History of the Moroccan Sahara


The first United Nations’ General Assembly Resolution (2072) called for Spanish decolonisation of the Sahara, with Resolution 1514 advocating the right of self-determination for those living under colonial rule.

16 October 1975

The United Nations’ International Court of Justice’s ruling declared that certain tribes of the Southern Provinces of Morocco had “historical legal links of allegiance with the Sultan of Morocco”, but that the existence of such links did not represent sovereignty.

14 November 1975

The Madrid Accord of 14 November 1975, between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania focused on the future planned Spanish departure from parts of the Sahara on 28 February 1976, and enabled the Kingdom of Morocco to recover its province of Saqiat el-Hamra and Mauritania to regain the zone of Oued ed-Dahab.  Subsequent pressure exerted on Mauritania by Algeria and the Polisario resulted in Mauritania signing a peace treaty with Algiers on 5 August 1979 in which it agreed to abandon Oued ed-Dahab.  As soon as King Hassan II of Morocco was notified of this development, he convened a government meeting and asserted Morocco’s sovereignty over Oued ed-Dahab, which was subsequently confirmed by the International Court of Justice’s verdict.


In November 1984 Morocco asked the Fourth Commission of the United Nations to organise and supervise a referendum for the Sahara, requesting UN intervention in the region in 1985.

In August 1988 the UN Secretary-General Mr Perez de Cuellar proposed a peace plan, for the Sahara, prior to the UN organising the referendum, which it announced would be held on 20 June 1990.  This proposal was endorsed by the Security Council in resolution 658.  In his report to the Security Council, Mr de Cuellar publicly announced the compromises which had been agreed and the procedures which would be used to determine those entitled to vote.  These included:

  • People whose names appeared on the Spanish census dating from 1974;
  • People belonging to a Sahrawi tribe whose tribe was residing in the Sahara during the 1974 census, but whose names did not appear on the register;
  • Close family members belonging to the categories listed above (eg mother, father, children);
  • People whose fathers were native Saharwis from the region; and
  • People belonging to the region’s Saharwi tribes and those who lived in the region for ten consecutive years or who lived “on and off” in the region over a total period of twelve years preceding1 December 1974.

June 1990

The “Settlement Plan”, accepted as resolution 658, paved the way for the Security Council to adopt resolution 690 on 29 April 1991, creating MINURSO (Mission des Nations unies pour le referendum au Sahara occidental – United Nations’ Mission for a referendum in the Western Sahara) a force of UN peace-keepers, which was deployed even before the cease-fire itself was announced on 6 September 1991.


On 17 March 1997, Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, appointed James Baker, former US Secretary of State under the first President George Bush, as his personal envoy and charged him with activating a means of solving the conflict between the parties; evaluating the suitability of the Peace Plan as it stood and examining the likelihood of making changes which would be acceptable to all the parties; as well as exploring all alternative avenues.  

Meetings took place in Lisbon (23 and 24 June 1997), London (19 and 20 July 1997 and 14 May and 28 June 2000), Houston (The Houston Accords – 14-17 September 1997) and Berlin (28 and 29 September 2000).  The final meeting contained a new element, resulting in a new Moroccan initiative: “The Framework of Understanding” (le projet d’accord-cadre).

In December 1999 France and the United States, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, submitted a proposal to the Security Council seeking a politically negotiated solution to the Sahara.  The United States adopted a resolution (31 May 2000) inviting Morocco and Algeria to present credible, concrete proposals to adopt the peace plan and to study all means of reaching a quick, definitive solution to the conflict.

James Baker sought an accord conforming to the UN Security Council’s recommendation of 25 July 2000 (resolution 1309).

Morocco’s “Framework of Understanding” drew attention to the facts that

  • two-thirds of the Sahrawi population were excluded from participating in the referendum;
  • the debate on seeking alternative courses of action was exhausted; and
  • the situation was blocked by political as opposed to technical problems.  

Morocco announced its willingness to engage in “a frank and sincere dialogue” to seek “a lasting and final solution”, which would take into account its sovereignty, territorial integrity and the specifics of the region, regarding respect for democratic principles and decentralisation in the Sahara.  This Plan, especially after the Berlin meeting in September 2000, had a significant impact at international, national and regional levels, generating much UN activity.  Some international observers even debated what was termed “The Third Way” which sought to confer a type of autonomy to the Sahara. 

James Baker continued to meet high level Moroccans, with representatives of the Polisario, and on 5 May 2000 with the Algerian President Mr Abdellaziz Boutefikia. 

In his report to the Security Council on 20 June 2001, Kofi Annan declared that the Polisario Front and Algeria were creating obstacles and that the Moroccan Plan offered the opportunity to realise a meaningful and consistent transfer of power to the Sahrawi population and did not exclude holding a referendum after a transitory period of five years.  This “Framework of Understanding” was adopted by the Security Council as resolution 1359 on 29 June 2001.  It proposed that:

  • the Saharwi population would exercise exclusive competence, based on their own newly to be created executive, legislative and judicial organs, in the spheres of local governmental administration, territorial budgets and taxes, maintenance of order, international security, social protection, culture, education, business, transport, roads and other essential infrastructure, agriculture, mining, fishing, industry, environmental policies, housing and urbane development; and
  • the Kingdom of Morocco would exercise exclusive competence over matters relating to national sovereignty, external relations, security and national defence, the maintenance of territorial integrity against both internal and external threats, as well as over matters to do with the production, sale, ownership and deployment of weapons and explosives.

Although Morocco accepted this Plan with reservations, Algeria and the Polisario rejected it categorically, arousing bitter feelings within the international community.  James Baker travelled to Rabat to inform the Moroccans of Algeria’s rejection (resolution 1380 of the Security Council dated 27 November 2001) and of a proposal by Algeria and the Polisario to discuss partition of the Sahara, which was categorically rejected by Morocco.

In his report to the Security Council of 19 February 2002, the Secretary-General described James Baker’s attempts and presented four proposals, suggesting that if none was considered suitable, the UN would withdraw from further attempts to resolve the conflict between the parties.  Although the Security Council opposed all four proposals, it recommended continuing with attempts to find a lasting and final solution to the conflict and declared itself disposed to “examine all other political solutions or any other proposal likely to guarantee self-determination”.  This became resolution 1429 on 30 July 2002.  Mr Baker called for assistance from an expert in constitutional law to elaborate upon a document entitled “Peace Plan for the Self-determination of the People of the Western Sahara”, which was presented to the Security Council by the Security Council as annex II to his report dated 23 May 2003.  This in effect became the Fifth Option, even though the previous four had been submitted on 19 February 2002.

January 2003

New Peace Plan – Baker Plan II proposing autonomy for a five-year period, followed by a referendum including an option for independence.  Rejected by Morocco.

July 2005

Mr Peter van Walsum appointed as Special Envoy to the UN Secretary-General

11 April 2007

The Kingdom of Morocco presents its “Initiative for Negotiating an Autonomy Statute for the Sahara Region” to the United Nations’ Security Council.

30 April 2007

The UN Security Council unanimously adopts a resolution calling for negotiations “to be conducted in good faith, without pre-conditions bearing in mind the developments which have taken place during past months, with the aim of achieving a just political, lasting and mutually acceptable solution”.

June 2007

At the beginning of June Moroccan and Polisario representatives met in Geneva for a preliminary encounter, prior to substantive negotiations taking place in New York, 18-19 June. 

July 2007

Resumption of negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario in New York under the auspices of the United Nations.

10-11 August 2007

Continuation of negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario in New York.

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