Western Sahara — Marocco Boarder conflict

To what extend are de-facto states able to gain full institutional recognition by the international community?

Henri Klein
7 min readJun 18, 2022

Case introduction

Today I am going to talk to you about the Moroccan Sahrawi West Sahara conflict. Morocco is a state in North Africa, that claims sovereignty over all of the Western Sahara territory. But by taking a view at Google Maps, one can see a dashed line, kindly indicating a territorial border dispute- a situation of two parties claiming sovereignty over the same territory. The competing de-facto state claiming sovereignty is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Morocco doesn’t want Western Sahara, and with it the Sahrawi people to become a sovereign state- they want western Sahara to be theirs. However, this case also shows a more abstract, hindering boarder de-facto states must overcome in the progress of becoming a sovereign state. In the following presentation, I will analyse contrasting power claims and the obstacles de-facto states face in the progress of becoming recognised by the international community — turning into what is being considered a state.

Background setting

But first, let’s start with some background information. Between the 1870s and 1975, Western Sahara was under Spanish occupation. After the Spanish left the area of Western Sahara over the continuing demand of the Sahrawi’s for their territorial integrity, there has been a major power vacuum , with no controlling and governing administration showing a lack of internal sovereignty. Morocco took this short span of chaos as their chance to expand their boarders of influence. The Following Annexation of Western Sahara by Morocco and Partnered Mauritania took place in two stages, in 1976 and 1979. It was forcefully staged by both states, dividing the country for them in half. After the withdrawal of Mauritania over growing human right concerns and an unexpected high number of losses in their own ranks, Morocco claimed total legitimacy over the whole of Western Sahara. While Morocco was able to bring back order in the occupied territories, Annexation was at this time as it is today considered illegal under international law and their sovereignty claim was therefore being called “null and void”, fancy legal words for saying they have no legal respect. Additionally,Morocco’s transfer of its own civilians into the then occupied territory was as well in direct violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states the prohibition of such movements disregarding any motive that might be involved. It is clear to see that Marocco lost a lot of their throughput legitimacy, yet Morocco holds on to their claim for sovereignty.

Moroccan claim for sovereignty over western Sahara

Since the territory was ceded by Spain, Morocco has claimed Western Sahara as an integral part of its kingdom. Yet virtually no other country, except now the United States, recognises Moroccan sovereignty over it.

Moroccan explanations for their sovereignty claims

  1. Morocco states that with little military power, it could also become a home for radicals.
  2. Morocco states that with very little to support an economy, there is a high risk that the SADR could collapse into a failed state leading to a power vacuum leading to chaos and internal anarchy.
  3. Such unprevented chaos could then lead to Western Sahara becoming a proxy of a foreign power like Iran.
  4. An official statement by the government also suggests that “These efforts show Iran trying to seize control of vital sea-lanes. The world economy relies on free passage through these critical thoroughfares. Controlling them would give Iran incredible power and leverage”

Morocco is concerned about their security and claims that if Western Morocco was to become a failed state, there would be a missive security dilemma they would have to put up with.

They also justify their intervention by referring to Humanitarian Interventionism. When a region is unable to govern itself, the idea of Humanitarian Interventionism allows external countries to interfere, to bring back control and to prevent harm inside a territory.

By effectively bringing back order into chaotic regions of occupied territory, Morocco provided some extend of throughput legitimacy, which they used for justification to remain in the occupied territory.

This panic mongering tries to convince the public of a danger in not interfering, and can be linked to the structural realist theory, basically stating that countries must prioritise their own security and survival and may therefore try to prevent neighbouring regions from becoming unstable at all costs. Morocco claims to be providing output legitimacy, as they have a functioning and recognised state that can use resources extracted from the Sahara to be exported, bringing in money for the so-called province, fuelling economic growth and with it the Western Sahara people’s wealth.

Sahrawi’s claim for territorial integrity and sovereignty

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was proclaimed by the Polisario Front on 27 February 1976, in Bir Lelu, Western Sahara. The de-facto state governed by the SADR claims sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara, however, at present the SADR government exercises sovereignty over only about 20–25% of the territory it claims. The SADR claims to be the rightful holder of legitimacy.

  1. The SADR claims to provide input legitimatcy, as their leaders are representative to public preferences. The Government is democratic, and biannually elects regional officials and delegates.
  2. the SADR claims to provide output legitimacy, as they can conduct all necessities a state is required to provide its citizens. They have an executing police force that works separated from the Polsario Front, hold judiciary trials, legislate a functioning government and conduct international relations to other countries that are willing to recognise them.
  3. The SADR claims provide throughput legitimacy, as the people of Western Sahara resonate with them. Officials state many citizens of Western Sahara wanting to enter the so called “free zone”, however, as Morocco is keeping them from expanding, little to no space allows for a growing population.

By looking at the theory of “rightfulness” to power, we can see that the Sahrawi’s show all properties a country must bring to become a sovereign state. Yet, the general international community doesn’t recognise it as one. This might suggest that sovereignty claims are not only determined by legitimacy, but also by other factors of power.

At the moment, a total of 33 states presently maintains diplomatic relations with the SADR. The Sharan Arabic Democratic Republic has also claimed membership to the African Unity and was admitted. The SADR claims to be more legitimate than Morocco, as additionally to the throughput legitimacy provided by Morocco, the people also resonate with them and are able to take part in the decision making.

International Organisations and their Findings

The Moroccan military occupation and specifically the annexation of western Sahara is clearly described as illegitimate and stands in direct violation with International Law and the Geneva Convention.

However, that doesn’t automatically translate to Sovereignty of the Sahrawi people, with the United Nations describing western Sahara as a non-decolonized territory and thus includes it in the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. Such territories are determined under chapter 6 of the UN charter and describe “territories whose people have not yet attained a full measure of self-government”.

Nevertheless, The UN addressed the conflict via a resolution reaffirming the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people, calling the Polisario as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi’s people.

The African Unition supports the right of self-determination granted by the UN, and similarly to the UN gives the SADR on observer member spot in the Andean Parliament.

International Community and their findings

41 out of 193 United Nations member states currently recognise the SADR. Equivalently, the SADR has been recognised by 38 out of the other 54 African Union member states at some point in time. This was quite interesting for me to see, as I believed the western community to be supporting input and throughput legitimacy claims. It therefore shocked me to see that of the western thinking countries, only Sweden and Australia accepted the SADR sovereignty claim.

Most countries are hesitant calling Morocco illegitimate, as much want to uphold ongoing phosphate exports from the Western Sahara region. The USA has been a big importer of Moroccan phosphate, and with increasing tension between Morocco and Israel, two allies of the US, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would officially be the first country to recognise Morocco’s claims over Western Sahara, in exchange for Morocco agreeing to normalise relations with Israel. This suggests a realist view, where legitimacy doesn’t play a role in deciding territorial disputed. Countries are selfish and disregard humanitarian reasons for reasons of their own security and power interest in the international framework. The US hereby accepts Output legitimacy as the only factor to determine sovereignty, with actual legitimacy being disregarded. This is interesting, as in comparable cases like China, the US seems to have quite a clear opinion.


Bringing this back to the main question, we can see many obstacles a de-facto state faces when trying to become sovereign. The Case-study of Western Sahara shows us how a Country that has all the legitimacy and the right to self-determination, to fulfil and persuade their political and territorial integrity, however, fail with being externally recognised. Morocco has an incentive in not having Western Sahara become sovereign. International Organisations like the UN find Moroccans power claim to be legitimate, yet, the US, being one of the founding and driving members completely disregards the fining and acts in selfish behaviour, supporting Morocco, the country that is best helping the US achieve what it wants. This doesn’t only hurt the throughput legitimacy of international institution being disregarded, but also shows what ultimately matters. Because ultimately legitimacy and international law doesn’t seem to matter, rather support amongst states and what they might be able to offer each other



Henri Klein

Youth Council Member @wef | Alumni @TheKSociety & @Prematch | 🇺🇳 🇩🇪 🇬🇧