Deich Mohamed Saleh
The unprecedented decision by former United States president Donald Trump to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara on December 10, 2020 was met with widespread criticism as it contradicts international law.
Although no position has been taken so far on this step, all indications confirm that the new administration will reverse the error, giving the impression that the US — as the penholder of Western Sahara conflict in the Security Council — will push for a solution within the framework of international legality.
The former 53rd Spanish province until 1976, Western Sahara has been on the UN list of Non-Self-Governing territories since 1963 awaiting decolonisation. In 1974, Spain accepted to organise a referendum after conducting a census of the indigenous population, in sight to hand over power to the POLISARIO Front, which represented the population’s demands for independence.
The Polisario Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro) was created in 1973 as a result of a large popular movement demanding the departure of Spanish colonialism.
Unfortunately, the Spanish government ceded the territory in 1975 to the Kingdom of Morocco, only a few days after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected the latter’s claims to the territory.
Morocco took advantage of the transitional period that followed the death of General Franco to push the Spanish government to violate the UN Charter and resolutions and repeated calls of the Organisation of African Unity at that time.
In pursuance of the will of the people of Western Sahara, the Polisario Front declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) on February 27, 1976 to fill the legal vacuum created by Spain’s withdrawal. The SADR joined the OAU in 1984, and later became one of the founders of the African Union.
After 16 years of escalation, a ceasefire agreement was reached in 1991 between the SADR, represented by the Polisario Front, and the Kingdom of Morocco.
The ceasefire is a part of a settlement plan signed by both parties, with the aim of organising a fair, just and transparent referendum under the auspices of the UN and OAU where the people of Western Sahara can choose between their independence or integration with Morocco.
The settlement plan was based on the OAU resolution 104 (1983), which was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in its resolution 4050 (1985) and adopted by the Security Council in its resolution 658 (1990) under the Secretary-General’s report S/21360.
But the referendum was disrupted, and the past 30 years remained fraught with the repetition of Moroccan obstacles in the absence of pressure from the UN, which led to the resumption of armed confrontation at the end of last year.
Breaching international law
The importance of the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 lies in the set of rules and regulations of its charter and resolutions adopted by its member states. The independence of more than 80 former colonies was a qualitative leap achieved by the UN.
But its failure to complete the decolonisation of non-self-governing territories, such as the Western Sahara, reflects the double standards of today’s international decision-makers in the application of international law.
The UN Charter and the huge amount of resolutions, legal advisories and judicial rulings recognise the inalienable right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination and independence.
Instead, neither the UN Charter nor its resolutions nor judicial rulings recognise Morocco’s claims, but rather consider it an occupying power of the territory.
The failure of the UN also affected the protection of Sahrawi citizens from the systematic repression of the Moroccan occupation authorities, as the Security Council could not agree to expand the mandate of MINURSO to include the report on human rights.
By recognising Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, Trump deliberately abused the values and principles on which the UN was founded, which the new administration must address to preserve the US’ abroad reputation as an international decision-maker.
The Joe Biden administration’s intention to review Trump’s decisions is an optimistic sign that the US, as the penholder of Western Sahara, will reconsider the application of international law in a manner consistent with respect for the territory’s legal status.
Hope increased a lot when the exercises of the African Lion 2021 did not include the Western Sahara territory, contrary to what was promoted by the Makhzen. For its part, the European Union ignored the legal status of Western Sahara and the relevant judicial rulings to conclude trade agreements with the Kingdom of Morocco that include the territory.
Nor did the European Union respect the conditions of partnership with the African Union regarding the sovereignty of its members, such as the Sahrawi Republic.
Europeans should encourage Spain to live up to its historical responsibility in decolonising its former colony, as it is still the administrating power that does not fall within the statute of limitations. Portugal’s host of the East Timor cause is a vivid example for Spain to follow.
The lack of an objective assessment of the outcome of the application of international law in Western Sahara by the decision-makers of the UN Security Council is a mistake that everyone will pay for.
The support of some international actors for Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara dates back to the Cold War period, which calls for a comprehensive review to be in line with the development taking place in the region and the aspirations of its peoples for peace and stability. Thus, the question of Western Sahara, like the previous decolonisation issues, must be resolved with full respect for the right of its people to self-determination and independence.
Otherwise, no one can blame the Sahrawis for any kind of escalation in the context of their defence of their legitimate right.
The international decision-makers must rule out any threat to security and stability that might be caused by the establishment of a new state in the region, as has promoted by Morocco.
In this context, it is important to take into consideration the reality of coexistence of the SADR and the Kingdom of Morocco on an equal footing within the African Union and their commitment to respect colonial frontiers. In this sense, the role of the African Union is vital in any future international efforts.
The annoying neighbour
The US considers the Kingdom of Morocco a strategic ally due to the many services it provided during the Cold War, and later under the rubric of terrorism. For its part, the EU granted it an advanced status for guarding the southern gate. However, it seems that neither the US nor the EU has made an effort to reveal the truth about the Moroccan Makhzen.
First, the Makhzen took advantage of the protection offered to it by the West during the Cold War to attack its neighbours and constantly works on destabilising them.
Prior to its illegal occupation of Western Sahara in 1975, the Kingdom of Morocco had claimed Mauritania and parts of Algeria.
Therefore, it opposed the independence of Mauritania in 1960, and launched a war against Algeria a year after its independence in 1963. Morocco has also repeatedly claimed Spanish territories, where its borders have been subjected to continuous attacks, such as the Perejil island in 2002, and more recently Ceuta and Melilla, where the Makhzen used minors as human shields to occupy the two cities.
Second, the involvement of the Moroccan intelligence services in supporting terrorism, which was not limited to Algeria during the 1990s and beyond, nor to the region and the Sahel, but that most of the terrorist attacks in Europe were linked to Moroccan names, such as in Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Brussels etc.
In addition, the joining of thousands of Moroccans to terrorist organisations in Iraq, Syria, Libya and others is another evidence that Morocco is a base for the export of terrorists.
The fate of the Moroccan terrorists, who have returned to Morocco, will remain a time bomb in the hands of Moroccan intelligence, waiting for the right place and time to detonate it.
Third, the 2020 reports of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the European Observatory on Drugs and Addiction have ranked Morocco as the number one producer and exporter of cannabis. Thus, drug trafficking gangs were not limited to dumping European countries with cannabis and hashish, but also with cocaine and heroin.
While the regular flow continues to neighbouring countries and the Sahel, which contributes to the financing of armed terrorist groups and threatens to destabilize the region.
Fourth, Morocco systematically uses illegal immigrants to obtain financial support or to extract political positions from Spain or the European Union.
Ostensibly, Morocco is dressed as the custodian of migration towards Europe, but it is secretly bringing in migrants via a long-running plan.
The Makhzen’s intelligence services allocate trips to transport African migrants from their countries to Morocco, giving them promises that they will be given opportunities to pass to Europe. Fifth, The most dangerous thing is that Morocco is pursuing a policy of starving its population to attack its neighbours, as happened recently with Spain, including the use of minors to blackmail and abuse the latter’s frontiers.
Once again, the Makhzen is investing in Trump’s reckless decision to recognize his sovereignty over the Western Sahara by launching a heinous and widespread campaign against positions opposing this decision, using dirty blackmail methods.
The campaign primarily targeted Europe to follow Trump’s lead, especially key countries such as Spain and Germany, with whom Morocco threatened to cut ties, and took decisions against them that had nothing to do with the ethics and standards of diplomacy.
The spiral of instability
The era of colonialism in the African continent was supposed to have been over by the end of the twentieth century, but it is still lurking in its north, especially in the Western Sahara, where its people are subjected to heinous crimes and brutal methods.
Unfortunately, once the traditional colonial powers had left the region, the Kingdom of Morocco stabbed its peoples in the back by putting the Makhzen itself at the service of the dirty French politics.
Accordingly, Morocco waged an asymmetric war against the small people of Western Sahara, which came within the framework of a long-term plan aimed at destabilising the entire region. Not only to antagonise its countries, but also to aggravate their internal conditions.
The region was given reasons for optimism about the agreement between the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco to organise a referendum of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara at the end of the eighties as a result of tireless efforts undertook by the African bloc.
This atmosphere allowed the leaders of Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania and Morocco to organise a preliminary meeting in Algiers in 1988, in light of the announcement of the establishment of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) in 1989 in Marrakesh, Morocco. In this regard, Algeria’s genuine will was evident in overcoming differences and make progress for the benefit of the region, without ruling out the outcome of the referendum in Western Sahara.
However, the countries of the region were disappointed by the retreat of the Kingdom of Morocco from its commitment to the referendum, which once again showed that it does not want to stop its expansionist ambitions.
The geopolitical considerations of the Maghreb region, in terms of its enormous natural resources, proximity to waterways and borders with Europe, made it a place for global powers to compete in the way they benefited from at the expense of the development and integration of the region. Thus, the region was subjected to instability and foreign interference in its internal affairs for one goal, which is to prevent these countries from achieving their own approach that guarantees independent political decision-making and control over their economies.
The basis for the desired stability is full respect for the legitimate rights of peoples and the sovereignty of states, based on the colonial frontiers. In this regard, Algeria plays a major role, as a regional power, in living up the countries of the region and its African depth to the level of resolving their issues, formulating their own policies and views that must be accepted by its partners.
Factor of stability
Forty-five years were enough to refute Morocco’s claims about the potential threats to security and stability that might result from the establishment of an independent state in Western Sahara.
Time has proven that the Saharawi Republic has made many concessions, out of its concern for Africa’s unity, security and peace, and it has maintained good-neighborly relations. Even the Kingdom of Morocco, which still occupies parts of Western Sahara, has benefited from the policies of the Saharawi Republic in the liberated areas to combat terrorism and organised crime.
Today, the Saharawi Republic has become an irreversible national, regional and international reality, with its democratic institutions, rational policies and broad international relations. Thus, the Saharawi people feel satisfied with the gains achieved on the path of establishing the rule of law under a free and independent homeland.
The SADR’s assumption of its natural position within the African bloc in 1984 was an inevitable result that affirmed the unanimity of Africans to uphold international legality. Therefore, the SADR is now one of seven African countries that constitute the Northern region of the African Union, along with Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Tunisia and recently Morocco. The SADR participates normally in all the activities of the Union, including partnership meetings, and enjoys respect and a prestigious position.
Morocco abandoned the OAU in protest of the Sahrawi state’s membership within it, to join the African Union in 2017, of which the Sahrawi Republic is one of its founding members, on the condition that the colonial frontiers of each of the union’s 55 states be respected.
Resumption of hostilities
The resignation of the well-known former US Secretary of State James Baker from his position as Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General in 2004 demonstrated beyond any doubt that some permanent members of the Security Council are not interested in resolving the problem of Western Sahara in accordance with the provisions of international lawyers.
This encouraged Morocco to abandon its commitments regarding the referendum and to act with absolute sovereignty over the territory, which made the presence of the UN confined to the cease-fire.
The Makhzen expelled the civilian component of MINURSO and took strict measures against its personnel to limit the movement of the mission in the territory, even the plates of its cars are Moroccan.
It established a trade line linking Europe with Africa by opening a loophole in the Guerguerat in the south of the territory. It also terribly plunders fish, phosphates, and other economic resources, and uses some of the proceeds from these resources to buy silence and loyalty.
Finally, the Makhzen has mortgaged the Sahrawi coasts into a game of interests with the aim of complicating the solution and prolonging its occupation of the territory.
The Moroccan security forces continue to commit flagrant human rights violations against Saharawi citizens in the part occupied by Morocco. The reports of many international and humanitarian organisations have documented systematic and dangerous repression and intimidation in these areas, with arbitrary arrests, judicial prosecutions and unfair trials, especially against political activists, journalists and media.
All of these actions inconsistent with the legal status of the territory, were culminated in a deliberate attack by the Moroccan army on November 13, 2020 on Saharawi civilians who were protesting against the pillaging of their natural resources through Guerguerat. Thus, the Makhzen took advantage of this opportunity to build a new defense wall linking that point with Mauritania, through which Morocco occupied new part of SADR territory.
The United Nations did not lift a finger or utter a word of protest. Even former Secretary-General Ban Kim Moon did not get enough support when he told the truth by calling Morocco an occupier of Western Sahara.
The Polisario, which had repeatedly warned of the dire consequences of the stalemate and intransigence of the Kingdom of Morocco, had no choice but to declare the end of the ceasefire and return to armed struggle. Not surprising that the situation will see further escalation, which may ignite the whole region.
In his recent book “Resolved Uniting Nations”, Ban Ki-moon revealed that during his visit to the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf in March 2016, he saw the pent-up indignation of thousands of women and men “at having to live in these rough camps, and their fury that the United Nations had failed to end their struggle against Morocco.” He added that he “was surprised and embarrassed to see so many angry young men holding signs such as ‘No to 40 years of occupation!’ and ‘UNfair!’”
It was Ban Ki-moon’s accurate description of the situation that justified the return to armed struggle. This is what happened immediately after the announcement of the end of the ceasefire, when thousands of young volunteers joined the battlefronts with a strong determination to continue their struggle until the complete liberation of all their territories occupied by the Kingdom of Morocco.
The people of Western Sahara have waited nearly 60 years for the UN to grant them their inalienable right to self-determination and independence. But this was not achieved due to double-standards rule applied by international decision-makers, who are indifferent to the suffering people of this small and peaceful country. It is this rule that has been a stumbling block in the face of all efforts.
The big mistake made by the international decision-makers in the Security Council was their opposition to the application of the provisions of international law to satisfy a country like Morocco on the pretext of sponsoring of their “interests”. Nothing is expected from a medieval regime but to attack its immediate neighbours, deprive people of their rights, plundering their wealth and operate gangs.
International actors, especially today’s decision-makers, must break free from the complex of fear and domination. Their lack of seriousness is the most serious threat to their interests. However, no one would accept to be deprived of his legitimate right and remain idly by. Therefore, they should reflect well on what they have inflicted on the people of Western Sahara through this long wait, and hurry to grant them their inalienable right to self-determination and independence in accordance with the provisions of international legality.
How grateful the region will be to the international decision-makers for such a decision.
The desired lasting peace cannot be achieved at the expense of the rights and aspirations of peoples. Therefore, there will be no lasting peace without recognising the reality of the SADR, which was embodied in the long struggle of its people and proved to be a factor of balance and stability in the entire region.
Deich Mohamed Saleh is a former chief of the Saharawi president office and former Ambassador to the Republic of Zimbabwe.