Skip to main content

UN talks on Western Sahara conclude with parties agreeing to meet again

United Nations' efforts have repeatedly failed to broker settlement over territory contested between Morocco and Polisario Front
Polisario Front has advocated for referendum with independence for Western Sahara as an option (AFP)

United Nations talks over the disputed territory of Western Sahara ended on Thursday without a breakthrough, but all sides agreed to meet again in early 2019, UN envoy Horst Koehler said.

UN efforts have repeatedly failed to broker a settlement over the desert territory, contested between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front independence movement, since Spain ceded control in 1974.

This week's dialogue took place in Geneva among the foreign ministers of Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and the Polisario Front.

The parties had "engaged openly and in a spirit of mutual respect," Koehler said, in what were the first UN talks on the dispute in six years.

“From our discussions, it is clear to me that nobody wins from maintaining the status quo,” the Associated Press news agency quoted Koehler as saying.

“My conviction remains that a peaceful solution to this conflict is possible,” he added.

Morocco, which currently controls Western Sahara, has offered to grant the thinly populated region autonomous status, while still maintaining overall authority there.

The territory is home to rich fishing waters and phosphate deposits, and may also have oil and gas reserves. The Polisario Front estimates that 300,000 to 350,000 people live in the region, AP reported.

The group, which waged a low-intensity guerrilla war until a ceasefire in 1991, have advocated for a referendum, with independence for Western Sahara as one of the options.

But that's been disputed by Morocco.

"Self-determination, in Morocco's view, is done by negotiation," Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said after the talks. "A referendum is not on the agenda."

Polisario negotiator Khatry Adouh said the most democratic solution was to let people choose between options in a referendum the United Nations had supported in 1991.

For decades, families from the borderlands have been torn apart: There is a highway straddling the frontier, but it is shut. So to cross over, people from Western Sahara have to travel hundreds of kilometres to reach an airport for a flight to Casablanca or Algiers and then travel again by road.

In a statement, the Polisario Front praised US and African Union support for the UN process.

But it criticised the European Union for "sustained, illegal and uncompromising efforts to secure trade deals with Morocco which include the territory of Western Sahara in violation of the rulings of the European Court of Justice".

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.