Fight the Real Enemy: Terrorism, Not Immigration

What is most disturbing about the dramatic and disruptive decision by the U.K. electorate to leave Europe is how much of it is apparently rooted in anti-immigrant sentiment.

British authorities have already reported an alarming spike in anti-immigrant hate crimes since the “Brexit” referendum.

Fear of terrorist attacks is causing not just a rise in xenophobia, but an erosion of civil liberties, a rise in anti-Muslim activity, and the threat of further Western military intervention in the Middle East.

As in the United States, most Muslims in Europe are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. But unlike the largely middle class and assimilated Muslim community in North America, European Muslims are disproportionately part of the underclass, often in segregated neighborhoods, facing discrimination in employment, harassment by police, and an uncertain future.

Unmoored youth in Europe are targeted for recruitment by terrorist groups who recognize their susceptibility to indoctrination and their desperation to find community and a mission in life—or through death.

Islam is not the primary motivator for their acts of terror; these recruits generally know little about the Quran or Islam.

The poverty of Europe’s Muslim neighborhoods is not new. What is new is the dramatic increase in terrorist cells over the past dozen years or so—which coincides with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The so-called “Islamic State,” which was behind the Paris and Brussels attacks and other terrorist plots, was founded and led by Iraqis radicalized by the U.S.-led counterinsurgency war during the previous decade.

The vast majority of European governments, including those of France and Belgium, opposed the U.S.- led 2003 invasion, in part out of fear that it would create a backlash by radical Salafist movements in the Middle East that could spread to their own Muslim communities.

Tragically, this is exactly what is happening.

Much of the backlash is being projected on other victims of U.S. policy: refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. Many of these new refugees from Iraq and Syria, rather than being from a poor underclass, are well-educated doctors, lawyers, and professors, forced to flee when threatened by members of ISIS, which has seized many of the urban areas of northern Syria and Iraq.

Indeed, most of the poor cannot afford the costs of the smugglers who charge exorbitant rates to transport people from refugee camps in southeastern Turkey to the country’s west coast and place them on the boats to make the crossing to Greece to begin their travel north and west.

Refugees who become immigrants have a lower crime rate than the native population. When allowed to integrate, they tend to become productive citizens, start small businesses, and put a lot more money into the social system than they take out. The large numbers of professionals among the Syrian asylum-seekers could be an asset to the aging European population. The birthrate in most European countries is so low that, without immigrants, the continent would actually lose population, some countries by double-digits within the next thirty years.

Terrorist attacks in Europe also encourage more hawkish elements in both Europe and the United States advocating increased Western military intervention in the Middle East. That, however, plays into the hands of extremists, who would portray themselves as the defenders of the Islamic world, and persuade susceptible youth to join them to battle Western imperialism.

And the overt racism displayed by many Brexit supporters in Britain will likely be used by Islamist extremists to convince such alienated European Muslims that acceptance and integration is impossible.

The last thing we need are attitudes and policies that not only have serious moral and economic consequences, but will only encourage terrorism.

Testimony before the conference on decolonization

My interest in the dispute over Western Sahara is based not simply upon my belief in justice for that country’s people, but its implications in regard to international law and the principles upon which the United Nations organization is founded. These include the right of self-determination by non-self-governing territories and the inadmissibility of any country expanding its territory by force. Since I am not from Western Sahara, I have no stake as to whether the people of that country choose integration with Morocco, independence, or some sort of autonomy within the Moroccan kingdom. However, as a non-self-governing territory, they must have the right to make that choice.

The Kingdom of Morocco remains in contravention of a series of UN Security Council resolutions calling on that government to allow the people of the territory the right to determine their own future, including the option of independence.

Instead, the Moroccan government and its allies have been pushing for a so-called “autonomy” plan. This proposal falls well short of what is required to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Moreover, it sets a dangerous precedent which threatens the very foundations of the post-World War II international legal system.

To begin with, the proposal is based upon the assumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, a contention that has long been rejected by the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the African Union, and a broad consensus of international legal opinion. To accept Morocco’s autonomy plan would mean that, for the first time since the founding of the United Nations and the ratification of its Charter more than seventy ago, the international community would be endorsing the expansion of a country’s territory by military force and denying a recognized non-self-governing territory its right of self-determination, thereby establishing a very dangerous and destabilizing precedent.

If the people of Western Sahara accepted an autonomy agreement over independence as a result of a free and fair referendum, it would constitute a legitimate act of self-determination. However, Morocco has explicitly stated that its autonomy proposal “rules out, by definition, the possibility for the independence option to be submitted” to the people of Western Sahara, the vast majority of whom – according to most knowledgeable international observers – favor outright independence.

Even if one takes a dismissive attitude toward international law, there are a number of practical concerns regarding the Moroccan proposal as well:

One is that the history of respect for regional autonomy on the part of centralized authoritarian states is quite poor, and has often led to violent conflict. For example, in 1952, the United Nations granted the British protectorate (and former Italian colony) of Eritrea autonomous federated status within Ethiopia. In 1961, however, the Ethiopian emperor unilaterally revoked Eritrea’s autonomous status, annexing it as the country’s fourteenth province, resulting in a bloody thirty-year struggle for independence and subsequent border wars between the two countries which have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.Similarly, the unilateral revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy by the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in1989 led to a decade of conflict, an eleven-week NATO bombing campaign, and the still-unresolved legal status of that territory.

Based upon Morocco’s record of breaking its promises to the international community regarding the United Nations-mandated referendum for Western Sahara and related obligations based on the 1991 cease fire agreement, there is little to inspire confidence that Morocco would live up to its promises to provide genuine autonomy for Western Sahara. A close reading of the proposal also raises questions as to how much autonomy is even being offered. Important matters such as control of Western Sahara’s natural resources and law enforcement (beyond local jurisdictions) remain ambiguous.

In addition, the proposal appears to indicate that all powers not specifically vested in the autonomous region would remain with the Kingdom. Indeed, since the King of Morocco is ultimately invested with absolute authority under article 19 of the Moroccan Constitution, the autonomy proposal’s insistence that the Moroccan state “will keep its powers in the royal domains, especially with respect to defence, external relations and the constitutional and religious prerogatives of His Majesty the King” appears to afford the monarch considerable latitude in interpretation.

Furthermore, Morocco has been illegally colonizing the occupied Western Sahara with tens of thousands of settlers. As in the case of the Israeli settlers of the West Bank and Golan Heights, the transfer of a country’s civilian population onto lands seized by military force is a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. These Moroccan settlers already outnumber the indigenous population, who would therefore not be able to exercise whatever limited degree of self-rule that the kingdom may offer.

Still another reason to distrust Morocco’s proposed autonomy plan is the poor human rights situation in the occupied Western Sahara, where any expression of nationalist sentiments—displaying flags, signs, protests, or any public expression—is brutally suppressed. I have visited over seventy countries—including Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Indonesia under Suharto—and I have never seen a worse police state. The US-based NGO Freedom House—which, if anything, has a something of a bias in support of pro-Western governments—has ranked Western Sahara as having one of very worst human rights situations in the world. Amnesty International and other reputable human rights organizations have issued a number of scathing reports on human rights abuses by Morocco. The brutal suppression by Moroccan occupation forces of those who support independence is but one indication of the Moroccan government’s lack of respect for the well-being of the people of Western Sahara and underlies the imperative of including a human rights mandate for MINURSO, currently the only UN peacekeeping force which lacks that authority.

Some observers see autonomy as a reasonable compromise between independence and integration, constituting a kind of win/win situation between the Sahrawi desire for self-governance and the Moroccan desire for sovereignty over the territory. However, unlike certain ethnic conflicts or border disputes where such a “third way” between the demands of two parties would constitute a creative means of conflict resolution, Western Sahara is a clear-cut case of self-determination for a people struggling against foreign military occupation. This is not a matter of “splitting the difference,” given that one party is anon-self-governing territory under an illegal foreign military occupation and the other party is an occupier effectively playing the role of a colonizer.

This is why the international community rejected Iraq’s proposals in 1990-91 for some kind of compromise regarding its occupation of Kuwait and why the U.S.-led “peace process” on Israel/Palestine based upon the alleged need for the two parties to “compromise” on the extent of Israeli control over territories occupied by Israel in the June 1967 war has failed to resolve the conflict. The Polisario Front has already offered guarantees to protect Moroccan strategic and economic interests if allowed full independence. To insist that the people of Western Sahara must give up their moral and legal right to genuine self-determination is therefore not a recipe for conflict resolution, but for far more serious conflict in the future.

The recent illegal expulsion of MINURSO civilian personnel and the anti-UN incitement by the Moroccan regime in response to the Secretary General’s use of the word “occupation”—despite the fact that the term has already been included in UN General Assembly resolutions and is in common use among international legal scholars—is but one indication of that government’s unwillingness to live up to its international responsibilities.

Morocco has succeeded in resisting its international legal obligations for more than four decades through its support from France and, under some administrations, the United States as well. As a result of French and American veto threats, the Security Council has failed to place the Western Sahara issue under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which would give the international community the power to impose sanctions or other appropriate leverage to force the Moroccan regime to abide by the UN mandates it has to date disregarded.

It was similar support by Western industrialized nations of Indonesia which for many years prevented resolution to the occupation of East Timor. It was only after human rights organizations, church groups, and a wide array of activists in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia successfully pressured their governments to end their support for Indonesia’s occupation that the Indonesian government was finally willing to offer a referendum which gave the East Timorese their right to self-determination. It may take similar grassroots campaigns in Europe and North America to ensure that Western powers live up to their international legal obligations and pressure Morocco to allow the people of Western Sahara the right to determine their own destiny.

Given Morocco’s unwillingness to live up to its international legal responsibilities, its refusal to live up to its obligations under the cease fire agreement, and the failure of the UN Security Council to enforce its mandate, the Polisario has threatened to resume the armed struggle. As a people under foreign belligerent occupation in non-self-governing territory denied the right to self-determination, the Western Saharans do have the right of armed resistance. However, this would be a serious strategic error that would only play into the hands of Morocco and its supporters and weaken their appeal for badly-needed international support.

The most effect means of resistance would be the kind of nonviolent civil resistance which has brought down dozens of autocratic regimes in recent decades and freed the Baltic republics from Soviet occupation. We have seen impressive examples of such resistance in the occupied Western Sahara in recent years.

There are limits to what such nonviolent resistance can achieve, however, due to the fact that the indigenous population is now badly outnumbered by Moroccan settlers.

Still, the growth of the non-violent resistance struggle in the occupied territories offers a unique opportunity to build international awareness of the conflict among civil society organizations that could offer much-needed solidarity with the freedom struggle inside Western Sahara. Nonviolent civil resistance and other forms of non-cooperation provide an important signal to the Moroccan occupiers and the international community that the people of Western Sahara still demand their freedom and will not accept anything less than genuine self-determination. The use of strategic nonviolent methods of resistance also makes it easier to highlight gross and systematic violations of international humanitarian law by Moroccan occupation forces, gain sympathy and support from the international human rights community, and provide greater pressure on the French, American and other governments which continue to prevent appropriate pressure on Morocco to allow the people of Western Sahara the right to determine their own destiny.

There is a small but growing movement in Europe supporting Western Sahara’s right to national self-determination, as well as some similar civil society initiatives in South Africa, other African countries, Australia, Japan, and the United States. A growing focus on the issue of the illegal exploitation of natural resources in Western Sahara is providing proponents of international law and human rights a means of which to challenge governments and companies which illegally take advantage the occupationby targeting them through campaigns advocating boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. At this point, however, such movements are too small to have much impact on government policies, particular those of France and the United States, which are the two governments most responsible for the failure of the United Nations to enforce its resolutions addressing the conflict. This can change, however: Just over twenty years ago, there was relatively little civil society activityin developed nations regarding East Timor, but a dramatic growth in such activism in the late 1990s played an important role in making possible East Timor’s eventual independence.

A similar campaign may be the best hope for the people of Western Sahara and the best hope we have to save the vitally important post-World War II legal principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

If the international community cannot fulfil its responsibilities on this issue – where the legal and moral imperatives are so clear – how can it deal with more complex issues? If the international community cannot uphold the fundamental right of self-determination, how can it successfully defend other human rights? If the international community cannot enforce a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding such a blatant violation of the UN Charter as a member state invading, occupying, annexing and colonizing a neighboring country, how can it enforce other provisions of international law?

The stakes are not simply about the future of one small country, but the question as to which principle will prevail in the 21st century: the right of self-determination, or the right of conquest? The answer could determine the fate not just of the Western Sahara, but that of the entire international legal order for many decades to come. (SPS)

Pick Your Poison: Clinton Vs. Trump on Foreign Policy

In their remarks to the nation following the Orlando massacre, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump made their differences—and disturbing similarities—crystal clear.

Trump attacked Hillary Clinton for refusing to label the violence carried out by a mentally-disturbed American-born gunmen of Muslim background as a manifestation of “radical Islam.” He reiterated his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States and to subject American Muslims to special surveillance and restrictions.

To her credit, Hillary Clinton rejected such bigotry. However, she called for returning to the “spirit of 9/12,” ignoring how that reaction to 9/11 resulted in a major crackdown on civil liberties and preparation for war. She stated:

“The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear, we cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it.”

Though there is no evidence of any operational ties between ISIS and the lone Orlando gunman, she piled on, saying:

“We should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground.”

Sam Adler-Bell, a journalist and policy associate with The Century Foundation, observed:

“I fear we’ve already begun to enlist the 49 dead into the project of American empire, here and abroad, into the endless, borderless war that began on 9/12.”

In previous weeks, both incipient nominees had given what have been called “major foreign policy addresses.” Though both lacked detail and substance, Clinton made a strong case that Trump really does not have the experience, knowledge, or temperament to be commander-in-chief.

Still, while former Secretary of State Clinton would be among the most experienced and knowledgeable nominees on foreign policy in modern history, she is probably the most hawkish Democratic nominee in decades.

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies noted:

“She talked about all of the crazy stuff that Donald Trump has said. That’s easy to do, [but] the choice between the kind of chaos of Trump’s policy, that’s so incredibly dangerous, versus a very clear militaristic commitment to regime change and U.S. domination in [Clinton’s] foreign policy, is not much of a choice.”

In certain areas, Clinton has even placed herself to the right of the incipient GOP nominee. For example, Trump has questioned why Americans must pay for overseas bases, carrier groups, and other forward deployment to defend wealthy European, Middle Eastern, and Western Pacific allies who could afford to defend themselves, but whose military budgets are only a fraction of those of the United States. Clinton has denounced what she refers to as his threat “to abandon our allies in NATO.”

She has denounced Trump for wanting to negotiate directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and calls instead for a U.S.-led military buildup in East Asia, including a costly missile defense system in Japan. Harkening back to the rhetoric once used against liberal Democrats by their hawkish electoral opponents, Clinton said that if her opponent is elected, “they’ll be celebrating in the Kremlin.”

Rather than support collective security arrangements, a stronger United Nations, expanding nuclear-free zones, or other multilateral efforts, Clinton insists that “if America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum—and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void.” Anything short of U.S. primacy “is not an outcome we can live with.”

This drew a rebuke from Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs:

“This kind of arrogance—that America and America alone must run the world—has led straight to overstretch: perpetual wars that cannot be won, and unending and escalating confrontations with Russia, China, Iran, and others that make the world more dangerous. It doesn’t seem to dawn on Clinton that in today’s world, we need cooperation, not endless bravado.”

Clinton falsely accused Trump of saying he would “stay neutral on Israel’s security.” In reality, Trump said that in order to effectively mediate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the United States should take a more neutral position in the negotiations. A longstanding assumption in the field of conflict resolution is that mediators shouldn’t take sides.

The sad fact is that American voters this November will probably be forced to choose between a Republican nominee who thinks the United States should ban Muslims from entering the country versus a Democratic nominee who thinks the United States has a right to invade Muslim countries; a Republican nominee who agrees with George W. Bush that it’s okay to torture prisoners in the name of fighting terrorism versus a Democratic nominee who agrees with Benjamin Netanyahu that it’s okay to bombard crowded civilian neighborhoods in the name of fighting terrorism; a Republican nominee who supports building a wall on the border to keep Mexicans out of the United States versus a Democratic nominee who supports Israel building a wall far beyond its border to keep Palestinians out of Palestine.

Overall, Trump may be the bigger militarist. Though he has attacked Clinton for backing the invasion of Iraq and the bloody counter-insurgency war that followed, archived interviews have indicated that Trump did not actually oppose the war as he’s claimed. Same with U.S. intervention in Libya. Indeed, in both cases, Trump called for an even greater use of force, including seizure of oil fields for U.S. economic benefit. He also agrees with Clinton to militarily intervene in Syria to create “safe zones” for refugees and to escalate U.S. bombing against ISIS.

Trump’s call for pulling U.S. forces back from overseas is accompanied by a call for such countries as Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia to develop their own nuclear weapons. He opposes the nuclear agreement with Iran. He has falsely accused President Obama of having “supported the ouster of a friendly regime in Egypt . . . and then helped bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in its place.” He charges that Obama, whose administration has given unprecedented amounts of aid to Israel and blocked the United Nations from addressing human rights concerns, “has not been a friend to Israel,” saying the President has “snubbed and criticized” what he calls “the one true Democracy in the Middle East.”

Trump also claims “our nuclear weapons arsenal”—on which Obama plans to spend nearly $1 trillion over the next thirty years—“has been allowed to atrophy and is desperately in need of modernization and renewal.” He has criticized Obama’s cancellation of the missile defense program, despite extraordinary cost and highly dubious efficacy. He pledges to dramatically increase military spending.

“Our military,” he laments, “is depleted, and we’re asking our generals and military leaders to worry about global warming”—which, according to Trump, does not exist.

Clinton, throughout her career, has been a hawk. Not only did she support the Iraq War, she has backed the Israeli and Moroccan occupations, the Honduras coup, various allied dictatorships, higher military spending, and a more interventionist foreign policy. She’s thumbed her nose at the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and various reputable international human rights and arms control agencies.

Yet, ironically, her foreign policy agenda will likely be treated as the “left” wing of the debate by the mainstream media this fall, and perhaps for the next four to eight years.

This is why those of us who have a truly progressive vision of foreign policy need to mobilize and put on the pressure.

The good news is that Clinton has been forced to downplay her hawkish tendencies in order to get the Democratic nomination, while Trump is on the verge of winning the Republican nomination by exaggerating his dovish tendencies. This indicates that an increasing number of American voters are questioning the militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

With only a few exceptions, virtually every change in U.S. foreign policy—including ending the Vietnam War, accepting the Central American peace plan, imposing sanctions on apartheid South Africa, curbing the nuclear arms race, ceasing support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, and phasing out most U.S. involvement in Iraq—came not from the initiative of enlightened politicians but from the American public.

Elections are important. Yet just as important are the other forms of pressure we can provide to force a saner and less militaristic foreign policy.

Morocco continues occupation of Western Sahara, in defiance of UN

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.

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.

Reasons to oppose the proposed state anti-boycott bill

The California State Assembly is considering a bill entitled the “Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions of Recognized Sovereign Nations or Peoples Act” (AB 2844) that could lead to penalizing California businesses that boycott any country or any products from a particular country — even if the product is being made in a colony or occupied territory or if it is made under illegal, inhumane or environmentally deleterious conditions. It would also deny state or local government contracts to sole propietorships who participate in such boycotts.

Originally written to target the growing use of boycotts and divestment campaigns as efforts to force changes in Israeli policies, the bill has since been amended to drop specific mention of Israel and has been expanded to include “any sovereign nation or peoples recognized by the government of the United States.” If passed, the new law could therefore affect companies that support international boycotts not only in regard to the Israeli occupation, but to Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, Russian-occupied Crimea and Chinese-occupied Tibet. It would also target companies that boycott Sudan for its genocidal campaign in Darfur, Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women and religious minorities, or any other specific country over such practices as sweatshops, killing whales, destruction of rainforests, or other issues.

Assemblyman Richard Bloom, the bill’s author, has falsely claimed that such tactics, when targeting the Israeli occupation, are being used to “attack Jews” and “destroy the state of Israel.” In reality, the leading endorsers of such boycotts and divestment have included major peace and human rights organizations like the American Friends Service Committee and mainstream religious denominations like the Presbyterians and Congregationalists that have supported similar campaigns against illegal and unethical practices by other governments and corporations as well. They are not singling out Israel, much less wanting to destroy that country or to “attack Jews.”

Campaigns for corporate responsibility have a long history in this country including the lettuce and grape boycotts in support of California farmworkers, the boycott of J.P. Stevens for union busting activities, protests against Nike for supporting overseas sweatshops and the divestment campaign targeting companies investing in apartheid South Africa. Had AB 2844 been in effect in the 1980s, companies boycotting the white minority regime and individuals advocating divestment from companies that refused to do so could have been subject to heightened scrutiny.

Support for and the act of boycotting, including the selling of stockholdings on ethical or political grounds, have long been recognized as a First Amendment right. One may agree or disagree with the motivation behind such actions. For example, boycotts were used in this country both in opposition to and in support for segregation. But federal courts have consistently found that they are a form of political speech, entitled to the highest level of protection. The mere act of including companies suspected to have participated in a boycott on a blacklist would likely deter them from engaging in political speech, thus causing an unconstitutional “chilling effect” on such speech, even if no penalties are added by subsequent legislation. As a result, passage of the bill could lead to lengthy and expensive litigation.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild are among the groups that have expressed their opposition. In addition, our state senator, Bill Monning, has expressed concerns about the bill’s vagueness, noting that it is “unclear how the state would determine a violation and enforce it” by denying contracts with state and local governments. Our state Assembly member, Mark Stone, as chair of the Judiciary Committee, voted with the majority of committee members to advance the bill to the floor.

The bill would require the Office of the Attorney General to investigate and constantly monitor the thousands of contracts local and state agencies have with various companies and individuals and whether or not they engage in “discriminatory business practices in furtherance of a boycott” of most any foreign country. City governments would have to devote countless employee hours to providing such information.

In short, not only would the passage of AB 2844 raise troubling ethical, political and constitutional questions, it would create a costly and bureaucratic mess.