continues to press for a referendum on the territory’s future; Morocco states it holds sovereignty over Western Sahara, which it refers to as the ‘Southern Provinces’. Morocco proposes a degree of autonomy for the area.

Recent developments

Since 2020 there have been several significant developments:

In November 2020, the Polisario Front declared an end to the ceasefire with Morocco that had held since 1991. The UN has recorded “low level hostilities” since then.

In December 2020, the Trump Administration recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The Biden Administration has not changed this policy.

In March 2022, Spain endorsed Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara as “the most serious, realistic and credible” basis for solving the dispute.

In October 2023, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling on all parties to resume negotiations to achieving a “just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution” which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. The UK supported the 2023 resolution.

This paper provides an overview of developments and legal consideration on the status of the Western Sahara and recent developments.

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