Groningen Journal of International Law

International Law Under Construction

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Non-Recognition and Denial of Self-Determination in the Case of Western Sahara: Recent Developments in International Law

By Dr. Clive Symmons, Trinity College


After the withdrawal of Spanish colonial forces in 1975, Western Sahara did not gain independence, but was occupied by Morocco following a war between Morocco, Mauretania and the pro-independence Polisario Front. This occupation is illegal under international law, violating the erga omnes right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people and being based, ultimately, on the use of force. The United Nations Security Council (hereafter ‘SC’) has called on Morocco to withdraw from the territory, though to no avail; meanwhile, the General Assembly (‘GA’) has effectively branded Morocco an illegal occupier.

Inadequate Reponses to the Occupation

While it should be noted that no state has officially recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, the reaction of many members of the international community has been far less decisive in practice, particularly in the ambit of trade. This can be observed, for example, in free trade agreements (‘FTAs’) and Fishery Partnership Agreements (‘FPAs’) between the EU and Morocco, which I believe violate international law in themselves, something the EU seems to have recognised in the recent Frente Polisario case. Continue reading