Many Small Wars: The Classification of Armed Conflicts in the Non-Self-Governing Territory of Western Sahara (Spanish Sahara) in 1974-1976

Authors Ben Saul

ISSN: 2521-2621
Affiliations: Challis Chair of International Law, Sydney Law School, University of Sydney, Australia
Source: African Yearbook on International Humanitarian Law, 2016, p. 85 – 107


Much has been written about the various international legal aspects of the Western Sahara dispute, yet there has been little attention to the legal classification of the violence which engulfed the then Spanish Sahara in 1974-1976. This article closely examines the historical record in order to identify how international humanitarian law applied leading up to and during the Spanish withdrawal and the attainment of control by Morocco and Mauritania. In particular, it finds that there existed a series of five consecutive and/or parallel conflicts of different legal characters, including three non-international armed conflicts (involving Polisario against Spain, Morocco and Mauritania respectively) and two international armed conflicts (between Spain and Morocco, and Morocco and Algeria). (The non-international conflict between Morocco and Polisario was also transformed into an international (self-determination) conflict as a result of the application of Additional Protocol I of 1977 in 2011.) The legal classification of the hostilities is not merely of historical interest, but has continuing consequences for the legal responsibility of states, and the criminal liability of individuals, for violations of international humanitarian law in each of the conflicts. Accountability is likely to be an important aspect of a comprehensive peace settlement and post-conflict justice.