Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Western Sahara and the Self-Determination Debate

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Western Sahara and the Self-Determination Debate

Article excerpt

The dispute over Western Sahara, a sparsely-populated territory along the Atlantic coast between Morocco and Mauritania, is as much a struggle over the potency of international law as it is a row over land. The right to national self-determination, it is often argued, dictates a pathway out of the current diplomatic stalemate. This path could be taken by holding a United Nationssupervised plebiscite to enable the territory's residents to determine their own political future.1 Yet, from a legal perspective, national self-determination does not necessarily offer a one-sizefits-all remedy, let alone a helpful framework, for the settlement of conflicting claims and grievances over disputed territories.

While Western Sahara is hardly at the forefront of U.S. or European policy, any resolution to its claims will be important as it may create a precedent for Palestinian claims to national self-determination in territories disputed with Israel, or to Kurdish claims to selfdetermination in Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian territory. Proponents of nationalist struggle or secession often argue that their cause is not only just but is validated by national selfdetermination. This they conceive of as an unassailable principle of international law justifying not only the ends but also any means used to achieve them. However, not only is the common conception of self-determination incomplete in international law, but it has actually hampered international law's development as an authoritative body of law capable of resolving disputes between countries.

Western Sahara's Troubled History

Western Sahara hugs the Atlantic Coast between Morocco and Mauritania. It is more than twice the size of New York state, but the Central Intelligence Agency estimates its population at just over 400,000, only about one-fiftieth ofthat of New York and less than that of any single U.S. state or the District of Columbia.2 More than half of Western Sahara's population lives in Laayoune, a small town just thirty miles from the internationally-recognized Moroccan border.

The territory is as desolate in resources as it is in population. There is no arable land and while the region boasts phosphate deposits, much of its economic potential comes from fishing off its 700-mile coastline. The marginality of the land condemned the region to peripheral status in history. While empires rose and fell to the north, south, and east, Western Sahara was always a backwater. Caravans passed through the territory, tribes slowly Islamized, and various North African Islamic dynasties - the Berber Almoravids (1040-1 147) and Almohads (1 121-1269), for example, exerted some control. Nevertheless, the region remained largely nomadic and free from central authority.

Spain seized the territory after the 1 884 Berlin Conference and while Madrid sent governors and engaged in some construction, the area proved less profitable than other European colonies and little development occurred. Spain finally abandoned its territory in 1975, after which both Morocco and Mauritania - each stating historical claims but motivated more by a hope that the territory would hold oil - claimed the region. Morocco went further, however, and sent Moroccan settlers into the region. While natives of the region and international backers continue to argue that Western Sahara should be independent, Rabat has firmly insisted that the territory should remain under its control.

What Is the Principle of Self-Determination?

The notion of self-determination as a universal principle, whether viewed through a political, moral, or legal lens, has been, and continues to be imprecise and in dire need of further clarification. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson understood self-determination to be the belief that every people had the right to select its own form of government, to "choose the sovereignty under which they shall live," and thus be free of alien masters.3 Although there was initially disagreement as to who precisely is the "self to which the right of se/f-determination refers, the Versailles Peace Conference linked self-determination with the "principle of nationalities," or an ethnographic view of the "self. …

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