The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara

Mission Mandate

W SaharaIn Sahara In 1991, UN Security Council resolution 690 authorized the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire between Morocco and the Frente Polisario, a rebel group composed of native Western Saharans (known as Sahrawis), and to help organize a referendum of self-determination. The Security Council extended MINURSO's mandate through April 30, 2014.

The Mission’s mandate includes:

  • Monitoring the ceasefire;
  • Verifying the reduction in Moroccan troops;
  • Working to release Western Saharan political prisoners and overseeing prisoner exchanges; and
  • Organizing and ensuring a free and fair referendum, including identifying and registering eligible voters.


Located on the north-west coast of Africa, bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria, territorial jurisdiction over Western Sahara has been disputed since 1975 when Spain relinquished its authority to a joint administrative control under Morocco and Mauritania.  A conflict erupted between Mauritania, Algeria, and the Frente Polisario, a group of exiled Saharwis based out of Algeria.  Known as the “green march,” the entry of the Moroccan Royal Army into Western Sahara caused over 150,000 of the local people, called the Sahrawi, to flee to Western Algeria. In 1979 Mauritania withdrew from the region, but Morocco continued to fight the Frente Polisario for control.

A United Nations-brokered ceasefire ended the war in 1988. Morocco governed much of the territory as a province, and the exiled Frente Polisario, based in Algeria, claimed control over a portion of Western Sahara called the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). On April 29, 1991, the Security Council established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).  At this time both sides agreed to allow MINURSO to monitor the peace until a referendum on self-determination could take place. The ceasefire established in 1991 remains in place, but a referendum has yet to occur. 

The UN ceasefire agreement calls for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, but both parties interpret self-determination in fundamentally different ways, which impedes progress from being made during negotiations.  Frente Polisario demands that Western Sahara’s future be decided through a referendum that offers the people of Western Sahara the option to vote for complete independence.  Morocco believes that Western Saharan should have autonomy within its sovereignty.    

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How This Affects American Interests

  • Provides Humanitarian assistance. The operation supports the vital aid the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) provides to refugees, who have been displaced by political fighting, some since 1975.  Each month, WFP provides 90,000 general food rations and 35,000 supplementary food rations to the most vulnerable refugees.   In conjunction with UNHCR, WFP also conducts 45 general food basket distribution visits in refugee camps each month. UNHCR supplies refugees with potable water and constructs new water networks to reduce the cost of water delivery by truck. Additionally, the Algerian Red Crescent, with the assistance of UNHCR and WFP, provides supplementary feeding programs to children less than five years old and to pregnant and lactating women; the Red Crescent also educates refugees about these programs.  WFP and UNHCR within the last year conducted an assessment mission, visiting each refugee camp in order to collect household data and review gaps in aid.
  • Provides education and training.  With the support of MINURSO, UNHCR provides the people of Western Sahara with a number of educational and instructional programs, which also facilitates the advancement of civil society.As of October 2013, all Saharwi children in Algeria between the ages of 6 and 11 are enrolled in primary school.   UNHCR bolsters health care efforts by supporting and training nurses and midwives, while simultaneously educating the wider population on health issues, specifically sexually transmitted infections.  UNHCR trains teachers in refugee camps, rehabilitates schools, and supports vocational centers for women, youth, and persons with disabilities.
  • Implements confidence building measures. In order to promote trust between the divided population of those people living in the Morocco-controlled area and those people living in the Polisario-controlled area, UNHCR, through the support of MINURSO, has instated a number of confidence-building programs.  These programs facilitate communication and travel for Western Saharan refugees in the Tindouf camps, Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, and their families to the west of the Berm, a line of demarcation between Morocco-controlled and Polisario-controlled Western Sahara. MINURSO provides air transport, police protection, and medical staff.  From 2004  to 2011, 16,889 people in camps near Tindouf, over a quarter of refugees in the area, have benefited from this program.  UNHCR and MINURSO are investigating expanding the program by including road travel and access through internet cafes.  UNHCR plans to hold two inter-Saharan cultural seminars, focusing particularly on women.  Most recently, UNHCR organized a week-long seminar on Western Saharan culture in Portugal, attended by 42 Saharwi, as well as representatives from the Frente Polisario and the Moroccan government.
  • Reduces likelihood of hostilities. For 18 years, more than 203 MINURSO observers have patrolled both the Moroccan and Polisario sides of Western Sahara. They have helped prevent the outbreak of renewed hostilities, despite intermittent threats from the Frente Polisario to resume military action.  The mission maintains good relations between itself and the Royal Moroccan Army, and the Frente Polisaro.  This line of communication is vital since the two forces refuse to speak directly to one another and instead opt to maintain a written correspondence by way of MINURSO.
  • Reduces the threat of mines. There are over 100,000 square kilometers of dangerous mines and unexploded ammunition in Western Sahara. MINURSO develops maps of contaminated areas and provides aid to partners who work to clear contaminated areas. MINURSO and the Voluntary Trust Fund for Assistance in Mine Action with local partners have destroyed 8,260 items in more than 500 contaminated locations.  Schools, trading posts, and vegetable farms have all been developed along previously contaminated paths. Since the start of the demining program in 2008, cluster strike areas have been reduced by 80%.

Ongoing Challenges

  • Regional Instability.  Recently, Islamist extremists, notably members of Al-Qaeda, have infiltrated the region, destabilizing areas such as northern Mali.  This instability, compounded by the food shortage in the Sahel, has renewed concern over the fragile peace between Morocco and the Frente Polisario.  Christopher Ross, visited the region in October 2013, which coincided with clashes between Moroccan police and pro-independence Saharwi protesters in the towns of Laayoune and Smara. After presenting his findings from his trip to the region to the Security Council on October 31st, Ross announced that he planned on returning to the territory in the coming weeks to pursue a new approach to ending the dispute over the territory.
  • Human Rights.  The Moroccan Government restricts the expression of pro-independence views and severely punishes those people who voice such opinions.  Government Security Officers are responsible for arbitrarily detaining dissidents, beating and torturing detainees, and using force against pro-independence protestors. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Reports expressed concert at the use of a Moroccan military court to try civilians and the failure to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners.   King Muhammad VI of Morocco has enacted a number of human rights reforms, but until they are fully implemented these abuses will continue.  In April of 2013, the United States put forward a resolution expanding MINURSO’s mission to include monitoring human rights abuses. However, due to lobbying on behalf of the Moroccan government, MINURSO’s was extended until 2014 without the addition of human rights monitoring.
  • Moroccan interference.  Morocco requires U.N. cars to use Moroccan diplomatic license plates, instead of the UN neutral plates used in other missions, making it more difficult for the mission to maintain and unbiased appearance. Additionally, the Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon reported that “the confidentiality of the communications between MINURSO headquarters,” located in the Moroccan controlled city of Laayoune, and “New York has, at least on one occasion, been compromised”. These restrictions hinder the unbiased work of peacekeepers and limit their ability to obtain accurate and consistent information.
  • The Moroccan wall. In the 1980s, Morocco built “The Berm,” a 1,250-mile, two meter-high wall with a backing trench, running along the western border with Algeria and Mauritania separating the Moroccan-controlled area of Western Sahara from the Polisario-controlled area.  The Berm is dotted with landmines and radar equipment to detect incursions, and is guarded by about 120,000 Moroccan troops stationed along the wall. Since April 2011, the Royal Moroccan Army has built four new stone walls and continued to expand the existing six walls.

*Updated November 2013

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