Self-determination in Western Sahara: A Case of Competing Sovereignties?

By: Maribeth Hunsinger

Western Sahara is a disputed territory in the Maghreb region of North Africa, bordering Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. It boasts phosphate and iron reserves, and is believed to have offshore oil deposits. Spain colonized the territory in 1884 and exercised control for over one hundred years, until Morocco wrested de facto control over large parts of the territory.

Some, however, still see Western Sahara as “Africa’s last colony,” with the Kingdom of Morocco exercising colonial power over the native Sahrawi people. No member states of the United Nations (UN) have recognized Moroccan sovereignty. While there remains political support for Morocco’s claim in the West, many countries are increasingly recognizing the legitimacy of the independence claims by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

This piece explores the basis for these respective claims, and in particular the proposition that self-determination in Western Sahara should not serve to decide between “competing sovereignties” but to allow the Sahrawi people to decide whether to retain their sovereignty.

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This Day in International Law: February 17



By Arjun Ghosh

On February 17, 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded in Geneva by Swiss businessman Henry Durant, after he witnessed wounded soldiers left without medical care after the Battle of Solferino, an engagement in the Franco-Austrian War. The organization was founded as the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded” and aimed to improve battlefield medical services and develop international humanitarian law.

One year later, the organization hosted delegates from 18 countries. The group eventually agreed on a proposal by the ICRC to develop national relief societies like The American Red Cross. The ICRC continues to work with these national Red Cross societies to provide supplemental medical aid to soldiers during conflicts.

Later that year, the ICRC persuaded governments to adopt the first Geneva Convention, which obliged armies to care for wounded soldiers, whatever side they were on, and introduced a unified emblem for the medical services, a red cross on a white background.

In 1949 the ICRC prompted states to revise the existing Geneva Conventions, which included a legal mandate for the ICRC to provide neutral medical support to soldiers during conflicts. The Conventions also prescribed that the ICRC emblem (a red cross on white background, the inverse of a Swiss flag) proves protection for military medical services and relief workers in armed conflicts and is to be placed on humanitarian and medical vehicles and buildings.

This Day in International Law: February 10th


Photo Credit: Daniel Mesas Atero

By Alfredo Diaz

On February 10, 2009, the first accidental hypervelocity collision between two intact artificial satellites in low Earth orbit occurred when Iridum 33, a 1,234 pound satellite, and Kosmos-2251, a 1,984 pound satellite, collided as they passed over northern Siberia at an altitude of 490 miles, traveling at around 26,170 miles per hour, producing almost 2,000 pieces of debris larger than 4 inches in diameter, and more than 200,000 smaller pieces. A 0.5 mm paint chip traveling at 35,000 km/hr (10km/sec) could puncture a standard space suit; a one-centimeter fragment could damage a space station.

According to the 1972 Liability Convention, liability for these fragments depends on the Launching State and whether damage occurred in orbit. If the object causes damage to the surface of Earth or and aircraft in flight, a strict liability standard applies—a state is considered strictly liable for any damage caused by a space object launched even in the face of circumstances that are outside of its control. If the space object causes damage some place other than the surface of Earth, a fault standard is applied.

How this all plays out, we do not truly know. The Liability Convention has also never been formally invoked—all incidents to date that could have resulted in potential claims under the Convention, including the Iridium-Cosmos collision, have been settled by the respective countries outside of the Convention. Still, someone will have to clean all of this up— international space law deems fragments and components from space objects as individual space objects in and of themselves, requiring identification to determine the owner and either individual or blanket consent to remove it from orbit, as there is no right of salvage analogous to the right in maritime law.