On Nov. 16, Ed Gabriel wrote a piece on The Hill’s Congress blog entitled “Solving 40-year Cold War conflict needs more than words.” While I agree that solving the Western Sahara conflict will require bold action by the United States and the broader international community, that is where the common ground between us ends. Gabriel – a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco – is now a well-compensated Moroccan lobbyist. He fundamentally misrepresents both the U.S. position on Western Sahara and that of former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who was the UN’s Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara from 1997-2004.
As Gabriel is well aware, the Frente POLISARIO is not a Marxist relic whose struggle for independence is a manufactured byproduct of the Cold War. The POLISARIO was created by the people of Western Sahara to fight colonialism and occupation, and is the legitimate and internationally recognized representative of the Saharawi people, in accordance with UN resolutions 34/37 (1979) and 35/19 (1980) that assert that Morocco is the occupying power of Western Sahara. We remain a movement that aims to achieve the liberation and self-determination of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara.
Gabriel describes the so-called Moroccan “Green March” of Nov. 6, 1975 as peaceful, but the reality was starkly different. The civilian invaders that crossed into Western Sahara were accompanied by 20,000 Moroccan troops, and had been preceded by Moroccan military attacks as early as Oct. 31, 1975. On the day of the Green March, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 380, deploring it and calling for its immediate reversal. A month earlier, the International Court of Justice had rejected Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara and confirmed the legal right of the Saharawi people to a process of self-determination. To this day, no country in the world recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Contrary to what Gabriel implies, James Baker has stated that an independent state in Western Sahara could be viable. Furthermore, the POLISARIO agreed to Baker’s 2003 “Peace plan for self-determination of the people of Western Sahara” which called for five years of autonomy followed by a referendum which included independence as an option. This was seen as the best possible compromise, and was therefore endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1495. The council called it an “optimum political solution.” The POLISARIO accepted the plan, but Morocco rejected it. Baker subsequently resigned out of frustration. Morocco rejected it because it knew too well that any free and fair referendum on self-determination to be held in Western Sahara would lead to independence.
Three years later, Morocco – aware that it had been exposed as the intransigent party – proposed its “autonomy plan.” This was a disingenuous attempt to demonstrate that it was still willing to take part in the UN political process. But really it was a smokescreen that allowed Morocco to consolidate its grip on Western Sahara. The Moroccan plan is unacceptable to the Saharawi people because it offers no opportunity for true self-determination. It states that the Moroccan king would retain all “constitutional and religious prerogatives.” In other words, the king would remain the absolute authority in Western Sahara.
In recent years King Mohammed VI has demonstrated even less willingness to negotiate in good faith, stating in a provocative recent speech in the occupied Territory of Western Sahara that “[t]hose who are waiting for any other concession on Morocco’s part are deceiving themselves.” The king’s statement shows that Morocco has unilaterally declared its ‘sovereignty’ over Western Sahara by his acceleration of a “Development Model for the Southern Provinces” in order to “seal these provinces integration into the unified homeland”. Such pronouncements fly in the face of countless UN Security Council resolutions as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recent statement calling for the “entry of the parties into negotiations without preconditions and in good faith.” The POLISARIO welcomed this statement, while Morocco has continued to insist that its autonomy plan is all that it will offer.
The principles at work here are simple: the Saharawi people of Western Sahara are the only ones who are legally and morally entitled to decide our future. Why not let democracy prevail by letting the people vote? Let us decide between Morocco and independence. These are the very same principles that the United States was founded on: democracy, freedom and human rights. Without justice, peace and stability will remain a mirage.
This is not a zero sum game. To be a good friend to Morocco, the United States does not need to oppose the internationally recognized rights of the Saharawi people. Instead, the U.S. should tell Morocco what is already clear under international law: that it has no right to Western Sahara and would be better off living in peace and harmony as a good neighbor to the Saharawi Republic. Gabriel may not be willing to defend democracy and the rule of law, but the United States can and should.
Beisat is the representative of the Frente POLISARIO to the United States