Obama Ignores Morocco’s Illegal Occupation and Human Rights Abuses

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In his meeting with King Mohammed VI, President Obama praised the “reform process” in Morocco even as the country maintains its abusive occupation of Western Sahara. Here, Western Saharan demonstrators flee security forces in Laayoune. (Photo: Saharauiak / Flickr)

Late last month, President Barack Obama met with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in Washington for their first face-to-face meeting. The result was a bitter disappointment for supporters of human rights and international law.

Two days before the summit, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling on the U.S. president to tell the king that “U.S. support for the reform process in Morocco depends on moving beyond rhetoric and making tangible change.” Specifically, the human rights group called for “stronger legal protections for rights and an end to impunity for police who use violence and commit other abuses.”

Instead, according to a White House statement, Obama applauded the Moroccan monarch for “deepening democracy” and “promoting economic progress and human development.”

The most critical issue facing northwestern Africa involves Western Sahara, a sparsely populated country on the Atlantic coast that has been under Moroccan occupation since the kingdom invaded the former Spanish colony in 1975, just prior to its scheduled independence. Defying a series of UN Security Council resolutions, a landmark World Court decision, and international mediation efforts, the Moroccans have continued to deny the people of the territory their right of self-determination through a UN-sponsored referendum. No country recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the territory, and more than 80 nations, as well as the African Union, have formally recognized Western Sahara as an independent state.

When the nationalist Polisario Front, which had been fighting for the occupied nation’s independence, agreed to end its armed struggle in 1991 in return for a referendum, the UN brought in a peacekeeping force known as MINURSO to enforce the ceasefire and oversee the scheduled plebiscite, which never came. The United States and France, both of which hold veto power in the UN Security Council, blocked the United Nations from enforcing a series of resolutions demanding that Morocco provide the Western Saharan people an opportunity to exercise their right of self-determination.

MINURSO is the only UN peacekeeping operation in the world without a mandate to monitor the human rights situation in its areas of operation. And when Washington sponsored the UN Security Council resolution renewing MINURSO operations earlier this year, the United States removed a provision in the original draft that would have added such a mandate.

While the human rights situation within Morocco itself has improved somewhat since King Mohammed came to power in 1999, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other reputable human rights groups have highlighted ongoing severe repression in the occupied Western Sahara. Even the State Department’s annual report on human rights acknowledges “limitations on the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association” and “the use of arbitrary and prolonged detention to quell dissent.” Observing that support for self-determination is ruthlessly suppressed, the report goes on to note that security forces have “engaged in torture, beatings, and other mistreatment of detainees” with impunity.

Despite this, a White House statement following the conclusion of the summit pledged that the United States and Morocco would “work together to continue to protect and promote human rights in the territory.”

As an alternative to allowing the Western Saharan people to go forward with a referendum on the fate of their country, the Moroccans have proposed what they refer to as an “autonomy” plan that would cede limited local control of the region to the Western Saharans. Unfortunately, not only are important matters such as control of Western Sahara’s natural resources and security rather ambiguous under the Moroccan proposal, all powers not specifically vested in the proposed autonomous region would remain with the king. Furthermore, based on Morocco’s broken promises on the UN-mandated referendum and its related obligations from the ceasefire agreement 22 years ago, there is little to inspire confidence that Morocco would live up to its promises to provide genuine autonomy for Western Sahara.

More problematically, the proposal is based on the presumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, a contention that has long been rejected by the United Nations, the World Court, the African Union, and a broad consensus of international legal opinion. To accept Morocco’s autonomy plan would mean that, for the first time since the founding of the United Nations and the ratification of the UN Charter more than 68 years ago, the international community would be endorsing the expansion of a country’s territory by military force, thereby establishing a very dangerous and destabilizing precedent.

If the Western Saharans accepted an autonomy agreement over independence as a result of a free and fair referendum, it would constitute a legitimate act of self-determination. However, Morocco has explicitly stated that its autonomy proposal “rules out, by definition, the possibility for the independence option to be submitted” to the people of Western Sahara, the vast majority of whom— according to knowledgeable international observers—favors outright independence.

Despite this, White House spokesman Jay Carney announced that President Obama believes “Morocco’s autonomy plan is serious, realistic, and credible. It represents a potential approach that can satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity.”

It appears, then, that the Obama’s administration’s policy on Western Sahara constitutes nothing less than a rejection of fundamental principles of international law that prohibit territorial expansion by force, thereby constituting a de facto acceptance of the right of conquest.

In the comparable case of East Timor, it was only after human rights organizations, church groups, and activists in the United States and abroad successfully pressured their governments to end their support for Indonesia’s occupation that the Indonesian regime was finally willing to offer a referendum to give the East Timorese their right to self-determination. It may take a similar grassroots campaign to ensure that United States lives up to its international legal obligations and pressures Morocco to allow the people of Western Sahara their right to determine their own destiny.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. His latest book, co-authored with Jacob Mundy, is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010).

  • Hicham

    In effect, the Geneva Convention states that the concept ‘occupying power’ applies to the occupation of the territory of an existing state during an armed conflict. While there is no state in the Sahara, the Polisario did not exist during the Spanish colonial period. The only claim the territory came from Morocco alone.

  • Hicham

    I would like to reminder here that there is no report of the Secretary General of UN, No resolution of Security Council, No legal opinion describe Morocco is an occupant. It’s only a propaganda from Algerian Regim and polisario , the polisario has no legal basis, nor any popular democratic legitimacy to represent the Sahrawi people, Besides, no instance recognises Polisario as a liberation movement, much less the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Sahrawi.

  • Hicham

    You must now that Morocco has set up a number of national institutions and regional mechanisms for protection and promotion of human Rights. Unfortunately, Some Reports has been prepared in advance, they used as a pretext some isolated incidents supervised by Algeria & Polisario to accuse Morocco. Since 2008, a handful of separatists funded by Algiers in southern Morocco, do theater defying government.
    As against, you didn’t talk about violation of human right in Tindouf camps (Algeria) as the Men, women and children are taken hostage by the Algerian army § separatists for political reasons. Crimes against opponents Polisario Sahrawis are recorded in the Spanish courts.

    • Salim Habbat

      dont mind about this article , hese pathetic journalists dont even know the history of the region or of the conflict , especially when algerian soldiers penetrated by thousands to western sahara escorting by force sahrawis to make them look like refugees ( googl battle of amgala) , they were surprised by moroco , some killed and some taken as prisoners

  • Mourad

    This nothing but a piece of propaganda that serves no purpose except to misled people about the real story here. Algeria’s Politburo was out-played by Morocco and will never forget that. Ask the Sahraouis, that are in Tindouf, if they would like to remain there or go back to live among their Moroccan brothers and sisters. You won’t be surprised, if Algeria allows the free movement of the captives, to wake the next day in the Tindouf concentration camp and find it to be vacant, except of those that are seeking power and have sold their soul to get it. If 80 countries recognize the Polisario, so what. Morocco is on the right here and the adversaries can keep multiplying in numbers but that will never translate this to Morocco being wrong. Morocco is winning the argument and that doesn’t sit well with Algeria and its puppets.