Western Sahara

Sahrawis betrayed again as Trump bats for Morocco

Print edition : January 15, 2021

A Moroccan army vehicle driving past car wreckages in Guerguerat located in the Western Sahara on November 24, after the intervention of the royal Moroccan armed forces in the area. Photo: FADEL SENNA/AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise backing of Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over disputed Western Sahara upended years of international consensus on the status on Western Sahara as disputed territory. In this combination photograph, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left), Trump and Morocco's King Mohammed VI. Photo: AFP

The United States gets Morocco to establish diplomatic ties with Israel by recognising Western Sahara as part of the Kingdom of Morocco, plunging the region into turmoil again. The ceasefire that has held since 1991 between Morocco and Sahrawi guerillas is officially over.

IN his latest transactional deal just weeks before leaving office, United States President Donald Trump persuaded Morocco to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The move made Morocco the fourth Arab country to break ranks with the rest of the Arab and Muslim world in the last three months. While announcing the deal, Trump announced that Washington was abandoning its long-established policy on Western Sahara and was recognising the region as an integral part of the Kingdom of Morocco.

Western Sahara is often described as the ‘last remaining colony’ in Africa. Trump tweeted on December 10 that he had recognised Moroccan sovereignty over western Sahara and that “our two GREAT friends, Israel and Morocco, have agreed to full diplomatic relations”. It was a classic example of a quid pro quo: Morocco had insisted on the U.S.’ acquiescence on the Western Sahara issue in lieu of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), as the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara is officially called, is a full-fledged member of the African Union (A.U.) and its sovereignty has been recognised by many states all over the world. The U.S. now has the dubious distinction of becoming the first country to formally recognise Western Sahara as part of the Kingdom of Morocco. Jared Kushner, the U.S. President’s son-in-law, did most of the back-room negotiations with Morocco and Israel. Kushner confirmed that recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara was linked to the kingdom’s normalisation of relations with Israel.

Also read: Donald Trump’s transactional politics on behalf of Israel

The U.S. move violates several United Nations Security Council resolutions. Within days of Trump’s announcement, the U.S. government printed a new map showing Western Sahara as part of the Kingdom of Morocco and said that an American consulate would be located in the region.

Jim Inhofe, Chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee and a Republican, said that Trump was “poorly advised” and that he could have made the Israel-Morocco deal “without trading the right of a voiceless people”. Elliot Engel, a Democrat who is the Chairman of the House Foreign Committee, said that the Trump administration “had upended a credible, internationally supported U.N. process to address the dispute over Western Sahara, which successive administrations of both parties have supported.”

Previous U.S. administrations were involved in efforts to find a solution to the long-running conflict in Western Sahara. In 1998, the U.N. proposed a referendum to ascertain the wishes of the people in Western Sahara. But the Moroccan government, with the help of France and to some extent, the U.S., kept on stonewalling. However, James Baker, who was Secretary of State under President George H.W. Bush, tried his best to make the Moroccans agree to a referendum in his capacity as the U.N. Secretary-General’s personal representative to the region from 1997 to 2004.

Also read: Scramble for Africa

Baker issued a strong statement criticising the recent move, remarking that Trump had “cynically traded the right of self-determination” of the Sahrawi people. “It would appear that the United States of America, which was founded on the principle of self-determination, has walked away from that principle regarding the people of Western Sahara. This is very regrettable,” he said.

U.N.’s role

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) had ruled in 1975 that there was “no evidence of any legal tie of territorial sovereignty” between Western Sahara and Morocco. In 1991, the U.N. established a mission to find a solution to the issue through negotiations. After the U.N-mandated talks, it was agreed that a referendum would be organised to decide the territory’s future. The Sahrawi people would be given the choice of either joining Morocco as an autonomous province or opting for independence. After playing for time and trying to wear out Sahrawi resistance, Morocco in the end refused to accept a referendum plan in which independence for Western Sahara was an option. In 2007, Morocco unilaterally announced an ‘autonomy’ plan for the region. The SADR rejected this offer outright and instead demanded the immediate holding of a referendum on “independence” for the region.

Also read: Sahrawis’ struggle

The Security Council unanimously supported the plan for a referendum. But when Morocco sabotaged the plans, the Security Council did nothing. France has been using its diplomatic clout in the Security Council to block a meaningful solution. The U.S., notwithstanding the role played by Baker, has helped Morocco’s efforts to thwart a referendum.

On October 30, 2020, a month before Trump upended previous Security Council resolutions and international law, the Security Council once again extended the mandate of its mission to Western Sahara. The October resolution emphasised “the need to achieve a realistic, practicable, and enduring political solution to the question of Western Sahara, based on compromise”. The Trump administration did not object then. But it has now notified the Security Council about its recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ spokesperson said that there was no change in the U.N.’s position following the Trump administration’s “volte-face”.

Germany has called for a special Security Council session to urgently discuss the issue. Spain, the occupying power until 1975, has rejected the American recognition of the territory as part of Morocco.

Polisario Front’s resistance

The Polisario Front, which leads the decolonisation struggle in Western Sahara, condemned in the “strongest terms” the outgoing American President’s decision and vowed to fight until Moroccan forces withdrew from all of Western Sahara. Polisario’s representative in Washington, Mouloud Saad, said that Trump’s decision “was a flagrant breach of international law”. He emphasised that the Sahrawi Republic was “an irreversible reality” and that “the times when foreign powers can change the borders of Africa is over”. The Sahrawis and the international community are hoping that the incoming Joe Biden administration in the U.S. will restore the status quo. So far, only the Gulf monarchies have supported Trump’s move to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Morocco hosts the annual U.S. Africa Command (Africom) military exercises on the continent. Israel had provided counter-insurgency training to the Moroccan army during the war with the Polisario guerillas.

The Polisario Front fought a 16-year-old war with Morocco and Mauritania, which divided the territory after the departure of the Spanish in 1975. Mauritania soon gave up its claim, but Morocco has held on to the territory it has seized. The war ended in 1991 after a ceasefire agreement was signed between the two sides. The Polisario Front moved from armed struggle to diplomacy. Morocco has retained control over 80 per cent of the territory where the voice of the Saharawi people has been muzzled. Many Moroccans have now settled in the area, which has one of the richest known deposits of phosphates. The sea along the Western Sahara coastline is teeming with bountiful marine life and is reputed to have bountiful oil and gas reserves.

Also read: Comrade-in-arms for the Sahrawis

The American decision on Western Sahara came immediately after the first serious outbreak of hostilities between Morocco and the Polisario Front after the 1991 ceasefire agreement. In the second week of November, Morocco sent in troops to forcibly reopen a road occupied by Sahrawi protesters. The road connects Morocco and Mauritania but passes through Sahrawi-controlled territory. The peaceful demonstration was happening at the Guerguerat Crossing, through which much of Morocco’s trade with sub-Saharan Africa is conducted. The Sahrawis consider the road illegal, saying that it contravenes the 1991 truce.

The Moroccan army crossed into Sahrawi-controlled territory patrolled by the U.N. peacekeeping force to disperse the protesters and secure the area by establishing a military post there. Sahrawi forces moved in to confront the Moroccan army. According to reports, they evacuated the civilians and then exchanged fire with the Moroccan forces.

Brahim Ghali, secretary general of the Polisario Front, said that the Moroccan military operation constituted an “act of aggression and a flagrant violation of the ceasefire” of 1991. He also announced a “resumption of armed struggle in defence of the legitimate rights of our people”. In a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General, he said that Morocco had undermined any chance “of achieving a peaceful and lasting solution to the decolonisation question in Western Sahara” by launching a military attack.

The Polisario Front has since announced its withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement. Its forces have started staging hit-and-run guerilla attacks against the Moroccan forces along the 2,700-km-long military wall that the Moroccans had built to keep out the Sahrawi fighters when the two sides were at war from 1975 to 1991. The militarised wall is the world’s longest military barrier.

Sidi Wakal, Secretary General of the Saharawi Security Ministry, said in a statement: “The Moroccan Royal army has made a mistake again as it did in 1975 and got involved in a war without expecting such a fast and powerful response from the Sahrawi Peoples Liberation Army, which forced the Moroccan regime to play its last and dirtiest card by trading normalisation with a tweet from a departing President.” He said that the Sahrawi army was now involved in “a large-scale war with the invasive Moroccan army”.

Algeria, the strongest backer of the Sahrawis and host to over 1,70,000 Sahrawi refugees, strongly condemned the Trump administration’s move. Prime Minister Abdulaziz Djerad said that Trump’s decision was designed “to destabilise” his country. The destabilisation of Libya by the West had plunged the Sahel region into deep turmoil. Another war on its doorstep is the last thing the Algerian government wants. “There is now a desire by the Zionist entity to come closer to our borders,” the Algerian Prime Minister said.

Also read: A volte-face on Western Sahara

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who chairs the African Union, has urged both sides to de-escalate tensions and return to the negotiating table. South Africa has recognised the SADR as an independent state.

End of the tether?

The Sahrawis may have finally run out of patience after waiting for more than half a century to be free. The Sahrawis, along with the Palestinians, are among the people betrayed by the world. Both have been promised a lasting solution only to be let down, and both are victims of postcolonial settlements. In both Palestine and Western Sahara, the U.S. has played a key role in disenfranchising the sons of the soil.

The Sahrawis have reason to be disappointed by the U.N.’s abject failure to find a resolution to the fundamental issue of decolonisation. The U.N. mission in Western Sahara was not given the power to monitor human rights violations in the territory. Morocco thwarted all efforts by the U.N. to hold a referendum, with the active connivance of France. Now with the U.S. also openly in Morocco’s corner, it will be a tougher struggle for the Sahrawis.

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