Western Sahara on richardknight.com


Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony.  Formerly a colony of Spain, the World Court has ruled that the people of Western Sahara have the right to self-determination.  This right has been denied by Morocco, which occupies much of the Western Sahara which it is seeking to annex as part of “Greater Morocco.”  The struggle is led by the Polisario Front, which was formed in 1973 to fight Spanish colonialism.  The U.S. government is siding with Morocco.


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Kerr-McGee in occupied Western Sahara – Oil Blocking Path to Freedom? Print this Washington Office on Africa flier and distribute it in your community.


Western Sahara Research Watch Press Release: Shareholders focus of campaign to end Kerr-McGee’s involvement in Occupied Western Sahara, February 28, 2005


Alert: Get you Congressional representatives to endorse a sign on letter to President Bush in support of self-determination for Western Sahara, May 10, 2002.  This alert is out of date.  But you can still send a letter to Bush supporting the people of Western Sahara and opposing U.S. efforts to undermine the right to self-determination.


Alert: Bush Administration Seeks to Deny Self-Determination to the people of Western Sahara, added May 8 2002


Kerr-McGee Corporation in Western Sahara, added April 2002


See below for more links.




Western Sahara – An Overview


For over twenty-five years, led by the Polisario Front, the people of Western Sahara have been struggling for self-determination and independence.  Morocco wants to annex Western Sahara and Polisario is seeking independence.  A UN settlement plan, based on a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would exercise their right to self-determination by choosing between independence and integration in Morocco, is deadlocked.  Moroccan stalling and attempting to pad the voter roll.




Formerly Western Sahara was a colony of Spain.  In 1975 the International Court of Justice ruled that the people of Western Sahara were entitled to self-determination including independence.  That same year a UN mission determined that the people of Western Sahara were "categorically" for independence and opposed to the territorial claims on Morocco and Mauritania.  But when Spain pulled out in 1976 it divided the territory between Morocco and Mauritania.  Polisario, formed in 1973 to oppose Spanish colonialism, rejected this action and declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).[1]  Much of the population of Western Sahara fled the territory to Polisario run refugee camps in Algeria.


Polisario, which had led an armed struggle Spain, turned its military efforts against Morocco and Mauritania.  In July1978 there was a coup in Mauritania.  Two days later Polisario declared a unilateral cease-fire with Mauritania.  In 1979 Mauritania formally abandoned its claim to Western Sahara.  Morocco immediately asserted a claim for the portion of Western Sahara previously claimed by Mauritania.


A United Nations General Assembly resolution in 1980 stated clearly that the issue of Western Sahara is one of self-determination.  The resolution "Reaffirms the inalienable right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination and independence" and expresses "deep concern… at the aggravation of the situation prevailing in Western Sahara because of the continued occupation of that Territory by Morocco."


UN Settlement Plan


The UN negotiated a settlement plan and in 1991 a cease-fire between Morocco and Polisario went into effect.  A referendum was to be held the following year giving the people of Western Sahara a choice between independence and integration into Morocco.  A United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was formed and a UN Secretary-General's Special Representative appointed.  But the referendum has never been held. 


Morocco's long time ruler, King Hassan II, died in July 1999.  Many hoped that his successor, King Muhammad VI, would be able to break with past policy and allow the referendum to take place.  King Muhammad did remove some long time officials who had been key in implementing Morocco's attempt to annex Western Sahara.  Some process was made in negotiations.


But the implementation of the referendum remains deadlocked.  The key question is who will get to vote in the referendum.  There has been much negotiation on the issue.  Morocco has sought to get many of its citizens from its southern provinces declared eligible.  Eventually a series of requirements were agreed to, based on the Spanish census taken in 1974.


In January 2000 MINURSO published a list of 86,381 eligible voters.  In preparing the list MINURSO interviewed some 198,000 applicants presented by Morocco and Polisario.  The results were disastrous for Morocco.  It was widely viewed that if the referendum were held based on that list, the choice for independence would win.  MINURSO has received some 131,038 appeals, most on behalf of Moroccan voter applicants.  The UN has estimated it could take two years to process these appeals if, as Morocco is demanding, each case is heard individually. (For a detailed discussion see Saharan Stasis: Status and Prospects in the Western Sahara by Charles Dunbar, The Middle East Journal, Volume 54, Number 4, Autumn 2000.)


In February 2001 the UN Security Council extended the existence of MINURSO for another two months.  Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, currently UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's Special Representative, will presumably attempt some negotiations.  However, it seems unlike, absent significant international pressure on Morocco, that much progress toward implementing the referendum will be achieve in that two month period.  Western Sahara is not seen as an important issue by the United States or any other permanent member of the UN Security Council.  Rather, the U.S. had a long relationship with Morocco under King Hassan.  King Hassan was long seen as an Arab ally on the Middle East.  The U.S. wants to keep a close relationship with King Muhammad.


The U.S. government should not accept Morocco efforts to gerrymander the results of the referendum by padding the voter roll.  It should pressure Morocco to accept the UN voter role and allow the referendum to proceed. 


Morocco continues to delay.  No date for a referendum has been set and the people of Western Sahara are continuing to be denied the right to self-determination.  Polisario's struggle continues. 


Current information and background documents are available at www.arso.org.  Also, the Western Sahara and Morocco sections of www.allafrica.com have current information. Subscribe to the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara list serve and you will receive two or more e-mails a day.


Activities of the American Committee on Africa


I wrote Discussion Paper on Polisario and the Western Sahara Struggle that was presented to the Executive Board of the American Committee on Africa on December 1977.  The ACOA Board adopted the recommendations in the report that included: 1) recognizing Polisario as the legitimate representative of the Saharan people 2) support for U.S. recognition of the Democratic Arab Saharan Republic 3) an end to U.S. military assistance to Morocco and Mauritania and 4) an end to U.S. involvement n the exploitation of Saharan nation resources.


In early 1979 I visited Algeria and Western Sahara.  On my return I wrote Report on a Visit to the Democratic Arab Saharawi Republic and Algeria. 


While in Western Sahara I took photos of weapons that were supplied to Morocco by the U.S.  The U.S. government claimed that the weapons were supplied under a bilateral agreement that prohibited their use outside of Morocco and, since the U.S. did not recognize Western Sahara as part of Morocco, their use in Western Sahara was prohibited.  Morocco's interpretation of the bilateral agreement was different, since it viewed Western Sahara as part of Morocco.  In any case, the U.S. never seems to have applied any pressure on Morocco not to use U.S. supplied weapons to Morocco but instead increased U.S. military aid.


On my trip I also met Tony Hodges, who subsequently wrote Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War (Lawrence Hill & Company, 1983).  He also authored the Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara (Scarecrow Press, 1982).


George Houser, then Executive Director of ACOA, visited Western Sahara a few months after me.  Together we went to testify before Congress on the situation in Western Sahara and to oppose the sale to Morocco of $2.4 million of spare parts for F-5 and C-130 aircraft and $3 million of ammunition for the F-5s including bombs and rockets. We presented Representative Stephen Solarz, then chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, copies of my photos documenting the use of U.S. supplied weapons by Morocco in Western Sahara.  (See Statement on Western Sahara by George M. Houser before the Subcommittee on Africa of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, July 23, 1979.)


In 1978 and 1979 ACOA worked to oppose the sale of $100 million worth of arms to Morocco.  This was the subject of a series of Letters to the Editor that I wrote that appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post.


In 1980 we learned of the use by Morocco of South African manufactured arms.  This was especially shocking since at that time any unnecessary contact with the apartheid regime was an anathema in Africa.  ACOA published a Memorandum on Moroccan Use of South African Manufactured Arms.


In December 1981 I authored The Reagan Administration and the Struggle for Self-Determination in Western Sahara.


Richard Knight, February 2001

Modified March 30, 2002




For links to Western Sahara specific web sites see Links on richardknight.com.


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[1]  The two major languages used in Western Sahara are Spanish and Arabic.  Spanish was the language of the colonizing power and Arabic is the used by most of the population.  The Polisario formed government's name is commonly translated as the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.  In 1978 and 1979 I used the order given to me at that time, Democratic Arab Saharawi Republic.  It is also sometimes rendered Saharan Arab Democratic Republic.  The acronym Polisario is sometimes rendered as POLISARIO, Frente POLISARIO (used in UN documents) or POLISARIO Front (US State Department).  Many names, including those of towns, have different spellings.  For example, Semara is also spelled Smara.  On this Web site, unless otherwise noted, I have kept the spellings of names as they appeared original documents.