Why the Maghreb Really Matters

The Maghreb is again a major talking point in the United States. In the perceived interests of fighting terrorism and promoting trade, a group of politicians and pundits are urging the Obama administration to side with Morocco and against self-determination for the Sahrawis of Western Sahara. They also urge a regional union for the Maghreb. Yet reaching for a quick fix that supports Morocco’s campaigns in any of these areas would set such a Maghreb Union back years.

Those who see the Sahrawi’s decades-long reach for freedom as an obstacle to the perceived bigger picture often have high profiles. Among them are a wrong-headed group of U.S. members of Congress who wrote to President Obama in April. Their letter suggested that the president should set in stone an extraordinarily flawed solution promoted by Western Sahara’s illegal occupiers — Morocco — to entrap the Sahrawi in an autonomous structure rather than offering self-determination, which is their just and legal right.

This group of legislators took their lead and some of their language from a new report Why the Maghreb Matters from the Potomac Institute and the Conflict Management Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The report presents the long-stalled union in the Maghreb region as posing both significant threats and opportunities for U.S. interests. In seeking to over-promote both scenarios, the report highlights a common reaction of those looking to find an end-game solution in the region at whatever cost: over-simplification.

The cost in this case, should the U.S. government and the international community continue such realpolitik analysis, is the welfare of more than 200,000 people in the occupied territories of Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony.

Why the Maghreb?

The Maghreb — generally including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, and Western Sahara — is significant for many reasons. According to the Potomac/SAIS report, “the U.S. government should have a profound interest in North Africa because developments in the region impact significantly on our national interests.” These developments relate first of all to trade and investment. Countries within the region have tended to under-perform economically. So, the argument goes, a regional union based on free and fair trade is likely to benefit everyone, including the United States.

Few would dispute the importance of promoting economic development in the region. But when the discussion turns to the Maghreb’s significance in terms of threats, disagreements arise. The Potomac/SAIS report focuses on the threat of terrorism and highlights a five-fold increase in terrorist attacks in the region since 2001. That these figures indicate a serious problem for civilians in the region is undeniable.

Yet, identifying their source, both geographical and ideological, has become a blame game with the highest possible stakes. The United States and others are in danger of not only getting it all terribly wrong by allying with Rabat in the efforts to stamp out terrorism in the region but of casting a massive injustice upon the Sahrawis.

Documented cases of human rights violations abound. In a report late in 2008, Human Rights Watch “found that Moroccan authorities repress this right [of self-determination] through laws penalizing affronts to Morocco’s ‘territorial integrity,’ through arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, restrictions on associations and assemblies, and through police violence and harassment that goes unpunished.”

Why then have key analysts and policymakers in the Untied States ignored these factors and viewed the Moroccan perpetrators of these acts as the solution to the problem?

The Real Problem in the Maghreb

For the last three decades, Morocco has denied Western Sahara the basic human right to self-determination, one of the tenets of the United Nations. An International Court of Justice ruling in 1975 confirmed Morocco’s invasion as illegal. Numerous UN resolutions established the mechanism for a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara. And there has been a long-running UN mission in the region designed to move the populace toward self-determination. Still, the forced occupation of Western Sahara continues.

In Western Sahara, 160,000 Moroccan military and para-military personnel are aided by one of the world’s largest minefields and by a 2,700 km security wall that runs right through communities and extended families. We Sahrawi sought the inclusion of a human rights monitor in the UN mission. But the proposal met with resistance from a slick and expensive lobbying effort run by Morroco’s foreign public relations representatives (all nine of them) and by a recalcitrant and counter-intuitive France, which used its veto to block the proposal.

So, the reality, as opposed to the realpolitik, makes a compelling case against Morocco’s tainted “autonomy” proposal (in actuality, a “non-independence” proposal). Generalizations about terrorism and threats to U.S. interests should not detract attention from the real problem at the center of the Maghreb: the denial of basic human rights to those who live in Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara.

Aminatou Haidar is a Sahrawi human-rights defender, the 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureate, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.