Terms of Engagement

‘The Worst of the Worst’

A U.S. ally is treating a would-be nation as a prison camp -- and we're doing nothing about it.


King Mohammed VI of Morocco, descendant of the Prophet, Commander of the Faithful, arrived in Washington this week for his first meeting with President Barack Obama. One does not lightly perturb such a personage — and there is no reason to think that President Obama will do so. Morocco is one of the most steadfast allies the United States has in the Middle East, as well as a silent partner of Israel. The Moroccans feel under-appreciated; the president is eager to show that he cares about his friends, not just about bad actors like Iran. This will be a comity-fest.

But there will be a ghost at the banquet — the very famished and battered ghost that is Western Sahara. Morocco claims this barren wedge of desert, from which Spain, the long-time colonial master, withdrew in 1975. A civil war between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which represented the Sahrawi people, ended in 1991 when the United Nations brokered an agreement by which the people of the region would be permitted to choose either independence or autonomy. That referendum has never been held, and Morocco intends never to hold it. What’s more, Moroccan security officers beat up the Sahrawis whenever they have the temerity to demand their rights. And the Obama administration doesn’t know what to do about it.

What is confounding about Western Sahara is not the question of where justice lies. The Security Council endorsed the referendum plan and established a mission, called Minurso, in order to put it into effect. Morocco stalled for years, and in 2003, James Baker, the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy, came up with yet another plan which gave the Moroccans a much better chance of winning the referendum. The Security Council endorsed that plan as well, but Morocco flatly refused to stage a vote for independence, even one it might win.

This rank colonial injustice by a former victim of colonialism is reminiscent of Indonesia’s repression of East Timor, save that in 1999 the Indonesians allowed a referendum on independence to go forward — and then unleashed its thugs when it became clear the vote was going the wrong way. There is every reason to believe that Morocco would commit similar atrocities rather than surrender the region. But it’s not about to make the Indonesian mistake. King Mohammed and his father before him, Hassan II, have always treated Western Sahara as a matter of national integrity. When I was in Morocco in 2012, I could barely find anyone, including harsh critics of the regime, who believed that the Sahrawis had been deprived of their rights, much less their independence. The king is thus free to do as he wishes. Both the United States and France have consistently supported Casablanca even while paying lip service to the U.N. process.

Thanks to Moroccan intransigence, the debate has shifted over time. In 2007, the Security Council called on the two sides to reach a solution through negotiation. A dozen meetings since then have produced nothing; both parties simply re-state their position, at which point one of them often walks out. This, in turn, has produced a further shift: The Polisario Front, despairing of progress, has tried to call world attention to Morocco’s brutal treatment of the Sahrawis. Demonstrations are suppressed with brutal force; Moroccan and Sahrawi journalists know that they risk prison if they even raise the issue of independence. Freedom House has called the human rights situation in Western Sahara "the worst of the worst."

And this is where the Obama administration enters the story. The Polisario Front and its many supporters, both among African states and humanitarian organizations, have sought in recent years to add human rights monitoring to Minurso’s mandate. This past April they persuaded Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to do just that. Morocco responded as if it had been stabbed in the back. First a joint military exercise with the United States was abruptly cancelled. Then the king called Obama to bitterly complain of meddling in his country’s affairs. Obama overruled his envoy, and Minurso’s mandate was renewed without a human rights component. And yet Morocco had been put on notice that the United States would no longer blithely accept its contempt for the rights of the Sahrawis. Or had it?

Rice is now national security advisor, but there is no sign that the United States is prepared even to ruffle Morocco’s feathers. Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, a lobbyist for Independent Diplomat, a non-profit that provides diplomatic guidance to the Polisario Front, among others, says that what the Obama administration learned from the incident this past April was, "We need Morocco more than they need us. We need them to be happy and on board." Sedaca says that human rights will not be part of the president’s discussion with King Mohammed. That may not be technically correct; I got the impression from a conversation with an administration official that Obama may urge the king to strengthen the "capacity" of his own human rights bodies, which is the kind of painless request one makes of autocratic allies.

There are several reasons for this strategic reticence: Morocco is a tranquil place at a time when the Arab world is having a nervous breakdown; Morocco has not offered so much as a foothold to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has spread across North Africa. The Obama administration, intent on building a transnational response to the transnational threat of terrorism, certainly needs Morocco more than it used to, if not more than Morocco needs the United States. A letter from nine former U.S. ambassadors to Morocco put the matter bluntly, asserting that the United States should openly side with Casablanca’s "common sense" solution on Western Sahara "so that the international community can move on to more urgently needed solutions to the more pressing problems in the region." The letter doesn’t even mention the Sahrawis. Why should it? They don’t matter.

And yet there is a serious argument that, as a matter of national self-interest, Morocco needs to stop treating Western Sahara as a prison camp: Autonomy can not be a lasting solution unless it is attractive. Otherwise, Morocco will have a sullen populace, and perhaps at least a low-grade rebellion, on its hands for the foreseeable future. Attractive autonomy might even work. William Lawrence, a North African expert at George Washington University, says that Sahrawi civil society does not march in lockstep under the Polisario banner. "The bigger agenda is not independence or not, it’s good governance or not, it’s human rights or not, it’s social and economic and political progress or not."

No one knows for sure if that’s true, since even talking about independence is a crime. What is clear though, is that, on the one hand, the king won’t permit a vote on independence, and, on the other, rubbing people’s nose in the hopelessness of their own situation is an excellent way of encouraging rebellion. And with AQIM wandering around the Sahara, rebellions can be a lot more dangerous than they used to be. Ergo, Morocco needs to find a policy in between letting Western Sahara vote for independence — even though it should — and cracking skulls.

The Sahrawis want the same thing that publics want all over the Arab world — personal dignity, economic opportunity, accountable government. The turmoil that now wracks the Middle East is not going to subside unless and until states figure out how to furnish those fundamental human goods. Morocco is no exception, even if the widespread reverence for the king protects him from public anger. The White House needs to find a way to signal its support for this staunch friend while insisting — privately, and at times p
ublicly — that Morocco extend fundamental rights to everyone whom it claims as a citizen.    

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.