The US siding with Morocco may hinder its potential role in Western Sahara.

By Deich Mohamed Saleh*

In recent years, the Biden administration has paid close attention to the Northwest African region, recognizing its strategic importance and potential for economic development in the face of intense power competition. Security and stability are on top of the discussion of Many officials visited the region, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Regarding the Western Sahara, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joshua Harris visited the Maghreb region twice last year. These visits highlighted the United States' focus on the ongoing conflict, which remains a flashpoint in Africa's northwest and Sahel. Harris met with the leadership of the Frente POLISARIO (POLISARIO Front) in Tindouf, Algeria, as well as Moroccan officials in Rabat, Morocco, to examine ways to accelerate the UN's ongoing efforts in Western Sahara.

It was the US administration's first meeting with the Frente POLISARIO leadership on this level, which was viewed as a positive development in promoting dialogue between the two parties to the conflict. However, this step did not effectively advance towards just solutions since Biden has yet to address Trump's recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara. Washington's main impetus for this move has most likely been a fear of escalation spilling over into the Atlantic Ocean after the collapse of the ceasefire in 2020.

According to the CIA-declassified records, the United States' involvement in Western Sahara dates back to the ill-fatted Madrid Agreement of November 14, 1975, when Spain ceded the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. The late Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, and the intelligence services played key roles in brokering this agreement. A month before this event, on October 16, the International Court of Justice stated unequivocally that the claims by Morocco and Mauritania to the Western Sahara are baseless, while reaffirming the right to self-determination as a principle.

The Madrid Agreement marked the beginning of a series of flagrant violations, not only of self-determination and decolonization principles but also of democratic and human rights values, in order to advance the Moroccan monarchy's expansionist goals in Western Sahara. The United States has continued to support Morocco's occupation with military aid and diplomatic support, which has perpetuated the injustice in Western Sahara and slowed progress toward peace and economic development in the region.

Attack on a nation

Western Sahara, a Spanish colony from 1884 until 1976, is on the northwest Atlantic coast of Africa. The 266-square-kilometer territory is abundant in fish, phosphate, and possibly oil. Spain promised to hold a self-determination referendum by the end of 1975 but then abandoned its commitment under the Madrid Agreement. The Frente POLISARIO (Frente Populara para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Rio de Oro), founded in 1973 as a liberation movement, considered the Madrid Agreement a plot to sabotage the vote and prevent the territory from gaining independence. In response, the movement proclaimed the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 to assert the territory's independence.

By the end of 1975, Morocco and Mauritania had deployed troops, as well as a march of 350,000 Moroccan civilians, into the Western Sahara, resulting in numerous casualties, an exodus of population, and escalating regional tensions. The action elicited global condemnation and calls to halt the aggression, including from the UN Security Council, but it was futile due to Morocco's allies' influence among UN decision-makers.

The Saharawi people, under the leadership of Frente POLISARIO, engaged in an asymmetric war against Moroccan and Mauritanian forces, using mobile warfare tactics and leveraging their knowledge of the desert terrain. The formation of the Saharawi army, the Ejercito Popular de la Liberación Saharui, was crucial to reclaiming their homeland. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, the EPLS took control of significant territories and, over time, established itself as a formidable force in the region. Mauritania withdrew in 1979, eventually recognizing the SADR, and Morocco began negotiating shortly after.

Once Mauritania retreated, however, Morocco took control of the remaining territory and has since maintained its occupation. Morocco even built a massive sand wall known as the "Berm" to separate the liberated area from the rest of the territory.

On a continental scale, the Pan-African Organization, which has advocated for the decolonization of Western Sahara since 1965, has continued to provide full support for the liberation of the territory. In this regard, the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) admitted the SADR as a full member in 1982, and Morocco later left the bloc in 1984. After 33 years, Morocco rejoined the AU in 2017 to sit next to the SADR on equal terms.

Under siege 

Since its takeover of Western Sahara, the occupying state of Morocco has maintained firm control over the region, stifling any dissent or opposition to its authority. The territory has been completely under siege, with independent observers and journalists unable to enter. The occupying state of Morocco has committed egregious human rights violations, including crimes against humanity, genocide, and using lethal weapons. However, the Sahrawi resistance remains persistent despite the overwhelming odds against them. The people in the occupied territories keep up their peaceful protests and demand the end of the occupation.

Many local and international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have extensively documented systematic abuses, forced displacement, arbitrary arrests, torture, and restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. More than 450 people have disappeared in the occupied territories since 1975, with their whereabouts still unknown.

Moreover, the occupying authorities implemented policies aimed at assimilating Western Sahara by erasing the indigenous people's national identity and resettling Moroccan civilians to change the territory's demography. Furthermore, the occupying state has been extensively exploiting the territory's natural resources, such as phosphate and fish, to strengthen its control over the territory.

In 2016, the US drafted a UN Security Council resolution mandating human rights monitoring and reporting as part of the United Nations mission, but this resolution is still being discarded.

A sui generis experience in exile

As a consequence of Morocco's occupation of the Western Sahara, tens of thousands of people fled their homes for safety in neighboring Algeria, near Tindouf in the southwest of the country. They have been living in camps for nearly five decades, relying on international aid for their basic needs.

Despite the harsh conditions, the camps have become a symbol of hope and resilience for the Sahrawi people, offering a unique and auspicious experience in exile that matches the people's aspirations for a better life, with democracy and human rights guaranteed.

The government of SADR has successfully implemented various social and educational programs within refugee camps, promoting empowerment and self-sufficiency among its people in order to alleviate some of the refugees' hardships. The level of literacy among camp residents has skyrocketed, with the SADR prioritizing educational access. Additionally, vocational training and skill development programs have been introduced to equip individuals with the necessary tools to thrive in various workshops and contribute to the growth of their community.

Also, the SADR has established relations with over 80 countries and built a global network to rally support and advocate for its liberation struggle, gaining a prominent position in the African Union. The Saharawi Republic has made significant efforts to combat terrorism and organized crime in the region.

Manipulating the peace process

According to declassified documents, the US intelligence services warned Morocco's King Hassan II in the late 1970s of an impending military defeat. As a result, at the 1981 African Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, King Hassan II agreed to a vote on the territory's future.

In the late 1980s, the UN and OAU joined efforts, leading to an agreement between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO in 1988 on a referendum on self-determination by 1992. As a result, a ceasefire was put into place in 1991. Shortly after, the United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) deployed to the region. Although the MINURSO identification commission published the provincial voter list in 1998, the referendum has yet to take place. This was because the occupying state of Morocco declined to continue with the procedure after failing to add thousands of Moroccan citizens to the voter list in order to win the vote.

However, the Moroccan monarchy, as usual, sought support from its UN Security Council allies, most notably the United States and France, to derail the process. As a result, in the early 2000s, both countries pushed hard to have the UN Security Council toss off the agreement process to alter the route of independence, arguing that it was "unimplementable. Meanwhile, the Council has restricted MINURSO's mandate to overseeing the cease-fire and maintaining the stalemate.

Since then, the two countries have consistently taken control of the UN Security Council's decision-making on the matter, with the United States acting as penholder in order to grant immunity to the occupying state of Morocco for its illegal actions in Western Sahara. In this context, in 2016, the occupying state of Morocco expelled the 84 MINURSO’s civilian component, including the AU observers, who have not yet returned to the territory. Furthermore, in November 2020, the occupying state of Morocco began an offensive on Sahrawi civilians opposing the looting of their natural resources in the Buffer Strip of Guerguerat in the southwest of Western Sahara, using this as a justification to annex a proton of liberated regions. This led to the breakdown of the ceasefire and the resumption of armed clashes until now. Everything that happened was known and witnessed by MINURSO, yet the UN Security Council has failed to condemn or hold the occupying state of Morocco accountable for its actions.

A pivotal point

For nearly half a century, the United States' strategy in the northwest of Africa has consistently been to bend international law to align with a medieval monarchy's expansionist ambitions. The monarchy’s territorial claims and hostilities extended beyond the Western Sahara to Mauritania and Algeria. In contrast, the United States ignores the plight of the people of Western Sahara as well as their valiant effort for contemporary state-building, which would definitely enhance regional peace and international cooperation. These actions over the years have exposed hypocrisy and double standards in the Security Council's handling of self-determination in Western Sahara, raising concerns about the council's impartiality.
Many American diplomats who worked on the matter, including James Backer, John Bolton, and Christopher Ross, among others, have urged that the US review its policy in Western Sahara, underscoring self-determination as a unique solution to the ongoing conflict. In this sense, rescinding Trump's recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara would allow the US to rebuild trust with the Sahrawi people, who are disappointed in the UN decision-makers.

Given this, the most effective course of action for the US is to uphold international law, putting pressure on both parties, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO, to fulfill their obligations under the 1988 agreement. In addition, the African Union's contribution is fundamental due to its understanding of the region's complexities and its ability to facilitate negotiations between the two member countries, the Saharawi Republic and the Kingdom of Morocco.

*Deich Mohamed Saleh is a Sahrawi diplomat and former chief of the President's Office.




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