Containing the armed conflict in Western Sahara


The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara has helped to prevent renewed armed conflict in Western Sahara since 1991.

The territory of contemporary Western Sahara was administered as the Spanish Sahara by the Government of Spain until 1976, when a UN-assisted peaceful post-colonial transition was supposed to culminate in a popular referendum deciding the political future of the territory. Instead, when Spanish forces withdrew, the governments of Morocco and Mauritania partitioned the area, with Saguia el Hamra in the north becoming Moroccan territory and Rio de Oro in the south being annexed by Mauritania. An armed group from the area called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) contested their claims on the territory and launched an armed struggle for independence.1 The fighting in Rio de Oro was brought to an end following a coup d’état in Mauritania in 1978, however, the Government of Morocco then laid claim Rio de Oro in addition to Saguia el Hamra and the conflict between POLISARIO and the Moroccan government engulfed the entire territory.2 Efforts to resolve the conflict were initially led by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but in 1985 the UN Secretary-General convinced the King of Morocco to participate in a UN-led peace process and allow the delayed referendum to go ahead.3 Further negotiations resulted in an informal ceasefire in 1989, allowing the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Misión de las Naciones Unidas para la Organización de un Referéndum en el Sáhara Occidental, MINURSO) to be established in April 1991.4 The first MINURSO observers arrived in September of that year.5

The UN operation was intended to keep the peace for a transitional period, during which time a Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General would have complete authority over all matters relating to the referendum. Initially, the referendum was scheduled for January 1992. However, disputes over the criteria for eligibility (the Government of Morocco has moved 350,000 people into the region, thus complicating any election) have prevented it from taking place. Instead, the peace process remains deadlocked and MINURSO’s activities are restricted to monitoring compliance with the ceasefire. In 1996, with little progress being made on the terms of the referendum, the civilian and police staff of MINURSO were withdrawn. The military observers remain in place to this day, continuing their work maintaining the ceasefire and facilitating dialogue between the belligerents.6 Although a resolution to the conflict remains unlikely, MINURSO has successfully helped to keep the peace and prevent a conflict relapse in Western Sahara for almost thirty years.7


2 UCDP. Government of Mauritania – POLISARIO. (UCDP, 2020) Available at: (Accessed 03/12/2020)

3 Anna Theofilopoulou. “The United Nations and Western Sahara: A Never-ending Affair.” USIP Special Report, No. 166. (2006) p.3

4 UCDP. Morocco: Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara).

5 MINURSO. Chronology of Events. (UN, 2022) Available at: (Accessed 16/01/2022)

6 MINURSO. Background. (UN, 2020) Available at: (Accessed 03/12/2020)

7 UCDP. Morocco: Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara).

Start Year


End Year



Western Sahara

UN Regional Group


Type of Conflict

Vertical (state-based) intrastate conflict with foreign involvement, Risk of an interstate conflict

Type of Initiative

International transitional administration, Monitoring, observation, political, and verification missions, Peacekeeping mission

Main Implementing Organisation(s)

The UN




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