With all eyes on Israel and the occupied territories, a similar
conflict is heating up in North Africa--and the United States is
taking the wrong side. Reversing years of U.S. policy, former Secretary
of State James Baker III is currently pressuring the United Nations
to recognize the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara. This is
a dangerous shift, rewarding aggression while exempting our ally
from international law.
Since invading Western Sahara in 1975, Morocco has systematically
expelled several hundred thousand natives, 160,000 of whom have
spent 25 years living in vast desert refugee camps. Almost immediately,
the United Nations declared the invasion illegal. But Morocco justified
its occupation as part of a quasi-divine reunification of the once-divided
nation and instead opted for 16 years of warfare against the Polisario
Front, a pro-independence group of the native Sahrawi. At the
same time, Morocco also began moving settlers into the area.
In 1991, the United Nations finally brokered a cease-fire by promising
population the right to vote on their fate. They are still waiting
for that opportunity. Meanwhile, Moroccan settlers--estimated to number
390,000, according to government figures--continue to flow in, large
numbers of whom receive a stipend simply for residing in the area.
The government tries to stack the deck by arguing that these new arrivals
should vote in the referendum.
Now, France--whose colonial legacy ties it to Morocco--is pushing
to delay the plebiscite, if not drop it entirely. As U.N. envoy
to Western Sahara, Baker is having considerable success convincing
the United Nations and the United States to renege on prior commitments.
"It's a huge shift indeed" says John Damis, professor of political
science at Portland State University. "For years the mantra on all
sides was 'referendum.' But suddenly things have changed."
Ties between the United States and Morocco always have been strong.
While secretary of state under Reagan, Baker was helped consistently
by former Moroccan King Hassan II. In 1986, Hassan invited Shimon
Peres to a secret meeting in Morocco, breaking with Arab solidarity
on the Palestinian front. Hassan also remained silent when his radar
picked up American planes on their way across the Mediterranean
to bomb Muammar Qaddafi in 1987. In the years before that, the old
king always made Moroccan troops available to act as mercenaries
for French policing actions in West and Central Africa.
Morocco has thrown huge sums over the years at buying Beltway influence.
In 1998, Morocco doled out $100,000 per month to Cassidy
Associates, one of Washington's largest lobby shops, to help
influence congressional opinion on the matter. The Sahrawi have
lacked similar influence on Capitol Hill.
In June 2000, five U.N. officials commented that the referendum
could be held immediately if the upper levels of the United Nations
would simply stop caving to Moroccan pressure. But the Moroccan
stance on the referendum hardened even more in January when the
United Nations published the voter list, which disqualified more
than 100,000 Moroccan settlers. Additionally important was the discovery
by the French press of confidential government documents that instructed
Moroccan settlers on how to disguise themselves as Sahrawi to qualify
for voter rolls.
Some are still standing by international law on the issue. Sens.
Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), Patty
Murray (D-Washington), Bob Smith (R-New Hampshire) and John Kerry
(D-Massachusetts) recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin
Powell reaffirming their commitment to the original U.N. position
that the people of the Western Sahara have a right to a fair and
free referendum. Likewise, most of the members of the Organization
of African Unity have recognized the legitimacy of the indigenous
population's claims to Western Sahara.
Supporting Morocco's invasion sends a dangerous message to rogue
leaders. It also fosters internal instability as Morocco diverts
an estimated $2 million daily toward militarizing its border and
implanting settlers rather than supporting the needs of its domestic
population, 17 percent of whom live below the poverty line of $1
per day. According to Karin von Hippell, professor in the department
of war studies at the University of London, Morocco spends a quarter
of its total government revenue on defense.
Whether the case is Iraq in Kuwait, Indonesia in East Timor or
Israel in Palestine, international law clearly opposes expansionism
and protects the right of self-determination. It remains to be seen
whether the United States will attempt to let another ally off the
Ian Urbina is an editor of Middle East Report (www.merip.org).