- International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara
One of the main functions of the
International Court of Justice(ICJ) is to provide Advisory Opinions - non-binding legal interpretations admitted by United Nationsorgans. In the summer of 1975, the court considered two questions regarding the disputed territory of Western Sahara(then Spanish Sahara). In 1969, Spain returned the region of Ifni to Morocco. [ICJ internal database refers to this case simply as "Western Sahara" (International Court of Justice [http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?sum=323&code=sa&p1=3&p2=4&case=61&k=69&p3=5 Western Sahara] , General List No. 61, (1974-1975))]
Since its accession to independence in 1956, Morocco has considered Spanish Sahara to be part of its pre-colonial territory, and
Spainhad largely decolonized its foreign holdings, including much of Spanish Morocco, but had retained the Spanish Sahara. In 1958, the Moroccan Army of Liberation fought the Spanish forces in the Ifni War. After support from France, Spain regained control of the region but returned the regions of Tarfaya, and Tantan to Morocco. Morocco continued to demand the return the remaining regions, Ifni, Saguia el-Hamra and Rio De Oro and several other regions colonized by France. During the 1960s, Morocco succeeded in getting Spanish Sahara to be listed on the list of territories to be decolonized, and on December 20, 1966, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2229called on Spain to hold a referendumon self-determinationin the region.
After initially resisting all claims by Morocco and Mauritania (which also started laying claims to parts of the region),
Spainannounced on August 20, 1974, that a referendumon self-determinationwould be held in the first six months of 1975 and took a census of the region in order to assess the voting population. Moroccodeclared it cannot accept a referendum which would include an option for independence and renewed its demands for the reintegration of the remaining provinces of Saguia el-Hamraand Rio de Oroto the country's sovereignty. In Mauritania, a smaller movement existed to overtake some amount of the territory, partitioning it with Morocco.
Algerian-Moroccan relations had been strained since Algeria's independence in 1962, culminating in the
Sand war, and a lack of normalized relations. Algeria, after initially supporting Morocco and Mauritania in their demands, started in 1975 to support the independence of the territory. The Algerian official position was that it supported the right of self-determination of the people of the former Spanish colony. The Polisario Front, created in 1973, a militia/political party known as Polisario(Spanish: "Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro" English: "Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro") was formed in 1973 to expel the Spaniards. They engaged in several low-level acts of property destruction, mostly localized around the Fosbucraa conveyor belt, which exported the rich phosphates to the Atlantic Ocean.
September 17, 1974, King Hassan II announced his intention to bring the issue to the ICJ. In December, Spain agreed to delay the referendum pending the opinion of the court. They gave their support to ICJ submission on the grounds that it be a non-binding, advisory opinion, rather than a "contentious issue", where the ruling would oblige the interested states to act in a particular manner.
December 13, the United Nations General Assemblyvoted on submission, resulting in UN General Assembly Resolution3292, affirming it and defining the wording of the questions to be submitted. Algeria was among the nations voting in favor, and several Third Worldnations abstained.
The Resolution stipulated that the dispute would be worded as such:And, should the majority opinion be "no", the following would be addressed:In the meantime, Morocco and Mauritania jointly agreed to not contest the issue of partition or sovereignty. On
January 16, 1975, Spain officially announced the suspension of the referendum plan, pending the opinion of the court. From May 12through to May 19, a small investigative team made of citizens from Cuba, Iran, and Côte d'Ivoirewas sent into the region to assess public support for independence. They also performed inquiries in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Spain.
In the summer, the questions were submitted by King Hassan II and Spain. Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Spain were all given permission to present evidence at the hearings (the Polisario was locked out as only internationally-recognized states have a right to speak - Algeria largely represented the Sahrawis). Twenty-seven sessions were held in June and July before the Court called the proceedings final.
The arguments presented by Morocco and Mauritania were essentially similar: that either one had a sovereign right over the territory. In the case of Morocco, the kingdom of Morocco claimed the allegiance of a variety of tribes in surrounding territory. The modern Moroccan monarchy is derived from this kingdom. In the case of Mauritania, there was no clearly-defined state that existed at the time. Instead, Mauritania argued that a similar entity existed which they called "bilad
Chinguetti". Spain argued against Moroccan sovereignty, citing the relationship that Spanish explorers and colonizers had established with the sultan, none of which ever recognized his authority over the region. Algeria also defended the position that the Sahrawis were a distinct peopleFact|date=March 2007, and not under the subjection of Morocco or Mauritania.
October 15, a UN visiting mission sent by the General Assembly to tour the region and investigate the political situation published its findings, showing that the Sahrawi population were "overwhelmingly" in favor of independencefrom both Spain and Morocco/Mauritania. These findings were submitted to the Court, who published their opinion the next day.
For the former question, the Court decided by a vote of 13 to three that the court could make a decision on the matter, and unanimously voted that at the time of colonization (defined as
November 28, 1884), the territory was not "terra nullius" (that is, the territory, did belong to someone).
For the latter question, the Court decided by a vote of 14 to two that it would decide. It was of the opinion, by 14 votes to two, that there were legal ties of allegiance between this territory and the Kingdom of Morocco. Furthermore, it was of opinion, by 15 votes to one, that there were legal ties between this territory and the "Mauritanian entity". However, the Court defined the nature of these legal ties in the penultimate paragraph of its opinion, and declared that neither legal tie implied sovereignty or rightful ownership over the territory. These legal ties also did not apply to "self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory."Fact|date=July 2008
The opinion of the Court was interpreted differently by the different parties, and each focused on what it sees as supporting its claims.
While Morocco and Mauritania found in the answers to the two questions, a recognition that their claims are legitimate and historically based, Algeria and the Polisario Front focused on the penultimate paragraph, that stated that the court's decision was not to hinder the application of self-determination through the ongoing Spanish referendum.
King Hassan II declared the organisation of a peaceful march to force Spain to start negotiations on the status of the territory, to which Spain finally agreed. A round of talks between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania were held in Madrid and culminated in a tripartite agreement, becoming known as the
Madrid AccordsOn November 16, 1975, where Spain formally ceded the northern two thirds of the territory to Morocco, while the southern third was to become part of Mauritania. Algeria protested the agreement, and president Boumedienne retaliated by expelling all Moroccans living in Algeria. The text of the Madrid Accords have never been made public record.
In consequence, the Court's decisions were largely disregarded by the interested parties. As the Spanish withdrew from their garrisons in the latter part of the year and early 1976, Morocco's army moved in to take their place. Algeria sent its troops deep into the territory of Western Sahara, which led to the first and last direct military confrontation between units of the Moroccan armed forces and the Algerian national army in
Amgalain 1976. The Algerian army suffered hundreds of deads and more than a hundred soldiers were made prisoners by the Moroccan army. Diplomatic intervention from Saudi Arabiaand Egyptprevented the situation from escalating further.
Spain's last soldier departed the territory on
February 26, 1976. The next day, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republicwas declared by Polisario representatives. Morocco intensified their military presence in the region, and by the end of the year, Mauritania and Morocco had partitioned the territory. Mauritania was too weak militarily and economically to compete against Polisario, though, and were forced to renounce their claims in 1978. Morocco immediately annexed that territory in addition. To this day, most of Western Sahara is administered by Morocco, but its sovereignty has not been recognized by the UN and many countries. At the same time, 44 governments recognize the Sahrawi Republic as the legitimate government of Western Sahara.
History of Western Sahara
List of International Court of Justice cases
United Nations visiting mission to Spanish Sahara
* [http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?p1=3&p2=4&code=sa&case=61&k=69 The on-line summary of the Advisory Opinion, from the ICJ web site]
* [http://fmo.qeh.ox.ac.uk/FMO/Reader/Viewdoc.asp?Path=Oxford/1606/12/10&BookKey=Oxford/1606/12/10/Ar00100.xml&BookCollection=FMO The International Court of Justice and the Western Sahara dispute] by George Joffe, 1986 (Scanned document)
*Tony Hodges (1983), "Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War", Lawrence Hill Books (ISBN 0-88208-152-7)
*Anthony G. Pazzanita and Tony Hodges (1994), "Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara", Scarecrow Press (ISBN 0-8108-2661-5)
*Toby Shelley (2004), "Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa's Last Colony?", Zed Books (ISBN 1-84277-341-0)
*Erik Jensen (2005), "Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate", International Peace Studies (ISBN 1-58826-305-3)
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