Stephen Zunes : Western Sahara/Morocco
Imagine an Arab Muslim nation, most of whose people have lived in the squalor of refugee camps for decades in exile from their homeland. Most of the remaining population suffers under foreign military occupation, with a smaller number living as a minority within the legally-recognized territory of the occupier. The occupying power is in violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, has illegally brought in tens of thousands of settlers into the occupied territory, routinely violates international standards of human rights, has built a heavily-fortified separation barrier deep inside the occupied territory, and continues to defy a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice. Furthermore, and despite all this, the occupying power is considered to be a close ally of the United States and receives substantial American military, economic, and diplomatic support to maintain its occupation and colonization of the territory.
After much wrangling from the French, the UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution 1495 right on the July 31st deadline for the rollover of the MINURSO peacekeeping operation in Western Sahara. In the best diplomatic tradition, the resolution affirmed the commitment to provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, even while it seriously compromised on it by supporting a peace plan that would allow the Moroccan settlers in the territory to vote on independence in five years. As with Israeli settlers on the West Bank, these Moroccan colonists are there in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits countries from transfering their civilian population onto territories seized by military force.
When a country violates fundamental principles of international law and when the UN Security Council demands that it cease its illegal behavior, one might expect that the world body would impose sanctions or other measures to foster compliance. This has been the case with Iraq, Libya, and other international outlaws in recent years.
The United States, along with France, has been the principal military backer of Morocco in its 25-year occupation of Western Sahara. U.S. counterinsurgency advisers and equipment played a key role in reversing the war in Morocco’s favor in the 1980s. Morocco has long been considered a strategic ally of the West, initially during the cold war as an anticommunist force and more recently as an asset against Islamic militancy. So far, the U.S. has rejected the increasingly moderate and pro-Western tone of the Polisario, though a coalition of liberal and conservative members of Congress has begun to pressure the administration to support Sahrawi self-determination. Successive U.S. administrations have feared that should Morocco lose a fair referendum–a likely scenario–it could mean the downfall of Morocco’s pro-Western monarchy, which has staked its political future on incorporating what it refers to as “the southern provinces.” As a result, although Washington gives lip service to Baker’s mission and related UN efforts and provides a few dozen military and civilian personnel to MINURSO, the U.S. is unlikely to encourage a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Africa’s longest-running and final anticolonial struggle.
When a country violates fundamental principles of international law and when the UN Security Council demands that it cease its illegal behavior, one might expect that the world body would impose sanctions or other measures to foster compliance. This has been the case with Iraq, Libya, and other international outlaws in recent years. One would not expect for the United Nations to respond to such violations by passing a series of new and weaker resolutions that essentially allow for the transgressions to stand. However, this is exactly what appears to be taking place in the case of Morocco and its 25-year occupation of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), better known as Western Sahara. Soon after the International Court of Justice ruled against Morocco’s claims to the territory and the right of the Sahrawis for self-determination, Morocco invaded Western Sahara in November 1975. At that time the UN passed UN Security Council Resolution 380 calling for Morocco to withdraw immediately from the territory. The U.S. and France not only blocked the UN from imposing sanctions and otherwise enforcing its resolution, but they also sent military advisers and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of arms in subsequent years to support Morocco’s conquest. As a result, the majority of the country’s population was forced into exile in neighboring Algeria.
Morocco has occupied Western Sahara since 1975 in violation of resolutions by the UN Security Council and a decision by the International Court of Justice.
The United States has provided military, economic, and diplomatic support for Morocco’s war effort.
A cease-fire and proposed referendum bring promise for peace in the territory, but U.S. leadership is needed to insure its implementation.
THE incoming Bush administration has an opportunity to score an early diplomatic victory should it choose to actively throw its support behind United Nations sponsored negotiations for a peaceful settlement to the war in Western Sahara. To do so would be a departure from the Reagan administration which, despite diplomatic successes in Namibia and elsewhere, has chosen not to play a similarly constructive role in northwest Africa.