Friday, November 6 marks the 40th anniversary of the Green March, when some 350,000 Moroccan citizens and nearly 20,000 unarmed Moroccan troops walked in a peaceful demonstration into what was then known as Spanish Sahara to take back their southern provinces from Spanish control. The event marked a turning point in modern Moroccan history and identity, and today the fight for the Sahara remains the top national and diplomatic priority for the country.
Below is a brief timeline of the conflict, and US support for Morocco’s proposed solution:
Following the Green March in 1975, the Polisario Front—a separatist group backed by Algeria, Cuba, and Libya—launched a guerilla war against Morocco that lasted until 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire. Though the ceasefire has held, tens of thousands of refugees still live under desperate conditions in Polisario Front-controlled refugee camps in southwestern Algeria, subsisting entirely on international humanitarian aid.
Since the ceasefire, numerous attempts to resolve the Western Sahara dispute through negotiations have failed, and starting in 1999, US policy has been to support a compromise formula based on autonomy for the Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty.
In 2007, Morocco presented a plan that offered such a compromise formula, which the UN Security Council welcomed as “serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution.” The Council urged Morocco and the Polisario Front to seek “a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution,” which was affirmed by the US and other UN Security Council members.
That same year, four rounds of UN-led negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front failed to resolve the conflict, and in 2008, Peter van Walsum, who mediated the negotiations, concluded that “an independent Western Sahara is not an attainable goal” and proposed that the next round of negotiations focus on a negotiated political solution, such as autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.
Since 2008, the current Envoy, US diplomat Christopher Ross, has held nine rounds of “informal talks” followed by “shuttle diplomacy” to encourage compromise between the parties so that the fifth round of negotiations can take place focusing on a compromise political solution, as van Walsum recommended to the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile, since 1990, the US and its international partners have spent more than $1 billion to support the refugees in the Polisario-controlled refugee camps, much of which has been diverted to enrich some Polisario leaders, according to numerous EU and World Food Programme reports.
Under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations, the US has continued to support a formula of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. In a Joint Statement issued on November 22, 2013 following a meeting between President Obama and King Mohammed VI, the US reiterated that Morocco’s autonomy plan is “serious, realistic, and credible.” The two leaders also affirmed “their shared commitment to the improvement of the lives of the people of the Western Sahara and agreed to work together to continue to protect and promote human rights in the territory.”
The policy—and support for Morocco’s autonomy plan—has also been reiterated by bipartisan majorities of both the US House and Senate. In April 2009, 233 members of the United States House of Representatives sent a letter to President Obama reaffirming their support for Morocco’s autonomy proposal. The letter built on another letter from 2007 signed by 173 Members of the House (including the bipartisan House Leadership Chairman Tom Lantos and Ranking Member Ileana Ros‐Lehtinen) reiterating Congressional support for the Moroccan plan, and a letter from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other former policy makers. In March 2010, 54 members of the United States Senate affirmed their support for Morocco’s autonomy plan in a letter addressed to then‐Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Out of concern for growing instability in North Africa, the letter urged Secretary Clinton to “make the resolution of the Western Sahara stalemate a U.S. foreign policy priority for North Africa,” and called for “more sustained American attention to one of the region’s most pressing political issues.”
In the meantime, Morocco has continued to develop the southern provinces and ensure the well-being and security of the population. The economic and social development of the region is now largely at or above that of the rest of the country, and to date, Morocco has invested well over $2.5 billion in the region, and continues to boost investment and development there.
In September of 2015, Morocco held popular elections for local and regional government posts, which will enjoy expanded power devolved from the central government—thus bringing increased political autonomy for the Western Sahara. The elections demonstrate Morocco’s commitment to a new philosophy of governance and development—advanced regionalization—that devolves most important political, social, cultural, and economic decision making to the elected officials, business, and civil society leaders closest to people’s everyday lives. It is an intentionally designed precursor to the even broader autonomy for the territory that Morocco is trying to negotiate for its citizens. The citizen response to the elections were resounding—the three most southerly provinces averaged 58% turnout, outperforming most other provinces in the country.
“Forty years ago, the Moroccan people took a courageous leap and were overjoyed at the liberation of their southern provinces from Spain. And Morocco took just as courageous a step some 30 years later in offering autonomy to the region. The US has supported that vision since the beginning, and it needs to do everything it can to help make it a reality,” said former US Ambassador to Morocco Edward M. Gabriel.###
Contact: Jordana Merran, 202.470.2049
The Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP) is a non-profit organization whose principal mission is to inform opinion makers, government officials, and interested publics in the United States about political and social developments in Morocco and the role being played by the Kingdom of Morocco in broader strategic developments in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.
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