The United Nations Security Council has renewed the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the disputed territory of Western Sahara for an additional year, largely owing to renewed violence following the breakdown of the 1991 ceasefire between Morocco, which exercises control over roughly eighty percent of the land, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the partially recognized government which controls a small strip of land in the east.
The extension was unanimously approved 13-0, although two UNSC members, Tunisia and Russia, abstained. It comes weeks after the appointment of Staffan de Mistura, a former Italian government official who also served as the UN’s envoy for Syria, as its envoy for Western Sahara. Mistura called for both sides to resume negotiations “without preconditions and in good faith.”
Western Sahara’s territorial status has been in dispute since 1976, when Spain, its former colonial power, relinquished it into Moroccan rule. A group of native Sahrawi rebels known as the Polisario Front, which had opposed the Spanish, began a sixteen-year guerrilla war against the Moroccans, only relenting after a 1991 ceasefire that divided the country between Morocco and the Polisario Front. That ceasefire led to the creation of the SADR; it also led to the creation of a heavily mined sand wall between the two areas, created by Moroccan defense forces to deter further guerilla attacks. The ceasefire was first broken in November 2020, and a low-level guerilla war has resumed.
The UN resolution extending the mission calls for “self-determination of the people of Western Sahara,” a step that the UN has long endorsed as a solution to the conflict but which has yet to occur.
While Morocco has agreed to a great deal of local autonomy for Western Sahara, it has consistently opposed a referendum, leading to confrontations with the SADR and Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front. In August 2021, the two nations cut diplomatic ties.
Morocco is largely supported by the United States, with which it has enjoyed a long political and security partnership dating back to 1777 when the Sultan of Morocco became the first foreign leader to recognize U.S. independence from Great Britain. Today, Rabat is considered a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States, and in 2020, following its accession to the Abraham Accords with Israel, President Donald Trump announced via Tweet that the United States would recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara—a position that the Biden administration has yet to formally confirm or repudiate.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.