The Middle East Channel

US policy and Western Sahara: the other side

In their article, "US leadership for a solution to the Western Sahara" (FP, November 3rd), Ambassador Ed Gabriel and Robert Holley promote Morocco’s views for the way forward on the Western Sahara, the country that Morocco has occupied since 1975. The article urges the US to adopt Morocco’s position, which is to offer the Western ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

In their article, "US leadership for a solution to the Western Sahara" (FP, November 3rd), Ambassador Ed Gabriel and Robert Holley promote Morocco’s views for the way forward on the Western Sahara, the country that Morocco has occupied since 1975. The article urges the US to adopt Morocco’s position, which is to offer the Western Sahara "autonomy" under Moroccan sovereignty. It is important to understand how this proposal of autonomy emerged, and how Morocco’s continued reliance on it fits within the broader dynamic of the dispute, including the devastating violence unleashed by Moroccan authorities against the indigenous Saharawi people of Western Sahara in recent days.

Fundamentally, the autonomy proposal is completely at odds with the peace agreement (called the Settlement Plan) that the Polisario Front and Morocco signed back in 1991, and which the US endorsed as a member of the UN Security Council. This is the only agreement that both parties have signed in a ‘peace process’ that has gone on for more than 20 years. The agreement mandated the holding of a referendum, to allow the Sahrawi people to choose for themselves what they wanted their status to be, including possible independence. This solution was consistent with the way in which other former colonies have been treated under international law; namely, that the people should decide.

The UN estimated at the time that the referendum would be conducted within six months of the UN Security Council endorsing the Settlement Plan. Unfortunately, Morocco chose to undermine the process through interminable challenges to the voter registration process, most of which were eventually deemed invalid. Although the UN had been vested with ultimate authority to decide who was eligible to vote, it chose not to exercise this power. By 1997, the technical challenges of holding a referendum were proving too difficult for the UN, and former US Secretary of State James Baker was brought in to mediate between the parties. For seven years, Baker tried valiantly to find an arrangement whereby a referendum could be held — to allow for Sahrawi self-determination, which was the agreed goal of the process — while managing Moroccan concerns about the people it had settled into the territory since its 1975 invasion. Baker’s 2004 plan, which called for five years of autonomy followed by a referendum which included independence as an option, was seen as the best possible compromise, and was therefore endorsed by the UN Security Council.

Morocco rejected it. To resurrect itself in 2007, it proposed its autonomy plan. This is a completely disingenuous attempt to demonstrate that it is still engaged in the UN peace process, while it consolidates its hold on the territory and continues to exploit Western Sahara’s abundant natural resources. The Moroccan plan is unacceptable to the Sahrawis, the indigenous people of the Western Sahara, because under it, as Article 6 states, the Moroccan King would retain all of his "constitutional and religious prerogatives." And article 19 of the Moroccan constitution says that "The King shall be the guarantor of the independence of the Nation and the territorial integrity of the Kingdom within all its rightful boundaries." For genuine autonomy to work, the Moroccan constitution would therefore need to be completely altered, and the King would need to accept a dilution of his powers in Western Sahara, which based on recent declarations, he is clearly not prepared to do.

But these are political and legal arguments understood by very few people. Most Sahrawis have a much more visceral reaction to the thought of "autonomy" under Moroccan sovereignty. They already know what Morocco’s rule looks like.

Just this week, at least 11 Sahrawis were killed and hundreds injured as peaceful camps assembled by Sahrawis outside of El Aaiun, the territory’s capital, to protest against harsh Moroccan rule and their second-class socio-economic status, were raided by the Moroccan army and police.

Some 20,000 Sahrawi protesters had gathered at the camps for over a month, mostly ignored by the world’s press. Late last week, rumors circulated that Morocco was preparing to disperse the camps by force, scheduled perhaps to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Morocco’s invasion of Western Sahara–an illegal occupation not recognized by a single country worldwide. 

The King may have hoped, based on previous experience, that the rest of the world would turn a blind eye, shying away from any overt criticism of the Moroccan regime for fear of derailing this week’s third round of informal talks between Morocco and the Polisario (convened by the latest of the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoys for Western Sahara, former US Ambassador Christopher Ross). Perhaps this time it will be different. The Spanish media, in particular, has responded with outrage.

Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, and even the US government, have long detailed Morocco’s repression of the Sahrawi people. Just last week, Moroccan police shot and killed an unarmed 14-year old boy at the protest camp. Given the realities on the ground, a pseudo-autonomy under continued Moroccan rule is not a viable option  for the Sahrawis. The King of Morocco regards them as traitors and a threat to Morocco’s territorial integrity. He has said so in speeches such as this one. Is it any wonder then that the Sahrawis cannot accept Morocco’s empty offer of continued Moroccan rule?

So what is the solution? In repeated resolutions (you can see the most recent one here), the UN Security Council, which of course includes the United States, has reaffirmed the right of the people of the Western Sahara to self-determination. This implies a vote on whether Western Sahara should be independent or part of Morocco in some way. These resolutions amount to a promise to an occupied and oppressed people, a promise that has never been fulfilled.

Here’s a simple way to resolve the argument between me and those who support the Moroccan ‘autonomy’ plan: let democracy reign. Give the people a vote. Let them decide between Morocco and independence. Nothing could be more American than that. It’s time the US — and the world — fulfilled its promise to a betrayed people.

Carne Ross is the Executive Director of Independent Diplomat, the non-profit diplomatic advisory group, which advises, amongst others, the Polisario Front, the representatives of the Sahrawi people.  Additional information is available at the Justice Department in Washington, DC.

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