Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony

On the UN's maps of remaining colonies Africa
there is still one colony left.

Many believe that the age of colonialism is over. It is not. On the UN's maps of remaining non-self-governing territories in Africa, there is still one remaining colonial question left. Neighbouring Morocco occupies parts of Western Sahara obstructing the decolonisation process. 

It was during the last part of 1975, that the Saharawi people's aspiration to independence took a serious blow. The territory's colonial power, Spain, left Western Sahara without finalising the process of independence, as the UN had demanded. Instead, it allowed Moroccan military forces to invade the territory, in violation of international law and a decision from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. 

A large part of the people of Western Sahara fled eastwards during the Moroccan attacks on the territory, into the most inhospitable part of the Sahara desert. There, they settled in refugee camps in south western Algeria, close to the city of Tindouf.  


Moroccan forces met substantial resistance from the Saharawis, who had organised under the liberation movement Polisario. After 16 years of armed conflict, the two parties to the conflict entered into a ceasefire agreement in 1991. According to the agreement, a referendum on independence in Western Sahara was to take place in 1992. The solution was in line with the over 100 UN resolutions calling for the respect of the Saharawi people's right to self-determination. The UN operation MINURSO was established to monitor the ceasefire and to secure the carrying out of the referendum. But this has not yet been arranged. 

The Saharawi people's rights are supported by more than 100 UN resolutions, and by an important opinion from the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and, so far, by four rulings by the EU Court of Justice. No state in the world recognise Morocco's baseless claims to Western Sahara. 

«The Court's conclusion is that the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.»

The International Court of Justice in The Hague, 16 October 1975

However, Morocco has two main allies: Its former colonial power France and its neighbouring country Spain

France has a substantial business presence in Morocco and a large Moroccan diaspora in its own country. Spain is bordering Morocco to the south, and needs to nurture good diplomatic relations with its neighbour, primarily of immigration reasons. 

The duo France and Spain defend Morocco in all contexts. Together the governments and political parties from Spain and France succeed in exercising such pressure on the EU's bodies, that even the EU's policies is coloured by Moroccan positions. Attempts from Northern European, African or Latin American states to limit the alliance's influence has so far proven difficult. 

MINURSO is the only modern UN  peace-keeping operation in the world without a mandate to report on the human rights situation. France is main responsible for that limitation, through its permanent seat in the UN Security Council. So absurd is France's position, that even the UK and Russia - which normally are positioned on diametrically opposite sides in world affairs - find together in the UN Security Council. Photo: Martine Perret/UN Photos


A group called ‘Friends of Western Sahara’ functions informally vis-à-vis the UN Security Council in the development of the council's resolutions. The group has not been formally appointed, and does not have a formal mandate. None of the five states in the group are particularly good friends of the people of Western Sahara, and Spain and France have two of the seats. All attempts to change the composition of the group are being rejected by those states who already claim to be ‘members' of the group. 

As the Franco regime collapsed in Spain, the Spanish government alerted the UN unilaterally that it had terminated its responsibilities in the territory. This announcement has not been recognised. The UN Legal Office in 2002 expressed that Spain could not act in such a manner, and the territory hence remains on the UN General Assembly's list of colonies. The supreme court of Spain in 2015 concluded that Spain still holds the responsibility as administering power of the territory, something that the political leadership of the country refuses to accept. The Spanish government to this date refers to the unilateral decision of the Franco regime to give the territory to Morocco in violation of the principles of the UN Charter. 

For an easy introduction to the peace process that failed, check this report from 2016. 

The refugees

Today, approximately 200.000 Saharawis live in refugee camps in the vicinity of the Algerian town Tindouf, near the Western Sahara border.

The world's longest landmine field stretches through the occupied Western Sahara. The ‘berm’ is 2700 kilometers long. In the picture, the occupied territories can be seen to the right, and the non-occupied part to the left. Photo: Evan SchneiderUN Photos

The camps are located in a part of Sahara that has not been inhabited in the past. In the summer the temperatures exceed 50 degrees C. and during winter it is often below freezing. The harsh conditions make the population entirely dependent on international humanitarian aid. In spite of the difficulties, however, the population has managed in a formidable way.

International aid is organized and distributed by the refugees themselves. International observers characterize the camps as the best organized refugee camps in the world. Regrettably, in recent years the international aid has been gradually reduced. This makes it increasingly more difficult to uphold acceptable living conditions, causing malnutrition. The Norwegian government contributes in financing UN food contributions to the refugee population. 

Altogether, there are five Saharawi refugee camps, all named after specific locations inside the occupied territory. In each of the camps one generally finds that the inhabitants come from the same areas in the occupied territory.

In addition to the population inside the camps, the Sahrawis are dispersed all over the world. The largest diasporas are found on the Canary Islands and mainland Spain.

Only a handful Saharawis found their way to Norway. They can be seen here: 

The human rights violations

Western Sahara is among the countries in the world scoring the lowest on rankings of political freedoms. The UN peacekeeping operation is refused to report on violations they are witness to. 

The US organisation Freedom House rates the political freedoms in Western Sahara worse than all other places on the planet, only surpassed by Syria. 


When Saharawis in the occupied territories are being beaten up by Moroccan police in the streets of Western Sahara, they can see UN personnel driving past in their vehicles. In a normal context, the UN staff would have reported on violations they are witness to. But Western Sahara is not a normal place in the world. The UN operation is the only modern UN peacekeeping mission without permission to report to New York what they observe. 

The reason is France. la

The French government actively works to prevent the human rights violations in Western Sahara to be reported on. Both the US and the UK have suggested in the Security Council that the MINURSO force should have such mandate, but France says no. The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs has raised it with his French counterpart

The last time a UN special rapporteur on human rights visited Western Sahara was in 2013, when the Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary Detention came to the territory. The group documented widespread use of arbitrary detention and torture. Since then, Morocco has refused further such visits. The last few years, around 150 Norwegians have been deported from the occupied territories. The list of disappeared Saharawis includes hundreds of names. Spanish forensic experts have exhumed some of the disappeared from mass graves. 

According to the Moroccan constitution, Western Sahara is an integrated part of its kingdom. Saharawis questioning this, demanding the right to self-determination that the UN is calling for, risk being subjected to serious human rights violations. 

The video below shows the Saharawi journalist Walid El Batal pulled out of his car on 7 June 2019. Half a year later, he was sentenced to two years in jail for police violence. The UN has requested Morocco to investigate Batal's arrest and torture. 


The history of Western Sahara is full of brave Saharawis who have become victims of violations. One of the important symbols of this struggle, is the human rights defender Sidi Mohamed Daddach who in 2002 received the Rafto Award for Human Rights in Norway. Daddach had spent 24 years in Moroccan jails, 14 of which were on death row. 

Since his release in 2002, Daddach has on numerous occasions been harrassed by the police. 


«I was beaten all over the body. They yelled at me and humiliated me and pulled me through the street»

63 year-old Sidi Mohamed Daddach on phone with the Support Committee in 2020.



In 2010 a dozen Saharawis were imprisoned, most for having taken part in the organisation of a peaceful protest camp which Saharawis of all ages erected in a desert area outside of the capital city El Aaiún. It started with a handful Saharawis bringing their tents establishing a little camp. As days went by, the group had grown to a parallel society consisting of over 10.000 people. It was the week before the Arab Spring started in the other Arab countries. The place was Gdeim Izik. 

On 7 November 2010, after a month of silent protest, the police intervened. Fights erupted between police and frustrated saharawis. Both police officers and civilian Saharawis died. After three years, a group of 25 civilian Saharawis were sentenced in a Moroccan military court, most to sentences between 20 years and lifetime. Seven years later, the case was appealed before a civilian court, but the sentences were mostly upheld. 

The only prove against the men, were confessions given under torture. 

The Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara followed the case for some years, and observed the trial. Here is a report we did on the kafkaesque trial against the group



The resource plunder

Western Sahara has one of the world's richest fish stocks and phosphate reserves. One of Morocco's motives behind the occupation has always been the valuable resources in the territory.

The world's longest conveyor belt transports the phosphate rock from the mine inland out to the coast. 

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs urges Norwegian enterprises not to engage in Western Sahara, due to the applicable international law. Norway does not recognise Morocco's sovereignty claims over the territory. Wester Sahara's status as a non-self-governing territory gives the Saharawi people what international law refers to as ‘permanent sovereignty’ over the territory and its resources. 

The Saharawi people's right to manage its own resources has been repeatedly underlined by The United Nations, The UN Human Rights Council and the Court of Justice of the EU. Norway agrees to the view of the CJEU: carrying out business in Western Sahara without first obtaining the consent of the people of the territory, violates international law. 

In spite of this, Norwegian and foreign companies are heavily involved in the territory. The companies operating on Moroccan licences and permissions contribute in the financing and the legitimisation of the Moroccan occupation. In addition, it contributes to the employment of Moroccans who have settled in the neighboring territory. 

The Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara takes part in the international research and campaign carried out by the organisation Western Sahara Resource Watch.