Turtle Bay

TurtleLeaks: Preventing the Arab Spring from reaching Western Sahara

The United Nations and France have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the popular uprisings spreading across Africa, resorting to, or at least backing, the use of military force in Ivory Coast and Libya to foster democratic change. But their fervor for bold political reform has not been felt in the North African territory ...


The United Nations and France have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the popular uprisings spreading across Africa, resorting to, or at least backing, the use of military force in Ivory Coast and Libya to foster democratic change.

But their fervor for bold political reform has not been felt in the North African territory of Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony, where they have favored deference to the slow  incremental path to change advocated by the territory’s ruling power, Morocco.

Previously unreleased U.S. diplomatic communications, obtained through WikiLeaks, reveal that the U.N. and France have been deeply skeptical of Western Sahara’s prospects for self-rule, and have yielded to intense pressure from Morocco to limit outside scrutiny of its human rights conduct.

Just last week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon rejected a request from his own human right’s chief, Navi Pillay, to establish a full-time human rights monitoring team in Western Sahara. France, Russia, Spain, Britain and the United States — the so-called Friends of Western Sahara — endorsed a compromise initiative presented by Ban, which calls for more periodic human rights visits by independent U.N. rights investigators linked to the Human Rights Council. The council is scheduled to vote on the draft next Wednesday backing the plan.

Critics acknowledged that the human rights provision marks a breakthrough in Morocco’s willingness to invite scrutiny of its human rights conduct, but they point out that since there are no human rights experts responsible for monitoring Western Sahara the resolution would have little immediate impact on the ground.  The Western Saharan independence movement, Frente Polisario, has dismissed the initiative as inadequate, insisting on the need for a “permanent, independent and impartial” human rights monitoring mission with a direct reporting line to the U.N. Security Council.

France defended its incremental approach to Western Sahara saying the situation is “completely different” from events unfolding in Abidjan and Tripoli. “On the one hand you have a regime in Libya promising ‘rivers of blood’ in Benghazi, you had a self-proclaimed president in Cote d’Ivoire using heavy weapons against peaceful demonstrators,” Stephane Crouzat, a spokesman for the French mission to the United Nations, told Turtle Bay. “And on the other you have a country that recognizes the need for reforms and is making significant steps towards them. What Morocco needs from the international community is encouragement and support in these efforts”

The former Spanish possession is Africa’s only remaining non-self governing territory, with only 500,000 people in a sparsely populated desert expanse the size of Britain and a population of more than 100,000 refugees in camps in Tindouf, Algeria. Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco and Mauritania in 1976, when the Spanish withdrew. Mauritania ultimately abandoned its claim, and Morocco claimed their share of the territory in 1979. Morocco — aided by France’s diplomacy — has fiercely and successfully resisted efforts by the Frente Polisario, which enjoys diplomatic support from Algeria, to claim independence. A political settlement in Western Sahara has been made all the more elusive because of a bitter rivalry between Algeria and Morocco.

Algerian-backed Polisario rebels fought Moroccan troops until 1991, when a U.N. brokered cease-fire called for a referendum that would allow Saharans the ability to vote on an independence referendum. But Morocco has never allowed such a vote to occur, and now insists that Western Sahara remain as an autonomous part of Morocco.

The U.N. mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, MINURSO, has become a marginal player in the territory. “Because of disputes over who might vote in the referendum, it has lost its political role. Minurso now polices a cease-fire that has hardly seen a single shot fired since it went into effect in 1991,” according to an April 6, 2009 cable. U.N.-brokered talks have failed to secure a political settlement, with Polisario insisting on a chance to vote for independence.

“In recent weeks, the members of the Security Council have repeatedly voiced their support for political outcomes consistent with respect for human rights and peaceful transition to democracy in light of the profound and dramatic changes sweeping the Arab world, ” Ahmed Boukari, Polisario’s U.N. representatives wrote this month in a letter to the Security Council President. “The protection and promotion of human rights, including the right to self-determination must be at the heart of any effort to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara.”

The protest movement spreading across the region has not left Western Sahara untouched. In November, Moroccan authorities used water cannons and tear gas to disperse more than 10,000 Saharan demonstrators outside the town of Laayoune, where they were protesting poor social and economic conditions.  On March 5, demonstrators in Saharan refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria, protested their own leadership’s failure to provide them with a better life. The chief target of the protests was Polisario’s own chief Mohamed Abdelaziz-Polisario leader since 1976 – who was faulted for running a one party rule system that favored tribes related to Polisario’s leaders and denying basic freedoms of speech and assembly to ordinary Saharans.

The April 6, 2009 cable recounts that the previous year the U.N.’s former special envoy, the Dutch diplomat Peter Van Walsum, publicly dismissed Polisario’s independence drive as “not realistic, because Morocco would never relinquish its control of the territory and the international community would never force it to do so.” The United States — which favored autonomy — “explicitly” backed Walsum’s position, even though “no other member did, not even traditionally pro-Moroccan France.” The U.S. position has subsequently shifted away from that public position.

Julian Harston, the former head of the U.N. mission in Morocco, concurred, but for different reasons, according to the cable. Independence, he told American diplomats, “is unrealistic because the territory has no real economy, and the limited fishing and tourism along with fruit and phosphate production offer little for a viable state,” according to a February, 27 2009 cable. In the same cable, a French diplomat, Frederic Clavier, told American officials that “France could not accept any independent state that would not be able to secure its borders.”

The dim assessment of Western Sahara’s prospect for independence prompted Polisario and it chief backer, Algeria, to refuse to deal with Walsum as a negotiator. With talks at an impasse, Ban Ki moon eased Walsum out by declining to renew his contract, according to the cables.

The U.N.’s current special representative, Christopher Ross, a former American diplomat with extensive experience in the region, has dropped that position, restoring the possibility of independence.  But Ross has pressed for a cautious development on sensitive issues, notably acquiescing to Morocco’s insistence that the U.N. mission in Western Sahara not be given a mandate to investigate human rights abuses in the territory. Ross believed “it was not sensible to include human rights in the MINURSO mandate, but perhaps there were other UN agencies that could take on the issue,” according to the February, 27 2009 cable. The U.S. embassy, meanwhile, believed that “Morocco can best address this question by improving the situation and continuing its opening to international monitoring.”

Morocco’s opposition to outside monitoring has been intense. In one cable entitled “Morocco furious with UN on Van Walsum Removal, stalls on replacement and seeks SRSG’s head,” A U.S. embassy official in Rabat cites an official Moroccan letter to Ban conveying “a demand for the removal of MINURSO head SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary General] Julian Harston, including for internal messages suggesting a human rights monitoring role for MINURSO.”

The case for a stronger U.N. human rights role has increased since Morocco sought to disperse crowds of demonstrators in Laayoune back in October, when Saharan protestors set up a camp at Gdim Izik, outside Laayoune, to protest worsening social and economic conditions. Moroccan forces fired tear gas, water canons and batons to break up the demonstrations.

In response, Sahrawi locals, inflamed by false rumors that Moroccan forces had killed Saharan protesters, attacked Moroccan forces in Laayounes. Footage released by the government showed locals slitting one officials throat, and urinating on another. Moroccan forces retaliated later that night, enterin Saharan neighborhoods, and beating and detaining hundreds of people.

Morroco’s Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri wrote Ban to say that the protesters had been infiltrated by “by terrorists and former criminals as part of a plan support by Algeria and targeting Morocco’s unity and stability.” The UN found no proof to substantiate such claims.

Supporters of Morocco say the kingdom has taken important steps toward reform. On March 9, King Mohammed VI, outlined a set of constitutional reform, subject to a vote in Western Sahara, that were aimed at promoting human rights and expanding freedoms. Last month, Morocco’s foreign minister wrote in a letter to Ban that Morocco has established a National Council on Human Rights,  which would be open to dialogue and interaction with international NGO’s  and the UN Human Rights Council.

But Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the moves don’t go far enough. In an internal paper, Pillay urged Ban to establish a permanent human rights mission. “Recent development in the Middle East and North Africa region illustrate the importance of respect of human rights for peace and stability,” according ot the paper. “Alleged violations of the spectrum of rights…demonstrate the critical need for the establishment of an effective international mechanism for regular independent, impartial and sustained human rights monitoring and reporting within a clear mandate covering the entire territory and the refugee camps. This could be achieved by providing for regular human rights reporting through a component within MINURSO.”

Ban had other plans.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch     

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola