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The Search for Self-Determination: the Western-Sahara Case

In the current system of international relations, one of the main guiding principles of state action is the preservation of self-determination as a standard right of the people. Although the concept lacks a universally accepted definition, the international community has reached a form of minimal agreement on the matter's scope. Self-determination is indeed understood as the entitlement of people to have control and ownership over their belonging and destiny. In this sense, the concept requires both the elements of protection and implementation for individuals to pursue their social, economic, and cultural development.

Figure 1: Syrian refugee camp in the outskirts of Athens

In its procedural interpretation, the right to self-determination was enshrined in international law for the first time through the Charter of the United Nations. Although, its content, understanding, and applicability remain mutable and constantly evolving concepts. Indeed, the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) attempted to clarify the ontological issue concerning self-determination. The efforts of the ICCPR aimed to specifically underline how the provision was not an individual one, but was instead characterized by a collective element. In the ICCPR’s definition, the people are endowed with the right to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development” (United Nations General Assembly, 1966). Since its inception, the right to self-determination has been defined by an ownership relationship between a population inhabiting a territorial entity, and the right to pursue socio-cultural development. Because of this interpretation, the specific right that emerged in international law mostly concerned post-colonial disputes of territorial subdivision and political engulfment. In the post-colonial era, self-determination permeated most of the debate surrounding the institutional future of Europe's previous colonies.

This deep interconnection between the right to self-determination and the post-colonial environment was further institutionalized by the adoption of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. This General Assembly resolution further emphasized the necessity to step away from policies of cultural subjugation and domination, promoting instead the development of a context in which that inherent virtue to define one’s future could be concretized. In this interpretation, the right to self-determination becomes valuable in its externalization possibilities. It is in the externalization of a social group by a colonial power that self-determination started to arise in international law (Minority Rights Group, 2020).

Figure 2: An IDP camp for Ezidis from the Sinjar region

However, such an interpretation led to a dichotomous reading of the concept. If the principle could be seen as validating internal self-determination – which entails the right of people to freely choose their own political, economic, and social systems (Senese, S. 1989) – it could also be understood as supportive of more extreme forms of political separation. The principle could be interpreted as justifying the separation of the territory of one state to establish an entirely different state entity. This fundamentally clashes with the internationally-accepted notions of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Recently, the question of self-determination and the legitimacy of both its "internal" and "external" interpretations resurfaced. In particular, it has become relevant concerning the decades-long search of the Saharawi people for recognition and local independence. The term “Saharawi” is commonly used to refer to the populations inhabiting the western parts of the Sahara desert. The Saharawi are a conglomeration of tribes of Arab-Berber descent whose fight for political and territorial recognition has been latent for decades. Although the area of Western Sahara has been considered by the United Nations (UN) as a non-self-governing territory since the end of the 1960s Spanish domination, the promulgation of the 1975 “Madrid Accords” fundamentally allowed the State of Morocco to exercise territorial sovereignty on the area (Fynn, V. 2011).

Figure 3: Photo by Amir Arabshahi on Unsplash

The initiative of promoting the "Madrid Accords", in the framework of the Spanish retreat from the territory, did not only aid in the subsiding of the area's internal tensions, but further deepened the hostilities between the Moroccan government and the Sahrawi people. These tensions erupted in the Western Sahara War that opposed the Moroccan executive to the National Saharawi Polisario Front until the late 1980s. The intervention of international bodies demanded Morocco to hold a free and fair referendum under international supervision through which the Sahrawi people could choose between independence and integration (Fynn, V. 2011).

Nonetheless, the expectations of the tribe were disappointed by Morocco’s dilatory tactics and the passivity of the UN in the face of obstructionism. In fact, despite its earlier commitment, Morocco immediately started to obstruct the process. This kept developing and, after rejecting the idea of an UN-supervised referendum, Morocco tried to use the UN to legitimize its illegal annexation. Given the current situation, this impasse will probably keep developing, especially given Morocco’s unwillingness to recognize the struggles of the Sahrawi population and the lack of interest many international institutions have by slacking in promoting a compelling interest and action. This situation not only damages the interests and lives of the Sahrawi people, who fundamentally inhabit a condition that lies between statehood and legal invisibility but also benefits Morocco. In fact, the state continues to control three-quarters of Western Sahara while seeking international recognition of its de facto annexation of the territory (Omar, S. 2008). In this context, the question concerning whether or not the Saharawi people could refer to the right to self-determination can be clarified by highlighting both legal and procedural elements.

Figure 4: "Visit"

Photo by Eric Masur on Unsplash

From a legal standpoint, the UN doctrine relating to decolonization and the status of Western Sahara as a Non-Self-Governing Territory could represent a means to claim the right of self-determination. Through these elements, the population could in fact reclaim the exercise of their inalienable right to self-determination, and decide the status of their territory in a free, democratic, and genuine way. Further, it would be possible to understand how the cause of the armed conflict in Western Sahara was the Moroccan invasion and subsequent annexation of the territory in 1975. This act was perpetrated in violation of international law and of an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ, Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara, 1975). The forcible annexation still represents a clear violation of a fundamental norm of international law that the UN and the international community should address for the sake of peace in the region.

The possible solutions to the conflict raise serious questions concerning, not only the responsibility of the UN and the international community but also a fundamental principle underpinning the international system itself – the right to self-determination. In this context, the conflict in Western Sahara can only be resolved through the exercise of the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. The establishment of a free, democratic, and UN-supervised referendum is the only avenue through which they could decide either to be independent, integrate into Morocco, or settle another arrangement.

Bibliographical Sources

Fynn Bruey, V. (2011, July 17). Africa’s Last Colony: Sahrawi People - Refugees, IDPs and Nationals.

Hodges, T. (1983). The origins of Saharawi nationalism. Third World Quarterly, 5(1), 28–57.

ICJ (1975) Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara, 1975, ICJ 12, paragraphs 75–83.

Minority Rights Group. (2020). Self-determination. Minority Rights Group.

Omar, S. M. (2008). The right to self-determination and the indigenous people of Western Sahara. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 21(1), 41–57.

Sahrawi People. (n.d.). Atlas of Humanity.

Senese, S. (1989). External and Internal Self-Determination. Social Justice, 16(1 (35)), 19–25.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Ricard, J. (2020). Retrieved from

Figure 2: Clancy, M. L. (2021). Retrieved from

Figure 3: Arabshahi, A. (2021). Retrieved from

Figure 4: Masur, E. (2018). Retrieved from


Author Photo

Niccolò Fantin

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