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 the indigenous 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 hook.