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Western Sahara: Background Brief
Western Sahara: Background Brief
Date distributed (ymd): 990212
Document reposted by APIC
Region: North Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+ +US policy
This posting contains the text of a recent background foreign
policy brief on Morocco and Western Sahara from Foreign Policy
in Focus (for briefs on a wide range of other topics, visit
http://www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org). For regularly updated
information on Western Sahara see
Foreign Policy In Focus: Morocco and Western Sahara
December 1998 Vol. 3, No. 42
Written by Stephen Zunes
Edited by Martha Honey (IPS) and Tom Barry (IRC)
Foreign Policy In Focus is a joint project of the
Interhemipsheric Resource Center (IRC) and the Institute for
Policy Studies (IPS). In Focus briefs document the problems of
current U.S. foreign policy and offer recommendations for
alternative policy directions that would make the United
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- Morocco has occupied Western Sahara since 1975 in
violation of resolutions by the UN Security Council and a
decision by the International Court of Justice.
- The United States has provided military, economic, and
diplomatic support for Morocco's war effort.
- A cease-fire and proposed referendum bring promise for
peace in the territory, but U.S. leadership is needed to
insure its implementation.
On Africa's Atlantic coast, at the western extremity of the
Arab world, lies Western Sahara, site of Africa's longest
post-colonial conflict. While more than one billion people
have been decolonized over the past fifty years, Western
Sahara is still recognized by the international community as
a "non-self-governing territory," occupied for more than
twenty years by its powerful neighbor, Morocco. Just prior to
the scheduled end of Spain's colonial administration in 1976,
the territory-then known as Spanish Sahara-was partitioned
between Morocco and Mauritania and, within three years, came
under exclusive Moroccan control. This occurred despite the
landmark October 1975 decision by the International Court of
Justice that upheld the right of the people of Western Sahara
to self-determination in the face Morocco's irredentist
Spain had promised the country independence, but pressure from
Morocco and the U.S. forced the Spanish government, in the
midst of its own delicate transition to democratic rule, to
capitulate. The U.S. was concerned about the prospects of an
independent Western Sahara under the Polisario Front, the
left-leaning independence movement, and also wished to boost
the political fortunes of Morocco's pro-Western monarch, King
Moroccan forces invaded the territory, but initially suffered
heavy losses to the Polisario. Mauritania was defeated
outright and withdrew. By 1987, however, due in large part to
large-scale American military support, Morocco succeeded in
conquering virtually the entire territory, including the
former Mauritanian sector. The U.S. blocked enforcement of the
1975 UN Security Council resolution demanding Morocco's
withdrawal and recognizing Western Sahara's right to national
self-determination. The country remains occupied today, with
most of the indigenous population, known as Sahrawis, exiled
in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria.
There has been a cease-fire in effect since 1991, but the
promised UN-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory
has yet to take place. The long-running diplomatic stalemate
was broken through the efforts of UN Special Envoy and former
U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in September 1997 in a
historic agreement between representatives of Morocco and the
Polisario Front. The parties agreed on an identification
process for voters and a code of conduct for the long-awaited
plebiscite to determine whether the territory becomes
independent or is integrated into Morocco.
This breakthrough appears to have come not because of U.S.
diplomacy, however, but despite it. And whether the referendum
will finally take place as planned or (like previously
scheduled votes) will be postponed, due to disputes between
Morocco and the Polisario over eligible voters and other
logistics, may depend on whether Washington is willing to
exert the necessary leadership to pressure its Moroccan ally.
The U.S. and Morocco have a longstanding special relationship.
They have had a treaty of friendship since 1787, the longest
unbroken peace agreement the U.S. has maintained with any
country in the world. Morocco has nearly thirty million
people, making it the second largest Arab county, and is rich
in mineral resources that may become important to the U.S. in
coming years. It is strategically located in the northwest
corner of Africa, bordering both the Atlantic and
Mediterranean coasts, and includes the Straits of Gibraltar.
Since 1950, Morocco has received more U.S. aid than any other
Arab or African country, except for Egypt. Indeed, since the
beginning of the war over Western Sahara, Morocco has received
more than one-fifth of all U.S. aid to the continent, totaling
more than $1 billion in military assistance and $1.3 billion
in economic aid.
In return, Morocco has remained one of Washington's closest
strategic allies in either Africa or the Arab world,
particularly during the early years of the Reagan
administration. Morocco allows the U.S. Navy access to its
port facilities and grants the U.S. Air Force landing,
refueling, and overflight rights. There has been close
binational cooperation in intelligence and communications.
Despite a history of close relations with Iraq, Morocco sent
forces to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to support the U.S.-led war
effort to liberate Kuwait. In addition, the United States and
Morocco have cooperated militarily in supporting pro-Western
regimes in Africa, and Morocco has engaged in destabilizing
efforts against radical African states, with apparent close
collaboration with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been largely silent about the Moroccan
government's ongoing human rights abuses against its own
people, and Washington has prodded Morocco to pursue
questionable neoliberal economic policies. With the demise of
the anticommunist rationale for the cold war, Morocco is now
being touted as a bulwark against Islamic extremism and as a
model for U.S.-backed economic reforms.
Problems With Current U.S. Policy
- U.S. support for Morocco's invasion and occupation
legitimizes territorial aggression, which serves as a
- The ongoing occupation is a source of political
instability both in Morocco and in the region as a whole.
- The U.S. has supported an autocratic government in
Morocco and is proffering questionable economic priorities.
Both the U.S. refusal to take a strong stand against the
Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and the Moroccan
government's ongoing reluctance to cooperate with the
UN-mandated referendum establish dangerous precedents and send
the wrong signal to potential aggressors elsewhere in the
world. The United States organized and launched a devastating
war against Iraq in 1991 on the grounds that such territorial
conquests would not be tolerated. U.S. acquiescence to
Moroccan aggression against its resource-rich southern
neighbor not only raises serious questions regarding the
actual motivations for the Gulf War, it also represents a
dangerous precedent in U.S. foreign policy. Soon after the
conquest, Allan Nanes, a specialist in U.S. foreign policy for
the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress,
identified the shift in U.S. policy whereby the U.S. "would
not automatically reject a territorial transfer brought
[about] by force." Less than a month after Morocco was given
the green light in Western Sahara, Indonesia launched a
similar-and even more devastating-invasion in East Timor.
Just after Morocco's invasion, Thomas Frank of the New York
University Law School stated before Congress that the invasion
"constitutes a particularly destabilizing precedent for Africa
and indeed the whole world." Fifteen years later, perhaps in
reward for Morocco's modest support during the Persian Gulf
crisis, Washington back-pedaled on its initial support of the
peace agreement when Morocco became recalcitrant soon after
signing the accords. According to the Los Angeles Times, "The
problems have been exacerbated by the evident unwillingness of
the United States to put much pressure on King Hassan."
Indeed, then-Assistant Secretary of State for International
Organization Affairs John R. Bolton acknowledged that Morocco
had been "unhelpful" regarding the UN accords but that
Morocco's role in supporting U.S. foreign policy had to be
taken into account in determining the U.S. response.
Despite recommendations by the 1992 Senate Foreign Relations
Committee report urging Washington to pressure Morocco to
comply with the terms of the accord, the shift in U.S. policy
back toward the strong pro-Moroccan position of the Reagan
administration was strengthened still further when President
Clinton assumed office. As with the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, the Clinton administration appears to have taken a
position to the right of its immediate Republican predecessor.
Indeed, there appears to have been a conscious shift on the
part of President Clinton in favor of permanent Moroccan
control over Western Sahara. In November 1995, the United
States sponsored a UN Security Council resolution that would
have forced the referendum to proceed without Polisario
approval, based largely on Moroccan-supported voter rolls.
This resolution was withdrawn, however, as a result of
vigorous protests from Algeria and South Africa.
Given the leadership role the United States has taken in the
United Nations regarding other violators of UN
resolutions-such as Iraq, Libya, and Sudan-the apparent
acquiescence to Morocco raises serious questions regarding
Washington's commitment to international law and its support
of the United Nations as a neutral arbiter of international
conflict. As with Israel, the Clinton administration appears
quite willing to make exceptions for countries it deems to be
strategic allies. In that sense, it seems that little has
changed since the end of the cold war, during which the U.S.
proved itself quite willing to sacrifice its more idealistic
principles regarding international law, self-determination,
and human rights for what were viewed as the strategic
imperatives of anticommunism. Although communism is no longer
a threat, the perceived need to support allied regimes-despite
their rejection of both international law and the authority of
the United Nations-remains unabated.
On a less global scale, the continued irresolution of the
Western Sahara problem contributes to Morocco's internal
instability. Morocco has spent billions of dollars both in
supplying tens of thousands of troops along a 1,200-mile berm
to keep the Polisario out of the territory and in building and
maintaining an infrastructure in a thus-far unsuccessful
effort to win the hearts and minds of the remaining Sahrawi
population. This drain on resources has exacerbated Morocco's
already-serious economic problems, encouraged dangerous
ultranationalist demagoguery, strengthened the political role
of the armed forces, and encouraged political repression, all
of which contribute to political instability in this important
The Western Sahara standoff also constitutes the major
obstacle to greater cooperation between the countries of
northwestern Africa-known as the Maghreb-and has nearly
triggered open warfare between Morocco and the neighboring
states of Algeria and Mauritania. Such regional instability,
particularly in light of the growing challenge of Islamic
radicalism in the region, does not serve U.S. interests.
Meanwhile, U.S. insistence on economic liberalization in
Morocco without concomitant political liberalization has only
served to encourage political instability and the rise of
radical anti-American movements. As in the Persian Gulf
region, the United States-itself the product of a republican
revolution-finds itself in the awkward position of defending
an absolute monarchy against those who strive for a more
democratic system. As with previous cases where the U.S. has
identified itself with economic policies that
disproportionately hurt the poor and with governments that are
unpopular and autocratic, the likelihood that a successor
regime will be strongly anti-American is greatly enhanced.
Toward a New Foreign Policy
- The U.S. should pressure Morocco-possibly employing
military and economic sanctions-to comply with UN Security
Council resolutions and to proceed with a fair and
internationally supervised referendum.
- Closer diplomatic relations with the Polisario Front
should be established as a means of strengthening the peace
- The U.S. should encourage both political
liberalization and efforts at sustainable and broad-based
economic development in Morocco.
The Houston Agreement reiterates and strengthens the key
aspects of the original UN settlement: refugee repatriation,
troop confinement, release of prisoners, freedom to campaign,
access for accredited international observers, equal access by
the parties to the media, and UN authority to intervene to
insure the fairness of the electoral process. The agreement's
definition of eligible voters appears to be much closer to the
Polisario's assumption of a legalistic territorial meaning
than to Morocco's rather vague ethnic referents. Whether it
can actually be implemented remains to be seen.
Since there was an American presence in the thick of the
negotiations, the Clinton administration did not feel a great
need to interfere. At the same time, the administration did
little to support Baker's efforts. Although State Department
and Defense Department officials privately hope for a fair
referendum in Morocco's favor, most realize that an unfair
victory by Morocco would be highly problematic and would
likely lead to a resumption of the fighting. As a
result-unlike the Reagan administration in the 1980s-the U.S.
has not tried to sabotage these peace efforts.
Whether the referendum will actually occur may depend on
whether the Clinton administration is willing to take the
leadership to insure that its Moroccan ally does not once
again seek to delay and sabotage the peace process. There is
some speculation that the Moroccans actually hope for open
American pressure to help blunt the domestic reaction should
the referendum not go in Morocco's favor.
As was the case during the Bush administration, legislators
are taking some initiative in the matter through an unusual
coalition of liberal and conservative lawmakers from both
parties. Congress has passed a resolution supporting a "free,
fair, and transparent" referendum "held in the presence of
international and domestic observers and international media
without administrative or military pressure or interference"
where "only genuine Sahrawis, as identified in the method
agreed upon by both sides, will take part." Lawmakers have
furthermore requested that the Clinton administration fully
support such a referendum process.
This is exactly the position the U.S. government needs to
adopt. Washington must be willing to exhibit the same
leadership it has shown in other international conflicts to
insure that Morocco does not try to back out of the agreement.
This might include the threat of military and economic
sanctions against Morocco to insure compliance. The
willingness of the United States to help guarantee the
referendum process could be a litmus test for the credibility
of U.S. diplomacy in North Africa and perhaps for the entire
A second policy shift that Washington should pursue is closer
diplomatic ties with the Polisario Front. Soon after Morocco's
invasion, the Polisario declared an independent state of
Western Sahara (the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), which
was subsequently recognized by 75 countries and is a full
member of the Organization of African Unity. The U.S. has
traditionally avoided close diplomatic contact with Polisario
representatives and has pressured a number of countries to
withhold recognition. Washington needs to recognize the
Polisario as a legitimate actor in the conflict and must fully
consider its perspectives in the ongoing peace process. Should
Morocco continue to balk at proceeding with a fair referendum,
the U.S. should consider establishing full diplomatic
relations with the SADR.
Finally, involving Morocco itself, Washington needs to
encourage a transition to a greater degree of democracy.
Although a parliamentary system is in place, the king still
remains an autocratic ruler. The U.S. should urge the release
of political prisoners and should encourage a transition
toward a more authentic and open democratic system. In
addition, while continuing to endorse economic liberalization
that challenges official corruption and dubious prestige
projects, Washington needs greater sensitivity to the impact
of other economic reforms on the large and growing poor
segments of Moroccan society. Morocco's economic growth in
recent years has benefited primarily a small minority of the
population. Only through a more even and sustainable
development program can political and economic stability be
Stephen Zunes is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the
University of San Francisco.
Sources for More Information
Africa Research Project 2627 Woodley Place NW Washington, DC
20008 Voice: (202) 797-3608 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact: Dan Volman
Defense Forum Foundation 3014 Castle Road Falls Church, VA
22044 Voice: (703) 534-4313 Fax: (703) 538-6149 Email:
email@example.com Contact: Suzanne Scholte
Human Rights Watch-Middle East 1522 K St. NW, Suite 910
Washington, DC 20005 Voice: (202) 371-6592 Fax: (202) 371-0124
Sahara Fund 4438 Kendall St. NW Washington, DC 20016 Voice:
Saharan People's Support Committee 217 East Lehr Av. Ada, OH
45810 Voice: (419) 634-3666 Contact: Anne Lippert
This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the
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