The Green March was a strategic mass demonstration in November 1975, coordinated by the Moroccan government, to force Spain to hand over the disputed, autonomous semi-metropolitan province of Spanish Sahara to Morocco. The demonstration of some 350,000 Moroccans advanced several kilometres into the Western Sahara territory, escorted by nearly 20,000 Moroccan troops, and meeting very little response by the Sahrawi Polisario Front. Nevertheless, the events quickly escalated into a fully waged war between Morocco and the militias of the Polisario, the Western Sahara War, which would last for 16 years. Morocco later gained control over the former Spanish Sahara, which it continues to hold.
Morocco, to the north of the Spanish Sahara, had long claimed that the territory was historically an integral part of Morocco. Mauritania to the south argued similarly that the territory was in fact Mauritanian. Since 1973, a Sahrawi guerrilla war led by the Polisario Front had challenged Spanish control, and in October 1975 Spain had quietly begun negotiations for a handover of power with leaders of the rebel movement, both in El Aaiún, and with foreign minister Pedro Cortina y Mauri meeting El Ouali in Algiers.
Morocco intended to vindicate its claims by demanding a verdict from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which was issued on 16 October 1975. The ICJ stated that there were historical legal ties of allegiance between "some, but only some" Sahrawi tribes and the Sultan of Morocco, as well as ties including some rights relating to the land between Mauritania and other Sahrawi tribes. However, the ICJ stated also that there were no ties of territorial sovereignty between the territory and Morocco, or Mauritania, at the time of Spanish colonization; and that these contacts were not extensive enough to support either country's demand for annexation of the Spanish Sahara. Instead, the court argued, the indigenous population (the Sahrawis) were the owners of the land, and thus possessed the right of self-determination. This meant that regardless of which political solution was found to the question of sovereignty (integration with Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, partition, or independence), it had to be explicitly approved by the people of the territory. Complicating matters, a UN visiting mission had concluded on 15 October, the day before the ICJ verdict was released, that Sahrawi support for independence was "overwhelming".
However, the reference to previous Moroccan-Sahrawi ties of allegiance was presented by Hassan II as a vindication of his position, with no public mention of the court's further ruling on self-determination. (Seven years later, he formally agreed to a referendum before the Organisation of African Unity). Within hours of the ICJ verdict's release, he announced the organizing of a "green march" to Spanish Sahara, to "reunite it with the Motherland".
In order to prepare the terrain and to riposte to any potential counter-invasion from Algeria (according to Morocco) or in order to invade militarily the land and kill or deport the Sahrawi population (according to the Polisario Front), the Moroccan Army entered the northeast of the region on October 31, where it met with hard resistance from the Polisario, by then a two-year-old independence movement.
The Green March
The Green March was a well-publicized popular march of enormous proportions. On 6 November 1975 approximately 350,000 unarmed Moroccans converged on the city of Tarfaya in southern Morocco and waited for a signal from King Hassan II to cross into the region of Sakiya Lhmra. They brandished Moroccan flags and Qur'an; banners calling for the "return of the Moroccan Sahara," photographs of the King and the Qur'an; the color green for the march's name was intended as a symbol of Islam. As the marchers reached the border, the Spanish Armed Forces were ordered not to fire to avoid bloodshed. The Spanish troops also cleared some previously mined zones.
The Moroccan arguments for sovereignty
According to Morocco, the exercise of sovereignty by the Moroccan state was characterized by official pledges of allegiance to the sultan. The Moroccan government was of the opinion that this allegiance existed during several centuries before the Spanish occupation and that it was a legal and political tie. The sultan Hassan I, for example, had carried out two expeditions in 1886 in order to put an end to foreign incursions in this territory and to officially invest several caids and cadis. In its presentation to the ICJ, the Moroccan side also mentioned the levy of taxes as a further instance of the exercise of sovereignty. The exercise of this sovereignty had also appeared, according to the Moroccan government, at other levels, such as the appointment of local officials (governors and military officers), and the definition of the missions which were assigned to them.
The Moroccan government further pointed to several treaties between it and other states, such as with Spain in 1861, the United States of America in 1786, and 1836 and with Great Britain in 1856
The court, however, found that "neither the internal nor the international acts relied upon by Morocco indicate the existence at the relevant period of either the existence or the international recognition of legal ties of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and the Moroccan State. Even taking account of the specific structure of that State, they do not show that Morocco displayed any effective and exclusive State activity in Western Sahara."
The Madrid Accords
The Green March caught Spain in a moment of political crisis. The dictator General Franco, who had been leading the country for almost 40 years, was dying. Despite the overwhelming military and logistic superiority of the Spanish Armed Forces based in Western Sahara in relation to the Moroccan Armed Forces, the Spanish government feared that the conflict with Morocco could lead to an open colonial war in Africa, which could put Franco's regime into question and lead to an abrupt political change or a social instability and disaster. The Spanish government, directed by Prince Juan Carlos, who was acting Head of State in substitution of General Franco, and the incumbent Prime Minister Don Carlos Arias Navarro, was in no mood for troubles in the colony. Only the year before, the Portuguese government had been toppled by the Portuguese armed forces after becoming bogged down in colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique. Therefore, following the Green March, and with a view to avoid war and preserving as much as possible of its interest in the territory, Spain agreed to enter direct bilateral negotiations with Morocco, bringing in also Mauritania, who had made similar demands. Under pressure from Morocco, Spain also agreed that no representatives of the native population would be present in the negotiations that resulted in the 14 November Madrid Accords. This was a treaty which divided Spanish Sahara between Mauritania and Morocco. In the agreements Spain agreed to cede the possession of the colony to Morocco and Mauritania, under the condition, expressed in point 3 of the Trilateral Agreement, that the views of the Saharan population had to be respected.
Spain received a 35% concession in the phosphate mines of Bou Craa and offshore fishing rights that were not respected by Morocco. Morocco and Mauritania then formally annexed the parts they had been allotted in the Accords. Morocco claimed the northern part, i.e. Saguia el-Hamra and approximately half of Río de Oro, while Mauritania proceeded to occupy the southern third of the country under the name Tiris al-Gharbiyya. Mauritania later abandoned all claims to its portion in August 1979 and ceded this area to Popular Army of Saharwi Liberation (Polisario), but it was instead promptly occupied by Morocco. Nevertheless, Mauritania preserved for itself a small area called Ras Nouadhibou to preserve the security of its capital Nouakchott.
The Polisario, now with heavy Algerian backing, refused the Madrid Accords, and demanded that the ICJ's opinion on Sahrawi self-determination be respected; it turned its weapons on the new rulers of the country, sticking to its demand for independence outright, or a referendum on the matter. The conflict has still not been resolved. Currently, there is a cease-fire in effect, after a Moroccan-Polisario agreement was struck in 1991 to solve the dispute through the organization of a referendum on independence. A UN peace-keeping mission (MINURSO) has been charged with overseeing the cease-fire and organizating the referendum, which has still not taken place as of 2007. Morocco has rejected the idea of the referendum as not workable in 2000 and is suggesting an autonomy for Western Sahara within Morocco. That proposal been rejected by Spain, the Polisario, and also by its Algerian backers; according to the Moroccan government, it will be presented to the UN in April 2007.
Spain is divided between its desire to preserve a good relation with Morocco, its Southern neighbour with whom it shares terrestrial borders in Ceuta and Melilla, and its responsibility to the international legality as the former colonial power. The traditional position of all the Spanish democratic governments until the arrival of Prime Minister Zapatero to the Government, had been that the wishes of the Saharian population have to be respected, and of support to the organization of the referendum requested by the United Nations. According to the US Department of State's documents leaked by Wikileaks, Spain, under Zapatero, has changed its traditional position concerning the organisation of the referendum for the Sahara, and now supports the Moroccan position. The documents also stated that Spain had been trying to broker an agreement between the two parties. However, in her speech to the Spanish Parliament of 15 December 2010, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Trinidad Jimenez denied that Spain's supports the Moroccan position in Spanish Sahara. She also argued that Spain will support any agreement between the Polisario and Morocco.