Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 2022, pp. 54-55
ON APRIL 13, experts addressed the issue of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara in a webinar co-hosted by the Campaign to End the Occupation of the Western Sahara, the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and the Pan African Unity Dialogue. Bill Fletcher, co-coordinator of the Campaign, moderated the discussion.
In 1974, Spain decided to end its control over Western Sahara and allow the native Sahrawis to hold a referendum to determine their future. However, due to legal objections by Morocco and Mauritania, the referendum, slated for 1975, never occurred.
The U.S. also apparently played a role in preventing the Western Saharans from choosing between independence and Moroccan rule. Katlyn Thomas, former legal adviser to the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) and author of The Emperor’s Clothes: The Naked Truth About Western Sahara, said the entire conflict “might not have occurred had it not been for the meddling of the United States government in 1975.”
Based on records received from Freedom of Information Act requests, Thomas discovered that then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “basically arm-twisted Spain to capitulate to Morocco and allow Morocco to take over the territory.” Thomas cited several examples from FOIA documents showing the extent to which the U.S. government “put its hand on the balance of this situation in Morocco’s favor.”
While Thomas and her colleagues responsible for legal affairs in MINURSO were working on a referendum of self-determination for the Sahrawis, “the U.S. government behind our backs was doing everything to undermine us,” she explained.
Christopher Ross, former U.S. ambassador to Algeria and Syria, was the U.N. secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara from 2009 to 2017. While his mandate was to facilitate direct negotiations between the parties and ensure the self-determination of the Western Saharan people, “the Moroccans kept insisting that I was there only to become an advocate for their position,” he said.
The former diplomat said the U.N. lacks the authority to change the status quo in Western Sahara. Steffan de Mistura, the U.N. secretary-general’s current personal envoy for the region, needs a broader mandate, he emphasized, “or we’re just going to keep spinning our wheels…and the ones who are really paying for this are the 173,600 Western Sahara refugees in the [Algerian] camps.”
The Biden administration has demonstrated ambivalence on this issue, as it has refused to rescind President Donald Trump’s 2020 acknowledgment of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This acquiescence to the prior administration’s disregard for the international consensus is probably because the Biden White House “feels that facts on the ground in Western Sahara and the passage of time will both favor the Moroccans, so basically they don’t need to do much,” Ross said.
Supporters of Western Saharan independence demonstrate in front of Spain’s Congress of Deputies in Madrid on March 30, 2022. Days earlier, the Spanish government endorsed a plan for Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. (MARCOS DEL MAZO/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco and co-author of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution, pointed out the Biden administration’s hypocrisy in condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine, while not condemning—and even recognizing—Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara. “What the Biden administration is doing in effect is recognizing the forcible takeover of one recognized sovereign African state by another,” he stated.
This action sets a dangerous precedent and “gives us little credibility to speak out against Russia’s flagrant violations of international legal norms,” Zunes added. If the United States “really believed in international laws…we would oppose Morocco’s invasion and occupation as well.”
Zunes stressed the importance of mobilizing global civil society on the Western Sahara issue in order to pressure the U.S. government. “People do care about these kind of things, so the more people know about it, I think the more people will be goaded into action and it will be harder and harder for the U.S. government to defend” its policy, he said.