The Future of Western Sahara

Morocco’s ongoing refusal to allow for the long-planned UN-sponsored referendum on the fate of Western Sahara to move forward, combined with a growing nonviolent resistance campaign in the occupied territory against Moroccan occupation authorities, has led Morocco to propose granting the former Spanish colony special autonomous status within the kingdom.

The kingdom of Morocco, generously supplied with American-made weapons, invaded the largely desert nation – then known as Spanish Sahara – more than three decades ago. It has controlled much of the territory ever since. More then 75 nations have recognized the government-in-exile of Western Sahara, led by the nationalist Polisario Front, and it is a full member state of the African Union.

A series of resolutions by the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, as well as a landmark 1975 advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice, have recognized the right of self-determination by the people of Western Sahara. However, France and the United States have blocked the Security Council from enforcing its resolutions. Both countries have perceived a need to strengthen the Moroccan monarchy as a bulwark against Communism and radical Arab nationalism during the Cold War and, in more recent years, as an important ally in the struggle against Islamist extremism.

The ongoing conflict between Morocco and the Western Sahara nationalists, led by the Polisario Front, has resulted in enormous suffering by the Western Saharan people, over half of whom live in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. It has seriously crippled efforts to advance badly needed economic and strategic cooperation between the states of the Maghreb region facing challenges from struggling economies and rising Islamist militancy.

The Bush administration and a bipartisan group of congressional leaders have enthusiastically supported the Moroccan autonomy plan as a means of ending the conflict. But Morocco’s plan for autonomy falls well short of what is necessary to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. It also poses a dangerous precedent that threatens the very foundation of the post-World War II international legal system.

Morocco’s “Autonomy” Plan

The autonomy plan is based on the assumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, a contention that the United Nations, the World Court, the African Union, and a broad consensus of international legal opinion have long rejected. To accept Morocco’s autonomy plan would mean that, for the first time since the founding of the UN and the ratification of the UN Charter more the 60 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 people of Western Sahara 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 – favor outright independence.

International law aside, there are a number of practical concerns regarding the Moroccan proposal. For instance, centralized autocratic states have rarely respected the autonomy of regional jurisdictions, which has often led to violent conflict. In 1952, the UN granted the British protectorate (and former Italian colony) of Eritrea autonomous status federated with Ethiopia. In 1961, however, the Ethiopian emperor revoked Eritrea’s autonomous status, annexing it as his empire’s 14th province. The result was a bloody 30-year struggle for independence and subsequent border wars between the two the countries. Similarly, the decision of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to revoke the autonomous status of Kosovo in 1989 led to a decade of repression and resistance, culminating in the NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

Moreover, there are no enforcement mechanisms included in the proposal, and Morocco has a history of breaking its promises to the international community regarding the UN-mandated referendum for Western Sahara and related obligations based on the ceasefire agreement 16 years ago. Indeed, a close reading of the proposal raises questions as to how much autonomy is even being offered initially, such as control of Western Sahara’s natural resources and law enforcement (beyond local matters). In addition, the proposal appears to indicate that all powers not specifically vested in the autonomous region would remain with the kingdom. Indeed, since the king of Morocco is ultimately invested with absolute authority under Article 19 of the Moroccan constitution, the autonomy proposal’s insistence that the Moroccan state “will keep its powers in the royal domains, especially with respect to defense, external relations and the constitutional and religious prerogatives of His Majesty the King” appears to give the monarch considerable latitude in interpretation.

In any case, the people of Western Sahara will not likely accept autonomy rather than independence. For years, they have engaged in pro-independence protests only to be subjected to mass arrests, beatings, torture, and extra-judicial killings. There is little reason to expect that the Moroccan authorities would change their ways under “autonomy.”

U.S. Defends the Moroccan Proposal

Despite all these serious problems with the Moroccan proposal, both the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties have rushed to try to legitimize what amounts to an illegal annexation of one country by another. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicolas Burns called it “a serious and credible proposal to provide real autonomy for the Western Sahara,” a point underscored before the House International Relations Committee by assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs David Welch. Although the well-organized refugee camps are largely demilitarized and, even during the 16 years of armed struggle against Morocco, the Polisario never engaged in acts of terrorism, Welch warned in the course of his testimony that the camps present “a potentially attractive safe haven for terrorist planning or activity.”

Congressional leaders of both parties appear to be allying themselves with administration hard-liners. Congressman Tom Lantos of California, whom the Democrats have chosen to chair the House International Relations Committee, referred to the Moroccan proposal as “reasonable and realistic” and called on the Polisario to accept it. He was joined by 172 other members of the House, who signed a letter declaring it “a breakthrough opportunity” and a “realistic framework for a political solution.” Given the widespread opposition in the international community to legitimizing Morocco’s act of aggression, the letter concludes by urging President Bush to “embrace this promising Moroccan initiative so that it receives the consideration necessary to achieve international acceptance.”

The letter was drafted and circulated by Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York, whom the Democrats have chosen to chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East. Other Democratic leaders joining their foreign policy leadership in supporting Morocco’s right of conquest included Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel. Prominent Republicans signing the letter included Minority Leader John Boehner, House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Indeed, more than 80 of the signers are either committee chairmen or ranking members of key committees, subcommittees and elected leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, yet another indication in this post-Cold War era of a growing bipartisan effort to undermine the longstanding principle of the right of self-determination.

Former Clinton administration officials have also weighed in to support the contention that the people of Western Sahara should give up on their widely acknowledged claim to independence and instead accept the suzerainty of the autocratic Moroccan monarchy. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in an open letter to President Bush, also encouraged him to back the Moroccan plan, which she claimed gave “the people of the Western Sahara a true voice in their future through the full benefits of autonomy as presented by Morocco, a credible political solution can be achieved.” The letter was signed by a host of other prominent Democrats.

Distorting the Facts

Prominent Democrats have joined the Bush administration in distorting the facts of the conflict. For example, UN monitors report that the Polisario has scrupulously honored its 1991 ceasefire agreement with Morocco despite the Moroccans’ refusal to honor their reciprocal commitment to allow the holding a referendum on independence to take place. Nevertheless, Lantos has insisted that “peace has been summarily rejected by the rebel Polisario Front in favor of . . .guerrilla ambushes.” The House Democrats’ chief foreign policy spokesman also blames the Polisario for forcing most of the Western Saharan population to live in “arid refugee camps,” ignoring that they are living in these camps as a direct result of Moroccan repression.

Despite well-documented reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable human rights groups monitoring the situation in the occupied territory that public expressions in support for self-determination are routinely suppressed, Lantos has also expressed his confidence that “Morocco will do nothing to stifle debate among the people of Western Sahara.”

In a prominent op-ed column in The New York Times this past March backing Morocco’s autonomy plan, President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Morocco Frederick Vreeland falsely claimed that the Polisario Front, which has led Western Sahara’s independence movement since the territory was under Spanish control, was a creation of Algeria in order to advance its own irredentist claims. In reality, the Polisario grew out of earlier anti-colonial movements that long pre-dated the establishment of the independent Algerian state and only began receiving substantial Algerian assistance after the Moroccan conquest in 1975.

Vreeland also claimed that the Polisario-administered refugee camps in Algeria are potential recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists. In reality, the Polisario Front is a secular nationalist organization, the Western Saharans tend to observe a relatively liberal interpretation of Islam, and the Algerian government – which has only recently emerged from a hard-fought war against Islamist insurgents – would certainly crack down decisively at even a hint of such extremist activities within its territory. Indeed, there have been no credible reports of any radical Islamist activities by the many hundreds of UN officials, scholars and relief workers – including those from U.S. evangelical Christian groups – who have spent time in the camps.

Nor would an independent Western Sahara, endowed with generous natural resources and governed by the Polisario Front’s increasingly pro-Western leadership, constitute “a weak independent state” that “would likely morph into a terrorist-controlled one” as Ambassador Vreeland ominously predicted in his article.

Interestingly, The New York Times refused to run any of the op-eds submitted in subsequent weeks by a number of reputable North African scholars refuting Vreeland’s claims or raising objections about Morocco’s autonomy plan. Nor did the newspaper of record bother to mention that Ambassador Vreeland now serves as chairman of an energy company with contracts with the Moroccan government to develop energy resources in occupied Western Sahara.

Other former officials have had to be more open about their affiliations. Former Connecticut Congressman Toby Moffet, who has lobbied his fellow Democrats to back the Moroccan plan by raising the specter of a growing al-Qaeda threat in North Africa if it’s not accepted, has had to register as an agent of a foreign government for his services on behalf of the Moroccan monarchy. On the Republican side, former Florida Republican Party chairman Alberto Cardenas, who co-chaired 2004 re-election campaign, in that state, has also been hired by the Moroccans.

Implications of U.S. Support

Support for Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara is indicative of a growing bipartisan rejection of the international legal norms that have governed international relations since the end of the Second World War. At that time, when the victorious allies agreed to never again allow invading armies to conquer other peoples without a collective response. While some have tried to blame the bipartisan congressional support for Israel’s efforts to annex East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and parts of the West Bank as a consequence of the alleged power of “the Jewish Lobby,” the strong bipartisan Congressional support for the annexation of Western Sahara by the Arab kingdom of Morocco demonstrates that members of Congress are nowadays quite willing to support the illegal conquests by U.S. allies of their weaker neighbors even without pressure from a well-organized ethnic minority.

Ironically, the majority of House members who were in Congress in 1991 and have gone on record seeking to legitimize Morocco’s aggression against Western Sahara voted to authorize the Gulf War on the grounds that Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait was so egregious that it justified a massive military response.

Most supporters of Morocco’s autonomy plan deny that they are legitimizing aggression. They argue that some sort of compromise, or “third way” between Western Saharan independence and integration with Morocco, is necessary to resolve the conflict and that a “winner take all” approach is unworkable. Encouraging such compromise and trying to find a win/win situation is certainly the preferable way to pursue a lasting peaceful settlement regarding most ethnic conflicts and many international disputes. However, Western Sahara is a clear-cut case of self-determination for a people struggling against foreign military occupation. The Polisario Front has already offered guarantees to protect Moroccan strategic and economic interests if allowed full independence. To insist that the people of Western Sahara must give up their moral and legal right to genuine self-determination, then, is not a recipe for conflict resolution, but for far more serious conflict in the future.

The irresolution to the conflict is not a result of the Polisario’s unwillingness to compromise. Rather, it represents the failure of the UN Security Council – as a result of the French and American veto threats – to place the Western Sahara issue under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Such an action would give the international community the power to impose sanctions or whatever appropriate leverage is required to force the Moroccan regime to abide by the UN mandates it has up until now been able to disregard thanks to its friends in Paris and Washington.

In the comparable case of East Timor, only after human rights organizations, church groups, and other activists forced the U.S. government to end its support for Indonesia’s occupation did the Jakarta regime finally offer a referendum that gave the East Timorese their right to self-determination. It may take similar grassroots campaigns to ensure that the United States lives up to its international legal obligations and pressures Morocco to allow the people of Western Sahara to determine their own destiny.

Stephen Zunes (www.stephenzunes.org) is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and the Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus. He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003) and the forthcoming book, co-authored by Jacob Mundy, Western Sahara: Nationalist and Conflict Irresolution in Northwest Africa (Syracuse University Press.)