UK Should Endorse Morocco’s Autonomy Plan for Western Sahara

In an unprecedented move, over 30 British MPs sent a letter to Lord David Cameron[i], the UK’s Foreign Secretary, last week, urging him to recognize the Moroccan Autonomy Plan for Western Sahara as the basis of a political solution to the dispute. This gesture may have signaled the existence of an internal debate within the British political elite[ii] about the stance their country should take on the Western Sahara. But whether the UK government will embrace realist arguments for the validity of the plan remains an open question.

Thus far, it appears that the UK has yet to adopt a clear-cut stance on the conflict. This ambiguity might hinder all the efforts the two countries have made over the past five years to strengthen their economic, security and cultural cooperation. Moroccans look forward to seeing the British government lending a clear position of support for Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory.

As the authors of the letter put it, a quick and pragmatic resolution to the dispute would not only contribute to strengthening stability in the region, but it would also help it realize its economic potential. This, in turn, would grant UK businesses enormous opportunities by partaking in the structural project Morocco has launched to turn the region into a major economic hub and a gateway to the coveted markets in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The UK’s longstanding position

By taking the above route, the UK would only reconcile with its historic position of recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory.

Rather than breaking with custom, by taking that route, the UK would only reconcile with its historic position of recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the UK recognized, on many occasions, Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory. For example, by virtue of article 33 of the agreements signed between Morocco and the UK in 1801 and 1856 respectively, the latter recognized the former’s effective sovereignty over Western Sahara. 

The long-running dispute was created when in the secret accord it signed with France in April 1904, the UK allowed the later to grant Spain a sphere of influence in the disputed territory. While doing so, however, the UK made sure that France or Spain could not undertake any action that could alienate the territory. The terms of this accord just mirrored the UK’s awareness that the disputed territory belonged to Morocco. In addition to the 1801 and 1856 agreements, this legal fact that was reflected in the March 1895 Morocco-UK agreement, where the latter acknowledged the former’s sovereignty over the territory.[iii]

Like France and Spain, the UK should play a leading role in bringing about a lasting political solution to the dispute, but it seems that the British government is facing a quandary. It should take the path of realism and pragmatism while, at the same time, remain mindful of the views and pressure that certain grassroot organizations[iv] present, who often discuss the dispute in absolute terms, ignoring its legal and historical origins, as well as the changes it has undergone over the past two decades.

Western pundits and activist organizations continue to approach the conflict from an outdated perspective.

Ignoring on-going developments in the UN-led political process, most Western pundits and activist organizations continue to approach the conflict from an outdated perspective, ignoring events that took place both before and after their arbitrarily defined cutoff point in time. They overlook the fact that Morocco has claimed the territory since 1957
[v] and was indeed the driving force behind the UN decision to include Western Sahara in its list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.

For political expediency, some Western commentators still regard the Western Sahara conflict as an issue in which the UN must ensure that the Saharawis exercise their right to self-determination through a referendum at all costs. In doing so, they portray the conflict in non-zero-sum terms, with Morocco as the occupying country that annexed the territory and, since then, has hampered any UN efforts to hold a referendum, effectively denying Morocco any legitimacy in the matter.

In a February 2000 report, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan confirmed that the UN lacked the means to enforce the result of a referendum and suggested that it was time to consider other ways to resolve the impasse.[vi] Consequently, he asked then-serving U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to “explore ways and means to achieve an early, lasting and agreed resolution.”[vii]

Between 2001 and 2003, Baker submitted two proposals.[viii] Morocco accepted the first, but the Polisario Front and Algeria rejected it. In turn, Morocco rejected the second proposal while Algeria and the Polisario Front supported it.

In 2007, Morocco presented its autonomy plan, which the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has consistently recognized as “serious and credible.”[ix] The UNSC has adopted this stance more formally in resolution 2440 in 2018. Faced with the impossibility of reaching a solution through a referendum, the UNSC has urged the parties to negotiate a mutually acceptable political solution based on a compromise.

The change of the legal status of the territory

Importantly, the language that the UNSC has adopted since 2007, as well as its consistent calls on the parties to reach a mutually acceptable political solution, has produced legal consequences that caused a change in the status of the Western Sahara. The consistency of practice[x] is a fundamental principle in customary international law. In line with this, the guiding principle of the conflict is neither the 1975 International Court of Justice ruling nor the 1991 provisions of the settlement plan, but the UNSC resolutions adopted since 2007.

The ball is in the British government’s court to make a bold decision and bolster its long-standing ally by endorsing the Moroccan Autonomy Plan. With a suitable legal framework present for the orderly conduct of international relations in the matter and a growing number of countries supporting Morocco’s plan, the UK would not find itself alone in attempting to resolve dispute for good.

[i] Zouiten, S. (2024). “Over 30 UK MPs, Peers Petition for Recognition of Morocco’s Autonomy Plan”, Morocco World News, 24 May 2024, retrieved from: Over 30 UK MPs, Peers Petition for Recognition of Morocco’s Autonomy Plan (
[ii] Mayall, S. (2024). “The UK Should Support Morocco’s Autonomy Plan for Western Sahara”, RUSI, 31 January 2024, retrieved from: The UK Should Support Morocco’s Autonomy Plan for Western Sahara | Royal United Services Institute (
[iii] Trout, F. E. (1969). Morocco’s Saharan Frontiers, Paris: Droz.
[iv] Tobin, S. (2022). “UK group loses legal challenge over Morocco trade agreement”, Reuters, 5 December 2022, retrieved from: UK group loses legal challenge over Morocco trade agreement | Reuters.
[v] United Nations Digital Library (1957). “General Assembly, 12th Session, official records, 4th committee, 670th meeting”, 14 October 1957, retrieved from: General Assembly, 12th session, official records, 4th committee, 670th meeting, Monday, 14 October, 1957, New York (
[vi] United Nations Digital Library (2000). “Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara”, retrieved from: Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara (
[vii] United Nations Press Release (2000). “Security Council Extends Minurso Mandate Until 31 May, Adopting Resolution 1292 (2000) Unanimously”, retrieved from: SECURITY COUNCIL EXTENDS MINURSO MANDATE UNTIL 31 MAY, ADOPTING RESOLUTION 1292 (2000) UNANIMOUSLY | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases.
[viii] International Crisis Group (2007). “Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse”, retrieved from: Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse | Crisis Group.
[ix] Bennis, S. (2018). “Making Sense of Security Council Resolution 2440 on Western Sahara”, Morocco World News, retrieved from: Making Sense of Security Council Resolution 2440 on Western Sahara (
[x] Bennis, S. (2021). “US Western Sahara Recognition Aligns with Customary International Law”, Morocco World News, retrieved from: US Western Sahara Recognition Aligns With Customary International Law (

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