The conflict of Western Sahara and the United Nations’ role in resolving it

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical framework
2.1 Intractable conflicts
2.2 Characteristics of intractable conflicts

3. The conflict of the Western Sahara
3.1 Historical outline of the conflict
3.2 Western Sahara - an intractable conflict?
3.3 The role of the United Nations in the conflict
3.4 Critiques of the UN attempts of resolving the conflict

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

The Western Sahara conflict can be added to the list of the most ambivalent conflicts in recent history. Morocco occupied the African country in 1976 and since then the population of the former Spanish colony is fighting for self-determination while living as refugees in the desert of Algeria. The United Nations acknowledged that the country belongs to the people of Western Sahara. Consequently, the Moroccan occupation is illegal, especially regarding international law (Ruiz Miguel 2014: 44). However, no change or progress has been made; all negotiation attempts have failed. Hence, the conflict could be seen as intractable (Crocker et al. 2004: 4).

The arising question is: Why does the international community turn a blind eye to this conflict? Moreover, why does the United Nations fail to implement measures to resolve the conflict between Morocco and the people of the Western Sahara?

The case of Western Sahara is a rather unknown dispute. Nevertheless, several authors have worked on the conflict and published respective literature. Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy (2010) aimed to deliver a great insight of the conflict, its origin and the reasons behind the intractability. Scholars like Toby Shelley or Hubert Höllmüller also published and edited relevant research in regard of the Western Sahara conflict. For the theoretical background, several authors like Thorsten Bonacker, Jacob Bercovitch and Peter Coleman provide the framework for this paper. Especially Coleman’s article “Intractable conflict” published in “The Handbook of Conflict Resolution” gives a great understanding of the intractability of conflicts. The present paper uses his work as the basis for the argumentation of the intractability of the Western Sahara conflict.

At first, the theoretical background of conflict resolution is given. Furthermore, a definition of intractable conflicts is necessary to decide in a next step, why the Western Sahara conflict is part of this category.

The second part of this paper deals with the conflict itself by giving an overview of the developments and introducing the conflict parties. The attempts of the UN to resolve the conflict is introduced and discussed. At last, this paper tries to find answers to the question why the UN fails to solve the conflict until now.

2. Theoretical framework

Conflicts determine the social and political life of all societies. This chapter will focus on political conflicts.

The definition of conflict, provided by Bercovitch, Kremenyuk and Zartman in their edited book “The SAGE Handbook of Conflict Resolution” (2009: 3), indicates that conflicts are characterized either to be a violent dispute and/or an incompatibility of different positions. The first aspect can often be a result of the second. The definition of conflicts by Thorsten Bonacker (2013: 184) also understands a conflict as a clash of two different and incompatible perceptions and expectations. A conflict can only be seen as such if the parties share this view of incompatibility.

Conflicts are normal and can lead to positive change, but mostly conflicts develop a destructive character with negative impacts on various levels. Therefore, the need for resolving a dispute is meaningful. Different concepts of conflict resolution evolved over time and the range varies from negotiation over mediation to intervention. Those methods are also listed in the United Nations Charter under Article 33 (Bercovitch 2009: 340). The common reason for the emergence of a conflict is the incompatibility of material interests or also basic values. Conflict resolution can be seen from various perspectives and many scholars have different views about what can be understood by that term (Kriesberg 2009: 15). Louis Kriesberg (2009: 15) explains that conflict resolution is part of all aspects of conflicts, not only on an international or political scale, but also in the sphere of families or in communities. In his book “International Conflict Management”, Michael Butler (2009: 13-14) distinguishes between conflict management and conflict resolution. The first one is described as the effort of a third party to contain or/and to gain control over a conflict and this is usually done by intervention or involvement. The aim is the reduction of damage for the involved parties, but also the containment of damage for parties that might only be partly involved or not involved at all. Conflict resolution however, is explained as the promotion of reconciliation of a conflict by resolving the underlying issues, so that in the end all parties are satisfied with the outcome.

Even when the conflict resolution is mainly a practical field, a lot of academic research has been done. Bercovitch, Kremenyuk and Zartman (2009: 1-2) explain that on an academic scale, conflict resolution aims to gain a deeper understanding of a conflict and its dynamics. They emphasize the link between theoretical and practical approaches and therefore the gained knowledge can influence the methods to resolve conflicts. Louis Kriesberg (2009:16) came to the same conclusion by saying that the academic discourse on conflict resolution has its fundament in research and theory combined with traditional and new practices. He further explains that the primary approach was to end violence, but it evolved into “building the conditions for peace, including post-violence reconciliation, enhancing justice, establishing conflict management systems, and many other issues” (ibid, 17).

2.1 Intractable conflicts

Can the Western Sahara conflict be labelled as an intractable conflict? This is one question, which this paper aims to discuss and therefore this chapter will give an overview of the understanding of intractable conflicts. In addition, attributes of intractable conflicts will be listed and later on compared with the example of Western Sahara.

Scholars developed a number of explanations of how to characterize intractable conflicts and the majority believes that conflicts which are impossible to resolve must be labelled as intractable conflicts (Crocker et al. 2004: 7). Hence, according to Peter Coleman (2000: 429), an intractable conflict “is recalcitrant, intense, deadlocked, and extremely difficult to resolve”. Crocker et al. (2009: 492) also state that many of the conflicts around the world seem to be resistant to a solution.

Different reasons exist why a conflict cannot be resolved. Deadlocked conflicts may continue being unsolved because no one has tried to resolve them (yet). Some intractable conflicts have regularly outbursts of violence, which might be on a low level, but permanently erupting. Others can be seen as frozen conflicts, which indicate the end of violence, but the lack of a constant resolution. Another option for intractability is the absence of a third party, which can be helpful to the conflict parties in negotiation, or mediation processes (Crocker et al. 2004: 7-8).

In many cases, more than just one issue contributes to the intractability of conflicts. Conflicts tend to evolve around “irreconcilable moral differences” (Coleman 2000: 431), that includes moral, religious and/or personal matters which cannot easily be unravelled. Moreover, conflicts over resources also lean towards a deadlocked situation, as well as territorial conflicts. Also issues over political power or ranking have the tendency to create recalcitrance. Conflicts appear to be crucial if they are based on identity, since identity is regarded as one of the core needs of human beings. Because of that, conflicts challenging the own or the groups identity are the most threatening ones (ibid, 431). A further problematic point concerning intractable disputes, is the accountability of the conflict parties. As Crocker et al. (2009: 493) indicate, in a protracted conflict, parties often tend to possess autonomy without stressing about any responsibility of risks and costs.

2.3 Characteristics of intractable conflicts

In general, deadlocked conflicts start the same way as manageable conflicts, but they evolve differently and various factors contribute to its transformation into intractability (Coleman 2000: 429). Coleman gives a list of characteristics to categorize this type of conflict.

The first aspect mentioned is the time and intensity of a conflict. Intractable conflicts last over a long period, usually several decades and experience a number of up-and downfalls in intensity. Another contributing factor is the centrality of issues, which the author describes as the occurrence of needs and values that seem crucial and are mostly unrelated to the primary reasons of the conflict. These issues evolve and “ultimately take on a basic and threatening character” (ibid, 430). Thirdly, Coleman explains that protracted conflicts have a pervasive character, which means that the conflict itself is influencing an individual in every sphere of their life. To add, the conflict is experienced as rather hopeless and not manageable. This can be, fifth, the reasons why the motivation to harm the other party rises. This pervasiveness of possible violence creates an atmosphere of fear and the threshold for physical or psychological damage to the competing party. Last, the author mentions the resistance to settlement, which indicates that various attempts to resolve the conflict failed (ibid, 429-430).

Crocker et al. (2009: 493) add that political leaders often resent a resolution, simply because the belief of the irreconcilability outweighs alternative options. Even though most of the protracted conflicts show the same characteristics, nevertheless the stages of violence and escalation is different in every case. The cases of Sri Lanka and Cyprus serve as an example for two opposites. While Sri Lanka has to deal with regular outbursts of violence, Cyprus appears stable even though a solution has not been found yet. Crocker et al. (2009: 493) add another significant point: The belief that most intractable conflicts appear to be intrastate. The differentiation between intrastate and interstate conflicts “breaks down when contested sovereignty, or the refusal of one (or more) parties to recognize the sovereign claims of the other side, lies at the heart of the dispute” (ibid, 493). The distinction between inter- and intrastate conflicts are therefore vague.

The consequences of intractable conflicts are mainly negative. First, is the tendency for violence: According to Peter Coleman (2000: 435), the steady ongoing violence (physical and psychological) is unique for deadlocked conflicts and mostly leads to counter violence. This violence in combination with the already mentioned persistence of conflicts can result in health problems. Traumas are a common result of conflicts, but especially of intractable conflicts. The social processes also suffer. Commonly, the hostility towards the other party is passed on to the next generation and “becomes integrated into the socialization process of the respective families, groups, or societies involved” (ibid, 435). High costs are further consequences, which results in the maintenance of military and security forces, reconstruction processes and so forth. Lastly, Coleman mentions the separation of the conflicting parties, which can lead on the one side to a reduction of violent outburst, but on the other hand can hold onto stereotypes regarding the other party. This can affect the need for revenge and the circle of violence can erupt again (ibid, 435).

Options for managing a protracted conflict exist, but only a few. To let the conflict resolve itself might be an option, although most of the times a third party is needed to broker a solution (Crocker et al. 2009: 496). In this case it is important to attend to all reasons that led to the conflict in the first place, but also to focus on the underlying issues and needs of the conflict parties as “there are critical psychological elements of intractable conflict that cannot be left unattended or ignored by third parties” (ibid, 496). Like explained in the section of theoretical framework, conflict management can be a way of resolving a dispute, and Crocker et al. (2009: 496) view this as a good alternative to reduce the violence and negotiate a ceasefire. Mediation can be the best solution, but is dependent on several factors. Most importantly, the conflicting parties need to agree on the terms of mediation, which is often regarded as a problem. If this is the case, scholars and experts talk about the ripeness of a conflict (Coleman 2000: 438).

To discuss if the case of Western Sahara is an intractable conflict, an overview of the historical background is necessary. The next part aims to introduce the conflict between Western Sahara and the kingdom of Morocco. Furthermore, the just listed characteristics will be applied to the conflict. Last, the involvement and attempts for the resolution of the dispute by the UN will be elaborated and discussed.

3. The conflict of the Western Sahara

3.1 Historical outline of the conflict

Western Sahara is a North African country with Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania as its neighbouring states and an Atlantic coastline. Until 1975, Western Sahara was colonized by Spain, which was urged by the United Nations from the 1960s on to decolonize the territory. In a resolution, passed by the General Assembly in 1966 (Res. 2229) and reaffirmed in 1972 (Res. 2983), the right for self-determination and independence was recorded (Zunes, Mundy 2010: 102). Nevertheless, the decolonization process took time and in 1973 the Frente Popular para la liberacion de Saguia el hamra y Rio de Oro (short: Polisario), a liberation movement, was founded to oppose the colonial power Spain (Grawein 2014: 24). The European country retreated, but arranged a treaty1 with Mauritania and Morocco. The region was divided between the two countries and both claimed the territory of the Western Sahara for themselves (Grawein 2014: 24; Höllmüller 2014: 14). On the one side, the kingdom of Morocco argued that their claim was valid as they already collected taxes from the people living in the territory, even before the Spanish colonization (Shelley 2004: 130). Mauretania on the other side insisted that the people of Western Sahara have strong ethnical ties to the people living on Mauritanian soil and therefore belong to the entity of Mauretania (ibid, 130).2


1 This treaty between the three countries portrayed a violation of international law and the practice of the decolonization process. Furthermore, it prevented the Sahrawi people from holding a referendum to decide for self-determination (Smith de Cherif 1991: 50).

2 Not only the General Assembly of the United Nations recognized the right of self-determination and independence, also the International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced 1975 in their conclusion that “the materials and information presented to it [the Court] do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity“ (ICJ Summary of the Summary of the Advisory Opinion of 16 October 1975; http://www.icj-; last access: 21.11.2015).

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The conflict of Western Sahara and the United Nations’ role in resolving it
Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg  (Politikwisschenschaften)
Introduction to Conflict Management
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
630 KB
Westsahara, UN, United Nations, Morocco, Conflict Resolution, Intractable Conflicts, Western Sahara, Polisario
Quote paper
Mareike Peters (Author), 2016, The conflict of Western Sahara and the United Nations’ role in resolving it, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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