War on Want on:-

The Arms to Morocco for Western Sahara Scandal

Quick Summary
War on Want and Western Sahara
Arms Sales to Morocco
The future for the Saharawis

Quick Summary

Morocco invaded the north African state of Western Sahara in 1975, after the Spanish colonial administration left. Most of the indigenous Saharawi population were forced into exile in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria, where they have been ever since.

The Saharawis then fought a war of independence with Morocco until the UN brokered a cease-fire in 1991. The UN sought to end the dispute by promising a referendum on independence on which it has failed deliver after Moroccan obstruction. War again seems imminent.

It is in this climate that the British government approved arms firm Royal Ordnance to supply spare parts for 105mm guns to Morocco, in direct contravention of its own guidelines. The guns are mounted on a 1000-mile wall built by Morocco to defend the territory. UK government policy says that no arms or spare parts should be exported to a country which might use them to enforce a territorial claim.

War on Want's sister organisation, WOW Campaigns Ltd, is seeking a Judicial Review of this policy decision, to ensure that no more arms are sold to help enforce Morocco's claim, which has kept so many people in poverty for so long. War on Want continues to support the refugees in practical ways.

Recent History

Western Sahara is on the northwest coast of Africa between Morocco and Mauritania where the Sahara desert meets the Atlantic Ocean. During the colonial occupation of Africa the Spanish colonised the area and it was known as Spanish Sahara. In 1973 the Polisario Front launched a war of liberation. Morocco and Mauritania also laid claim to the country.

The territorial claims of neighbouring countries were examined by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) who delivered their verdict in 1975. The verdict confirmed that the indigenous Saharawi people should be allowed to express their right to self-determination through a referendum.

Shortly after the ICJ verdict Morocco and Mauritania invaded. Much of the local population fled into the desert. Today over 150,000 Saharawi still live in refugee camps in a desolate region of southwest Algeria.

In 1979 Mauritania withdrew its claim to Western Sahara but Morocco swiftly occupied the whole country. The Saharawi continued their armed struggle for self-determination, waging a mainly guerrilla war against the large, well-equipped, Moroccan army.

Morocco has consistently refused to reconsider the legitimacy of its claim to Western Sahara. There has also been well-documented evidence of human rights abuse against the Saharawi who still live in Western Sahara.


Since 1990 the UN has been striving to implement a peace plan through a UN force, known as MINURSO, and a ceasefire has been in place since 1991. The UN has committed considerable resources to resolving the conflict, proposing a free and fair referendum of self-determination. The referendum would have been based on a Spanish census taken in 1974. Unfortunately, continuous delays in the implementation of the plan, mainly because of Moroccan obstruction and a lack of international political will to push it through, led to an impasse.

In June 2001, UN special envoy James Baker proposed that the UN should withdraw support for a solution based on a referendum and push a political settlement based on limited autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. A referendum might come later but would be based on residency and not on the Spanish census. In other words it would virtually guarantee a Moroccan victory.

Morocco jumped to endorse the plan while Polisario said they would never agree. It is widely seen as an admission that the UN could not successfully organise the referendum and that Morocco interests have triumphed. Many now predict a return to war.

Back to the top

War on Want and Western Sahara

War on Want was the first UK agency to support the Saharawi refugees - providing support to the people in the camps near Tindouf in Algeria from the early 1980s. The first assistance was emergency relief, later the refugees were supported in their efforts to grow food in vegetable gardens in the desert.

More recently food warehouses have been built, in conjunction with Lancashire Fire Brigades Union, to protect food aid from the heat and dust of the desert. The UK government's Department for International Development funded this project. War on Want has also recently supported the ‘Toys Make Children Happy’ campaign to collect and send toys for some of the 75,000 children living in the camps.

War on Want will continue to support the Saharawi in their struggle for survival but believe that, as a people, they should be able to determine their own fate and should not be living in refugee camps dependent on outside assistance. We believe that the Moroccan military occupation of their territory is the central cause of their poverty.

Back to the top

Arms Sales to Morocco


War on Want has regularly made submissions to the Joint Select Committees Hearings on Strategic Export Controls raising questions on the issue of arms sales to Morocco. We have been concerned that UK arms were being used by Morocco to enforce its claim on the territory or for internal repression.

The US State department estimates that Morocco spends between US$1million and US$5 million every day to continue its armed occupation of the territory. Britain has acknowledged that Morocco has moved at least 100,000 troops into Western Sahara (just under half of its army). In such a scenario, War on Want has argued, it is clear that arms exported to Morocco may well be used in the territory.

In recent months Polisario has signalled that it is likely to return to war and Morocco has said it will respond with force. It is in such an atmosphere of tension that the UK decided to allow arms specifically destined for the Western Saharan frontline.

The arms sales

In January 2001 Foreign Secretary Robin Cook admitted to a Commons committee that the Foreign Office had approved a previously rejected arms licence application. The application was for spare parts for 105mm guns based on the Berm, the 1000-mile-long wall Morocco built to defend its side of the territory (in other words on the frontline of the conflict zone). The company, Royal Ordnance, had appealed against the earlier decision to deny the export license and the then Foreign Office minister, Geoff Hoon, gave the go-ahead.

The decision clearly contravenes Foreign Office guidelines that guns and spare parts should not be exported to areas where they could be used for the staking of a territorial claim. It also breaches the European Union Code of Conduct for the same reason. (See box)

Current UK arms policy

The UK National Criteria for Considering Conventional Arms Export Licences and the EU Code of Conduct for Arms Exports are both quite clear about what constitutes a breach of policy. The rules relevant to this case are that the UK must not sanction arms sales for use in a disputed territory.

Criterion 4 of the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports states: "Member states will not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the intended recipient would use the proposed export aggressively against another country or to assert by force a territorial claim."

The government has also openly set out in a number of ministerial letters and parliamentary replies that it views Western Sahara as a disputed territory, and that arms sales to Western Sahara are forbidden under UK policy.

Mr Cook claimed that the UN said the export of gun parts was permitted under the Morocco-Western Sahara ceasefire agreement of 1991, and that the gun refurbishment project would be "force neutral". Mr Cook said that both the UN in New York and the peacekeeping force, MINURSO, offered to oversee the gun refurbishment programme, despite their peacekeeping role.

It has since emerged that the UN did not give 'permission', neither did it sanction the arms sales. Indeed the UN Legal Department confirmed in a BBC TV investigation that its legal department was never consulted on the matter, either by the British government or UN peacekeeping representatives.

The legal case

War on Want's sister organisation WOW Campaigns Ltd is seeking a Judicial Review of the government decision in order to put a stop to future exports of arms to Morocco. We feel that, after repeated assurances that arms sales would not be allowed for such purposes, this is the only realistic way to ensure that the policy in relation to Western Sahara is upheld.

WOW Campaigns is arguing that the government has misapplied its own policy by only considering information that was indirectly relevant to the policy when judging this license application against its criteria. Therefore the arms sales were sanctioned against the intention of the guidelines.

Back to the top | More detail on Legal argument

The future for the Saharawis

The Saharawis are in dire need international support if they are to regain their land and the right to govern themselves. This is a fundamental human right under the United Nations Charter. A solution based on limited autonomy is no solution.

The refugees, who make up the bulk of the Saharawis, live in austere conditions and are extremely poor. The Moroccan claim on their land is keeping them there and the UK government is not helping the situation by sending arms.

You can help

Please write to the Foreign Minister, Jack Straw, urging him to ensure that Britain will not allow future arms exports to Morocco for use in Western Sahara. Insist that the UK supports a free and fair referendum in the UN, based on the agreement brokered between all the parties in 1991. If you want to support the legal challenge please send a cheque made payable to WOW Campaigns Ltd to the above address.

For more information contact:

Steve Tibbett 020 7620 1111, stibbett@waronwant.org

Back to the top