A Colgate professor proposes an alternative way forward for Western Sahara amid dangerous new developments in one of the world’s most neglected conflicts

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On Nov. 13, 2020, Moroccan troops entered Guerguerat, an area of disputed territory patrolled by United Nations troops, ostensibly to clear an occupied road leading to neighboring Mauritania. The road was blocked by supporters of the Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s independence movement, which considers Morocco an occupying power. The Polisario Front claimed Moroccan soldiers fired live shots at civilians and declared it an act of war.

The next day, Polisario’s leader, Brahim Ghali, announced a three-decade cease-fire with Morocco was over, and that it would resume an armed struggle first waged against then-colonial-power Spain in the 1970s.

For Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, this came not as a shock, but an inevitability. He was only amazed, he says, “that the cease-fire had held so long.” With Western Sahara at an inflection point, he has just published “Free to Choose: A New Plan for Peace in Western Sahara,” a policy brief coauthored with Hugh Lovatt for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Map by Peter Hermes Furian

Mundy has been fascinated by this fraught territory in northwest Africa ever since he traveled to Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1999 and was told in no uncertain terms to avoid the topic of Western Sahara. This instruction did not have the intended effect. During the holiday period of Eid al-Adha, Mundy decided to take a local bus and stay on it until he reached this region he had only heard spoken of in whispers.

His immediate first impression was of a striking visual shift. “You could feel that it was a different part of Morocco. There were still legacies of Spanish architecture,” he recalls. He also quickly noticed how the Indigenous Sahrawis and those resettled from Morocco lived totally separately. The friendships he made and the deep sense of injustice with which he left would come to define his work as a scholar.

Western Sahara remains one of the world’s most neglected and least understood conflicts, partly because of its ever simmering but rarely boiling levels of violence. For a UN Security Council with Syria, Yemen, and Ethiopia on its plate, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” as Mundy puts it. But with the official resumption of fighting, the territory’s situation could rapidly deteriorate.

At the heart of the current conflict is a long-promised UN-backed referendum on independence first promised by Spain in 1974, until a Moroccan invasion preempted the territory’s decolonization the following year.

In the intervening years, Morocco has established an ever greater demographic and economic presence in Western Sahara. “Morocco’s efforts to take control of Western Sahara and to build up the infrastructure in the territory make it more and more difficult for Morocco and the international community to imagine it leaving,” Mundy said.

The country is also a key ally of the European Union and the United States in fighting terrorism, and enjoys the full backing of France in the UN. French commercial interests in Morocco mean it has a strong interest in keeping Rabat onside, while Spain needs Moroccan cooperation to control the flow of migrants onto its territory and for access to its waters (including Western Sahara’s) for its fishing industry.

In his ECFR policy brief, Mundy proposes the lesser-known model of “free association” as a way for the territory to obtain greater freedoms from Morocco while avoiding the diplomatically explosive option of full independence.

Current examples of this model include Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands, which entered into free associations with the United States, while the Cook Islands and Niue are self-governing states in free association with New Zealand. These Pacific islands enjoy self-rule and autonomy over their legislation, while delegating responsibility for external affairs and defense.

“The Western Sahara conflict has been framed more or less as a choice between integration with Morocco or independence,” Mundy said. “We felt that this third option of free association was one that was woefully underexplored in terms of what would be a legal solution to the conflict, one that was grounded in UN norms of decolonization.”

If successful, the idea could put a permanent end to the conflict, but this would require concessions from both sides. “For Polisario, this means delegating some authority to Morocco in exchange for an end to Moroccan occupation and achieving Sahrawi self-governance. For Morocco, this means accepting Western Sahara as a separate self-governing territory in exchange for an internationally recognised stake in its future,” Mundy wrote in the ECFR brief.

The need for progress on a lasting solution has become ever more urgent as the Polisario Front mounts attacks on the Moroccan military, with little information confirmed of casualties on either side.

The security situation in the Sahel region, where the fall of Malian cities to jihadists in 2012 triggered ongoing instability that has spilled over into neighboring countries, offers a sobering lesson for those content to leave Western Sahara languishing. “If the war in Western Sahara were to become a more destabilizing event, would actors like the Islamic State or al-Qaida in the Sahara view this as an opportunity?” Mundy questions.

Mundy is also eager to hold the United States to account for its “pivotal role to the detriment of peace and conflict resolution” in the territory. “U.S. arms sales helped Morocco win the war in the 1980s and undermined the peace process,” he said.

Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalizing relations with Israel in December 2020, a decision now under review by the Biden administration. The United States, Mundy believes, has for too long offered a conflicting message aimed at pleasing both sides and achieving little. Policy has consisted of “a juridical neutrality that they would recognize sovereignty either way, but they definitely were not interested in anything that would destabilize Morocco,” he added.

That first visit to Western Sahara left Mundy “feeling a kind of responsibility, because it’s a forgotten conflict,” he says. “But I know you can find a whole lifetime of research in a place by looking at marginal spaces.”