In yet another assault on fundamental principles of international law, a bipartisan majority of the Senate has gone on record calling on the United States to endorse Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony invaded by Moroccan forces in 1975 on the verge of its independence. In doing so, the Senate is pressuring the Obama administration to go against a series of UN Security Council resolutions, a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice, and the position of the African Union and most of the United States’ closest European allies.
More disturbingly, this effort appears to have the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and principal author of the recent Senate letter supporting Moroccan aggrandizement, claims that the two “are on the same wavelength” on the issue.
The letter, signed by 54 senators, insists that the United States endorse Morocco’s “autonomy” plan as the means of settling the conflict. As such, the Senate opposes the vast majority of the world’s governments and a broad consensus of international legal scholars, who recognize the illegality of such an imposed settlement. More than 75 countries recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which represents the people of Western Sahara under the leadership of the Polisario Front. The SADR is also a full member state of the African Union, and has governed nearly half of the people in liberated zones in Western Sahara as well as refugee camps in Algeria for nearly 35 years. The majority of Congress, however, wants the United States to pressure Polisario to surrender the Western Saharan people’s right to self-determination and accept the sovereignty of a conquering power.
How Much “Autonomy”?
The autonomy plan is based on the assumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco rather than an occupied territory, and that Morocco is somehow granting part of its sovereign territory a special status. This is 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 nearly 65 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. Outstanding UN Security Council resolutions explicitly call for such a referendum (which the Senate letter ignores). 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 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 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 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, the Senate-backed Moroccan proposal contains no enforcement mechanisms. Morocco has often broken its promises to the international community, such as in its refusal to allow the UN-mandated referendum for Western Sahara to go forward. Indeed, a close reading of the proposal raises questions about how much autonomy Morocco is even initially offering, such as whether the Western Saharans will control the territory’s natural resources or 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 vested 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 largely nonviolent pro-independence protests only to be subjected to mass arrests, beatings, torture, and extra-judicial killings. The Moroccan authorities would not likely change their ways under “autonomy.”
That did not stop Clinton from apparently endorsing Morocco’s “autonomy” plan during a visit to Morocco last November, a controversial statement cited by the Senate letter’s authors to bolster their case. Just days after Clinton’s visit, the emboldened Moroccan authorities expelled Aminatou Haidar, Western Sahara’s leading pro-independence activist. Haidar’s resulting month-long hunger strike nearly killed her before President Barack Obama pressured Morocco to allow her to return.
The Senate Letter
There has long been concern that Morocco’s ongoing illegal occupation of Western Sahara, its human rights abuses, and its defiance of the international community has jeopardized attempts to advance the Arab Maghreb Union and other efforts at regional economic integration and security cooperation. However, the Senate letter turns this argument on its head, arguing that the international community’s failure to recognize Morocco’s annexation of the territory is the cause of the “growing instability in North Africa.” The letter ominously warns that “terrorist activities are increasing” in the region, ignoring the fact that the Polisario Front has never engaged in terrorism, even during the years of guerrilla warfare against Moroccan occupation forces between 1975 and 1991. The Polisario has scrupulously observed a ceasefire ever since, despite Morocco breaking its promise to allow for a UN-sponsored referendum. Furthermore, Islamist radicals have little sympathy for the secular Polisario and the relatively liberal version of Islam practiced by most Western Saharans.
The letter’s signatories included 24 Republicans, including ranking Intelligence Committee member Kit Bond (R-MO), Assistant Minority Leader Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and John McCain (R-AZ). There were also 30 Democratic signatories of the letter, including such erstwhile liberals as Ron Wyden (D-OR), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Mark Udall (D-CO). Not surprisingly, most of the signers have also gone on record defending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory, and previously supported Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. A majority of the signatories also voted to authorize the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. When a majority of the Senate goes on record calling on the administration to pursue a policy that fundamentally denies an entire nation its right to self-determination, undermines the UN Charter and other basic principles of international law, and challenges a series of UN Security Council resolutions, it shows just how far to the right this Democratic-controlled body has become.
U.S. support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor didn’t end until human rights activists made it politically difficult for the Clinton administration and members of Congress to continue backing it. Similarly, voters who care about human rights and international law must make it clear they won’t support any lawmaker who favors the right of conquest over the right of self-determination.