As Morocco continues to defy the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and much of the international community in its continued occupation of Western Sahara, the United States continues supporting that autocratic government.
Morocco has illegally occupied the former Spanish colony for more than 40 years. Despite promising to hold an internationally-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory in return for a 1991 cease fire with the nationalist Polisario Front, the kingdom has strengthened its grip on the territory and recently expelled the civilian members of the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO.
Long-time Polisario Secretary General Mohamed Abdelaziz died at the end of May. He also served as president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which has been recognized by 84 nations and is a full member state of the African Union. Abdelaziz ended up facing, during his final weeks in office, the biggest crisis in the stalemated conflict in years.
The illegal expulsion was prompted by a visit in April by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the refugee camps in Algeria where upwards to 150,000 Western Sahara refugees have been living since they fled invading Moroccan forces in 1975. While there, he told reporters "I was very saddened to see so many refugees and, particularly, young people who were born there. The children who were born at the beginning of this occupation are now 40 or 41 years old."
This innocuous observation infuriated the Moroccans, who objected to the secretary-general's reference to Morocco's control of the territory as an "occupation." The U.N. General Assembly has used that term in resolutions regarding Western Sahara (34/37 and 35/19) and the consensus of international legal opinion is that the country is a non-self-governing territory under foreign belligerent occupation. (Indeed, the European Court of Justice recently struck down the European Union's trade agreement with Morocco for its failure to distinguish Western Sahara status accordingly.) However, in the view of the Moroccans, having the U.N. secretary-general use the term was a violation of U.N. "neutrality" on the fate of the territory.
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Within days, the Moroccan regime organized an anti-U.N. rally in the capital of Rabat, closed down a U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara liaison office, and expelled all 84 of MINURSO's civilian personnel.
U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric immediately denounced Morocco's actions as being "in clear contradiction" of its international obligations and a challenge to the authority of the U.N. Security Council, which had authorized the MINURSO.
Rather than condemn Morocco's flagrant violation of international legal obligations, however, Kurtis Cooper, the acting spokesperson for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, could only state that the United States supported MINURSO and "the U.N.-led process to bring about a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually-agreed solution to conflict in Western Sahara."
Rather than reiterate the call to allow the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara to fulfill its mission to oversee a referendum by the people of Western Sahara on whether to be an independent country or be incorporated into Morocco, however, Cooper referred to the much-maligned Moroccan proposal to grant the territory some limited "autonomy" in return for international recognition of their illegal annexation as "serious, realistic, [and] credible."
At the end of April, the United States drafted a Security Council resolution simply expressing "concern" over MINURSO's inability to fully carry out its mandate as a result of the Morocco's expulsions. When other Security Council members pressed for stronger language, it was upgraded to "regret," but far less than the condemnation most countries had wanted. The resolution went on to ask the secretary-general to report within 90 days on whether the mission's operations have been restored "to full functionality," and if not "to consider how best to facilitate achievement of this goal." Given that Morocco has declared their decision to expel the peacekeepers "irreversible," it is questionable as to why the U.S. insisted on waiting 90 days.
New Zealand's Ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard van Bohemen, told the Security Council "It should not have been like this. … The resolution should have stated the reality, that the expulsion of the civilian component has seriously compromised the mission and its ability to discharge its mandate."
For those of us who have actually been to Western Sahara, there is no question that it is an occupation. Any verbal or visual expression of support for self-determination is savagely suppressed. Even calls for social and economic justice can be dangerous. The young sociologist Brahim Saika, a leader of a movement of unemployed Sahrawi professionals demanding greater economic justice, was tortured to death while in Moroccan detention in April. Freedom House has ranked Western Sahara as among the dozen least free nations in the world, along with Tibet, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Indeed, of the more than 70 countries I have visited -- including Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Indonesia under Suharto -- Western Sahara is the most repressive police state I have ever seen.
Despite its timid response to the Morocco's recent provocations, the Obama administration still recognizes Western Sahara's distinct status. Respecting the international legal consensus that Western Sahara was not part of Morocco, the administration made sure that U.S. foreign aid goes exclusively to Morocco and not into Western Sahara. However, pro-occupation members of Congress inserted language into this year's omnibus spending bill stating that U.S. foreign aid to Morocco "shall be made available for assistance for the Western Sahara."
The House Appropriations Committee provided a related nonbinding report of their intentions stressing "economic development," including having the administration "support private sector investment in the Western Sahara." The intent was to push the U.S. government to undermine the international boycott and divestment campaign against companies supporting the occupation. As with the Israeli-occupied territories, ethical and legal concerns regarding companies supporting the colonization and economic exploitation of territories seized by military force has led to international opposition.
The Obama administration, caught between their support for international law and a conflicting Congressional mandate, announced that they would spend $1 million to "support the people of the Western Sahara to form meaningful linkages with civil society organizations and local government." The hope is that such aid will support some of the grassroots efforts by indigenous groups to improve the poor human rights situation in the occupied territory.
However, given the level of repression in Western Sahara, the aid could end up going to one of the pro-occupation front groups made up of Moroccan settlers the regime has set up in the territory, not those with a genuine popular indigenous base.
[Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, is the co-author (along with Jacob Mundy) of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press.).] *
*The author's bio has been updated from an earlier version.