60-Second Expert: Western Sahara

In recent years, the Moroccan government has championed the idea of autonomy as a solution to its territorial dispute with pro-independence advocates over Western Sahara. Rabat has said it is willing to consider an autonomous, locally elected government in Western Sahara, which would have powers independent of the central government, albeit circumscribed by Morocco’s ultimate sovereignty. The movement for Western Saharan statehood, the Polisario Front, has rejected autonomy. It continues to claim the right of self-determination, to be exercised through a final status referendum among the territory’s indigenous ethnic Sahrawis. As the diplomatic stalemate worsens, conditions on the ground in Western Sahara are pointing toward renewed armed conflict.

There is a broad international consensus, political and juridical, backing the right of self-determination in former European colonies. This consensus was applied most recently in East Timor. The UN Security Council and Secretary General have both reiterated their support for a solution that provides for self-determination, which would entail a vote including, but not limited to, the option of independence.

Indirect, high-level U.S. involvement—in the form of former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker—began in 1997. However, Baker’s seven-year engagement was sabotaged, on the U.S. side, by larger geo-strategic concerns: Morocco’s role as an ally in—and after May 2003 a site of—the war on terror. The U.S. government’s attitude toward the conflict since then has been to leave it to the parties to make their own proposals while discretely encouraging autonomy.

The U.S. government should take a two-track approach in its relations with Morocco: supporting self-determination in Western Sahara while supporting Moroccan stability and reforms. The U.S. Congress should reaffirm its support for U.S. initiatives aimed at supporting Moroccan stability and internal democratization processes. But Congress should simultaneously press the White House to support self-determination in Western Sahara. None of this, however, will be possible without political will. International, grassroots, faith- and community-based organizations will have to create broader awareness of the problem in the United States. Such pressure helped bring a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa and was key to ending Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.

For the full article, go to Western Sahara: Against Autonomy.

Jacob Mundy is coauthor, with Stephen Zunes, of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, forthcoming). He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).