A Generation of Sahrawi Youth Losing Faith in the UN

BU Intl Human Rights
6 min readApr 24, 2024

Gathered in the vast deserts in Tindouf, deep within Algeria, the Sahrawi youth living in refugee camps managed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguía el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario) continue to live in despair as they yearn for the independence of Western Sahara.

Many of the younger generation in the Tindouf camps are second-generation refugees who were born in the camps and grew up watching their parents struggle for independence over the Western Sahara. For over thirty years, the older generation has held onto the thread of hope that the issues surrounding the long-awaited referendum on Sahrawi independence would be resolved. Despite recent diplomatic moves, political obstacles continue to prevent its realization.

Source: The New Humanitarian/ Photographer: Ramzi Boudina

While the exact number is unknown, it is estimated that over 173,000 Sahrawi refugees live in the Tindouf camps today. They are considered by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to be the “most vulnerable” among the refugees in the region. Although efforts have been made to improve living conditions in the Tindouf camps, international assistance has been shrinking, with annual donations dropping from $10 million to $7 million in the past several years.

Meanwhile, the conditions in the refugee camps are getting worse. The Sahrawis in Tindouf suffer from a lack of food, water, and solid infrastructure related to education, energy, and health. Feelings of stagnation, desperation, and hopelessness have been increasingly reported among the Sahrawi youth. It is clear that the long-frozen conflict is far away from resolution, and the younger generation of Sahrawi youth have legitimate reasons to doubt that the conflict they grew up with will be resolved any time soon.

Source: Reuters/ Photographer: Ramzi Boudina

Many youth leaders of the Tindouf camps are now more vocal about their concerns and determination for action. Hamdi, a youth leader from the Tindouf camp notes, “When our fathers were fighting against the Moroccan occupation, the whole world, and especially the UN, were listening to Polisario”. He continued that this is not the case anymore. “Either we get our land back or we go back to war”.

The 50-year Western Sahara conflict and the referendum of self-determination

The Western Sahara territories, where the Sahrawi people live, have been disputed between Morocco, Polisario, and Mauritania since 1974. In 1975, the armed conflict began after Spain withdrew its colonial administration and the International Court of Justice affirmed the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination. The right of self-determination is the right of people to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.” A year later, the Polisario emerged, declaring the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and starting a guerilla war known as the Western Sahara War.

The 1991 ceasefire halted the 15-year old conflict and stipulated that the UN would supervise a referendum allowing the Sahrawi people to practice their right to self-determination that would allow for integration with Morocco or independence. The referendum never happened.

One of the major reasons behind this failure was the disagreement over the identification of the voters for the referendum. While the Polisario argued for a restricted scope of the voters based on the 1974 Spanish census of the territory, Morocco was fixed on an expansive scope that included thousands of Moroccans who settled in the Western Sahara after the Green March in 1975.

The UN’s attempts following these events proved to be ineffective, with the Security Council taking little to no useful action, despite the evident rejection of the Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara by Morocco. The Peace Plan envisioned a fair opportunity to resolve the conflict through the principle of self-determination by allowing the Polisario four years of autonomy prior to a referendum to enable it a fair opportunity to secure the votes to win it.

In 2004, the UN Security Council reaffirmed that there needed to be a political solution to the conflict, but took no further action to enforce what that solution might be. The situation deteriorated in 2020, with the Polisario declaring an end to the 1991 ceasefire and resuming armed attacks to force their demand for self-determination for the Sahrawi people themselves.

The effect of UN’s inconsistent approach to self-determination

The right of self-determination is enshrined in Resolutions 1514 and 1541 of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and further incorporated in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). While the meaning of the “peoples” within these international legal instruments can be disputed, the UNGA acknowledged that the people of Western Sahara are entitled to self-determination and, thus, the right to achieve independent statehood.

The UN conception of decolonization and the status of the Western Sahara as a Non-Self-Governing Territory make it clear under international law that Morocco is occupying territory that the UN recognized belongs to the Sahrawi people and that Morocco cannot deprive the Sahrawi people of their right to self-determination.

Within the context of the ongoing conflict in the Western Sahara, it becomes obvious that two vastly divergent visions have emerged under this complex situation. Today, Morocco, by refusing to hold a referendum, considers the Western Sahara as part of its lands and offers a solution of autonomy for Western Sahara, but as part of the Moroccan state. The Polisario calls for decolonization and a referendum that would allow for the exercise of self-determination rights, potentially leading to its independence as a sovereign state. While Morocco insists that Western Sahara is part of its territory, the Sahrawi prioritize a correct legal interpretation of their self-determination rights and enforcing that law.

What is concerning about the ongoing conflict in Western Sahara is the inconsistent and ineffective approach taken by the UN. While the UNGA has clearly outlined that Western Sahara must be able to exercise its right to self-determination, the United Nations Security Council and the Secretary-General have failed to act in a unified manner to enforce this right. It is particularly disappointing that there has been little progress in the UN’s recent pursuit of diplomatic means as a solution to the Western Sahara conflict.

It is also important to note that The Arab League has issued resolutions regarding the referendum in Western Sahara, and many League of Arab States (LAS) members have recognized the SADR. Although the UN has engaged with regional actors, particularly through the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), it has largely deferred to the LAS in addressing the framing and scheduling of the referendum. Clearly, the Western Sahara conflict is the world’s responsibility. The question now is whether the referendum should, again fall under the auspices of the UN or whether the issue should be left to the LAS.

While the Sahrawi have persistently demanded that the UN honor its commitments regarding international legal principles, their trust in the UN may now be dwindling, especially among its younger generation. As Hamdi states, “If we wait for the UN Security Council to deliver the referendum and the freedom to go back to our land, we will be here for 300 years . . . If we don’t go back to war, nothing will change. After all this time, I don’t believe in a political solution.”

Source: International Crisis Group/ Map of Western Sahara Based on UN Map №3175 Rev. 4, 2012

About the Author

Hannah Lee is a second-year law student at Boston University School of Law. Prior to law school, she worked as a legal researcher at a human rights law foundation that provides legal services for marginalized communities in South Korea. She is passionate about international human rights and hopes to advocate for human rights on a global scale in the future.



BU Intl Human Rights

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.