Since the letter from President Pedro Sánchez to the King of Morocco was made public on Friday 17 March, the reactions to it have been numerous and disparate, although most of them coincide in criticising both the substance and the form of the letter.
The debate is already raging, and there are already those who read this news in global terms, looking for connections between this announcement and the international geopolitical alliances surrounding the crisis in Ukraine.
The solution to the conflict: politics or law?
The first question we must ask ourselves in order to understand the scope of this move, whose political impact cannot be doubted, is whether the solution to the Western Sahara conflict can come from politics with its back to international law.
Since Pedro Sánchez’s decision to take sides was made public, many have pointed out the inconsistency of defending international law and national sovereignty in Ukraine. However, just as we did when Trump announced the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory, it is necessary to remember that despite the interrelationship between politics and international law, this pronouncement does not change the legal nature of the conflict or its solution.
Thus, it is necessary to refer to the fundamental aspects that determine the legal framework applicable to the resolution of the conflict: the nature of the territory, the legitimate representation of its population, the legal framework applicable to its resolution, and the role of Spain.
The territory of Western Sahara is a Non-Self-Governing Territory, and therefore, according to UN resolutions (Resolution 2625 (XXV) of the UN General Assembly, adopted on 24 October 1970) its nature will only change when “the people of the colony or Non-Self-Governing Territory have exercised their right to self-determination in accordance with the Charter and, in particular, with its purposes and principles” (p. 174).
This nature has been reiterated by the UN legal adviser Hans Corell (S/2002/161), for example, or in the various rulings of European courts on the legality of the exploitation of the territory’s natural resources.
This nature of the territory also defines the status of the parties, and specifically the nature of the Moroccan presence in the territory as an occupation (see UNSC Res 377/1975 and UNGA Res 34/37 of 1979 and our previous analysis).
These same rulings also make it clear that the legitimate representative of the Saharawi people is the Polisario Front (Judgment of the TG of 29 September 2021) and that, therefore, any decision affecting the well-being of the Saharawi people, the management of their natural resources or the determination of their future must go through consultation with their legitimate representative.
Given the nature of the territory and the status of the parties, there is no framework for resolving the conflict other than that established by international law and UN resolutions, and this includes the realisation of the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination.
However, this framework is not helped by the laxity in the use of language by the UN itself, which has been modifying its formulation for the solution to the conflict from the blunt defence of self-determination (see, for example, Resolution 621 of 1988), to the search for a “mutually acceptable political solution” (for example, Resolution 1541 of 29 April 2004) or the appeal for a “political process under its guidelines” by the UN spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, in his reaction to the Spanish government’s move.
Finally, the legal status of the territory also marks the nature of Spain as the administering power of the territory, although the various Spanish governments have tried to dissociate themselves from their responsibility.
A new betrayal or a new betrayal?
Taking into account the applicable legal bases, what is the real impact of President Sánchez’s announcement? The Polisario Front recalls that this position does not change the territory’s status or Spain’s responsibility, while some claim that this announcement does not represent a change, as the PSOE’s betrayal dates back to the time of Felipe González.
While it is true that the Socialist Party has long aligned itself with the Moroccan proposal, it has never before taken an official position that contravenes the traditional “active neutrality” of the Spanish position. For this reason, much of the criticism is directed at the way in which this change has been made, without informing either the coalition government partners, the opposition or the public.
The more lukewarm critics only reproach Pedro Sánchez for the way in which this decision has been communicated, arguing that, given its importance, it should have been communicated in a consensual and transparent manner, and not as a reaction to Morocco’s publication of the missive.
However, these positions ignore the fact that this change of course, in addition to contravening the historical position of Spanish foreign policy and the aforementioned bases of international law, contradicts the Socialist Party’s own electoral programme for 2019, which on page 286 promised to respect the principle of self-determination of the Sahrawi people), so that its grassroots and voters should also demand explanations, not only in form, but also in substance.
National policy strategy or international alliances?
Many are asking why this change is being made, and why now, when closer ties with Algeria, a historic ally of the Saharawi people, are most needed. While the official argument that emerges from the leaked fragments of the letter and the statements of some party members point to the need to close the diplomatic crisis with Morocco, it is necessary to analyse the overall impact of this decision in order to know whether it responds to a national policy strategy or to international strategic alliances.
Firstly, it should be recalled that Morocco acknowledged that the origin of this diplomatic crisis was not due to the hospital care of Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali, but to Spain’s position following Trump’s announcement of recognition of sovereignty over the territory.
In this sense, the decision taken by Pedro Sánchez’s government would be a concession to Moroccan blackmail in order to start another crisis with Algeria, which claims not to have been informed of this change of position.
Moreover, the opposition reproaches the government for not having been informed in parliament of this change, and its partners in government have even asked the president to appear before parliament to give explanations for this change.
The President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez, and the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, during his appearance before the media after meeting at the Elysée Palace (Paris) on Monday 21 March. Photo: Pool Moncloa/Fernando Calvo (Prensa Presidencia de España)
The hands that pull the strings
However, there are already those who see in this turn of events an interest that goes beyond an attempt to resolve a bilateral crisis, a change that responds to broader geopolitical interests.
Firstly, it is difficult to separate any current decision from the Ukrainian crisis. It is worth recalling that Morocco abstained in the vote against Russia in the General Assembly, aware of Algeria’s relationship with Russia and the role of the Asian country in the region.
Other voices suggest that Spain is thus following in the footsteps of the US and Germany in unfreezing relations with Morocco and thus strengthening the alliance with what they see as a key partner in the region.
It is worth noting that in Germany’s case, too, it was Morocco that leaked a letter from the newly elected chancellor to give an account of what it saw as support for its autonomy plan, even though Germany claims not to have changed its official position on the conflict. What is difficult to understand, however, is the timing of this change of position, when the alliance with Algeria is strategic in the European energy crisis.
Given these questions, it is logical to ask who is the main driving force behind this move, and everything points in two directions: The US and France. Both countries have clear interests in the region, and this is not the first time that the Western Sahara conflict has been at the centre of the geopolitical stakes in the region, and especially in the repercussions of US-Russian-Chinese relations.
On the other hand, France is the main supporter of the Moroccan position, and the harmony between the Spanish government of Pedro Sánchez and President Macron was evident at the meeting on 15 March, just before the announcement of this change of position.
Messages to the Sahrawi people
There is no doubt that this situation sends a clear message to the Sahrawi people and the Polisario Front. Firstly, it is clear that not all wars are the same, and that the political and social repercussions of conflicts are conditioned by issues such as race and cultural proximity, and above all, by economic interests.
The Sahrawi people’s commitment to a peaceful solution to a conflict that has lasted more than 46 years has only led to ostracism and a media blackout, broken only when violence has escalated in the territory. Thus, it is difficult for the commitment to peace to be maintained, especially among the younger Sahrawi generations.
On the other hand, the inconsistency in the application of international law leads the Saharawi people to mistrust the international community, which sees Morocco recurrently violating the law and even the very agreements it has signed without any legal or political repercussions.
And finally, the third message this situation sends to the Sahrawi people is that they cannot trust the Spanish political class. Unlike other countries such as Portugal, which made the decolonisation of East Timor a national commitment until the conflict with Indonesia was resolved, all Spanish political parties have been characterised by defending one position on Western Sahara from the opposition and the opposite from the government.
Despite criticism from their government partners and the parties that facilitated the investiture, it is unlikely that their reaction will go beyond media statements and the occasional question in parliament.
And as the recently deceased Desmond Tutu once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. It seems clear that more and more people are choosing the “side of the oppressor” and it only remains to be seen how the oppressed people will react.