New York - As I was reading an article about the question of the Western Sahara entitled "The Tindouf Refugee Camps: A Moroccan’s Reflections," I was struck by the amount of factual mistakes and misrepresentations made by the editors of the article, as well as by the shallowness of the arguments its author makes in defending the Polisairo and slamming Morocco.
New York – As I was reading an article about the question of the Western Sahara entitled “The Tindouf Refugee Camps: A Moroccan’s Reflections,” I was struck by the amount of factual mistakes and misrepresentations made by the editors of the article, as well as by the shallowness of the arguments its author makes in defending the Polisairo and slamming Morocco.
In the first part of this article, which was published in Jadaliyya, I will first refute the allegations contained in the editor’s note. In the second part, which will be published next week, I will refute the allegations made by the author of the article,
Before I embark on refuting the arguments and misrepresentation contained in this “analysis”, I should point out that this is not the first time that news portal has published articles ridden with factual mistakes about the conflict with the clear idea of serving a specific agenda, which presents Morocco as a country that occupies the Sahara and prevents Saharawis from practicing their right to self-determination.
The editors of this publication are fully aware of the lack of information that prevails among Americans and in the West in general, for the narrative has been monopolized in recent years by the supporters of the Poliasrio. Therefore, they seize the opportunity to present their audience with the version of facts that serves their political agenda, no matter how this version departs from reality.
Spanish census was held in 1974
The first misrepresentation contained in the article refers to the census conducted by Spain in the mid 1970’s at the request of the United Nations with the view to organizing a referendum on self-determination in the Sahara. Here, the editors say that Spain conducted the census in 1973, when every official record of the UN and the literature written on the conflict show that the census was conducted in 1974. To help the editor of that publication get their facts straight, I should point out that exact number of population polled at the time was 73,497 people.
In this regard, the editor forgets to add that the census conducted by Spain did not include the Saharawis who left the territory following Spain’s scorched earth policy against the Saharawis following the war waged against it by the Army of the Liberation of the Sahara in early 1958. This war, which was tacitly supported by Rabat, led Spain to sign with the Moroccan government the Cintra accord by which it returned Tarfaya to Morocco.
Before that agreement was reached, Spain aided by France launched Operation Ecouvillon to tame the uprising that was spreading in the whole Saharan territory, including Sidi Ifni, which was returned to Morocco in 1969, and the present day disputed Saharan territory. As a consequence of this scorched earth policy, thousands of Saharawis were forced to leave the territory and relocate in other parts in northern Morocco. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 were forced to leave the territory as a consequence of Spanish punitive policy.
The UN calls for self-determination in 1966
While talking about the census, the editors make another factual mistake, when they say that Spain was requested to conduct a referendum of self-determination in the territory in 1965.
A quick look at the UN website will show anybody that the first time when the General Assembly called on Spain to make the necessary arrangement for such a referendum was in December 1966. In December 1966, and following heavy pressure from Morocco at the United Nations, the General Assembly called on Madrid, for the first time, to decolonize the territory along with Sidi Ifni, which was returned to Morocco in 1969.
By virtue of operative paragraph 3 of its resolution 2072, the General Assembly” Urgently requests the government of Spain, as the administering power, to take immediately all necessary measures for the liberation of the Territories of Ifni and the Spanish Sahara from colonial domination and, to this end, enter into negotiations on the problems relating to sovereignty presented by these two territories.”
Hadn’t Morocco pressured Spain since 1957, the General Assembly would have never called on Spain to decolonize the territory, nor urge it to organize a referendum of self-determination under UN auspices. It is only thanks to the efforts made by Morocco since its independence that the question of the Sahara was brought to the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly, in charge of decolonization.
The Sahara is not part of an imagined pre-colonial nation
The other misrepresentation of facts is when the editors of the article claim that “(…) Morocco asserted pressure, claiming the land as part of an imagined pre-colonial nation.”
Morocco’s sovereignty claims over the Sahara don’t stem from the idea of an “imagined pre-colonial nation.” It is rather based on the historical and legal ties that existed between Morocco and the Saharan territory before the coming of Spain and France to the region.
Here I ought to highlight a fact that the editors of this publication systematically ignore in their narrative. As Moroccan Professor of comparative politics at Duke University, Abdeslam Maghraoui, once pointed out, Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara is based on three distinct categories: (1) historical ties of sovereignty between Moroccan sultans and Saharan tribes; (2) treaties and colonial records recognizing Morocco’s territorial integrity and its control over the Saharan provinces; and (3) Morocco’s efforts to help liberate the southern provinces from Spanish colonial rule after 1956.”
What those who support the Polosario and Algeria’s political agenda want to hide, or maybe they themselves ignore, is that even the commonly used phrase “Spanish Sahara”, was baseless from a legal point of view.
After the end of the 1859 Tetouan war, which tilted in favor of Spain, Morocco came under heavy pressure from Spain to cede part of its sovereignty in the south and the north to Madrid.
As part of the concessions it obtained from the Moroccan government, Spain was granted the permission to establish a trading station in southern Morocco. Since 1860 until the end the 1870’s, the two countries were negotiating over the location of that trading station. Many locations were under consideration, including Agadir and Cap Juby, present day Sidi Ifni. But the spark that would push Spain to lay claim to sovereignty in southern Morocco was when in 1879 an Englishman called Donald McKenzie established a trading station in Cap Juby.
Immediately after this British attempt to have a foothold in southern Morocco, Spain moved to establish multiple trading stations south of Cap Juby, in present day disputed Saharan territories. To give a legal cover to its presence there, Spain started signing treaties with tribal leaders. In January 1885, at the Berlin Conference, Spain informed European powers that it had acquired sovereignty over the region extending from the Oued Draa to Cab Bojador. European powers acquiesced to Spanish claims of sovereignty based on the assumption that the territory claimed by Madrid was Terra Nullis.
Meanwhile, immediately after the establishment of the British trading station in Cap Juby, Morocco showed its rejection of such a fact accompli in a part of its territory. After over a decade of negotiations, the two countries signed an agreement in March 1895, in which London recognized Morocco’s sovereignty not only over Cap Juby, but also over the region that was nominally occupied by Spain.
The agreement signed between Morocco and the UK in 1895 recognized that the territory between Cap Juby (the area near Tarfaya) and Cap Bojador (present day disputed Sahara), belonged to Morocco. From then until 1904, when the UK signed an agreement with France, the British, as well the French and Spaniards recognized that this territory was under Moroccan sovereignty.
In April 1904, France and the United Kingdom signed an agreement in virtue of which Paris was given free hand in Morocco, in exchange of the renunciation of its claims over Egypt. According to American scholar Frank E. Trout, in his book Moroccan Saharan frontiers the agreement consisted of a public and secret accord. When the UK accepted the principle of French and Spanish protectorate over Morocco, it clearly insisted in article 3 of the secret accord that Spain “could not undertake any action that would alienate the territory of its sphere of influence,” on the understanding that Spain was to be given a sphere of influence in Morocco’s Saharan territory, rather than full possession of the territory.
In October 1904, France and Spain singed a convention on the division of their spheres of influence in Morocco. By virtue of the French-Spanish convention of October 1904, Spain was given possession, not sphere of influence, of the disputed territory, without informing Morocco or seeking the approval of the British, who had signed an agreement recognizing its sovereignty over the territory.
As Professor Frank E. Trout showed, it was unlikely that the Britain gave any formal approval of the recognition that Seguia El Hamra and Oued Eddahab was to become Spanish territory outside of the limits of Spanish sphere of influence in Southern Morocco.
The author points out that even in the event that Britain have given its formal approval of the 1904 French-Spanish accords, it would have meant a unilateral- and presumably secret- renunciation of the agreement signed with Morocco in 1859, which have been meaningless since Morocco was not informed of the renunciation. This is in itself constituted a blatant violation of international law at the time.
The French-Spanish agreement of October 1904, by virtue of which Spain was given full possession of the present days so-called Western Sahara, was even contrary to the 1906 Algeciras Conference.The signatories of the Act of Algeciras, including Britain, France, Spain, the United States Belgium, Germany and other European powers, all committed to preserving Moroccan territorial integrity.
In this regard, one should bear in mind that European powers were splitting Morocco’s spoils without obtaining its approval or informing it of their colonial designs. This itself proves that the limits of the Moroccan territory were de facto rather than de jure limits, since they were imposed on Morocco. In this regard the Sahara was not any different from the other Spanish protectorate in the kingdom in that it was part of a de facto sphere of influence granted by France, without signing any legal accord with the Moroccan government of the time.
As Frank E. Trout points out: “To put the matter in its proper focus, it is necessary to view the de jure boundaries as they were originally conceived and at the same time to recognize that these boundaries, or perhaps preferably delimitations lines, were French and Spanish conceptions. Their legal validity stems solely from their acceptance by the Moroccan Government during the protectorate period.”
But all these facts are overlooked by the editors in their quest to lash out at Morocco and represent it as a colonial power. The intention to distort the facts appears more clearly in the way the editors present the ruling of the International Court of Justice of October 16, 1975, on which the Polisario supporters base their claim on the necessity of organizing a referendum of self-determination in the Sahara.
Here also, they give an incomplete picture of the facts. To prove that Morocco has no sovereignty over the Sahara, the editors say: “Despite an International Court of Justice ruling stating unequivocally that ‘… the Court has not found legal ties of such nature as might affect the application of resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization (sic) of Western Sahara,’ Morocco entered the territory in 1975.”
There is no doubt that the ICJ made this pronouncement, but for the sake of objectivity and intellectual honesty, an editor has to present the reader with the whole information regarding the ruling. Yet the court also ruled that the Sahara was not terra nillus and acknowledged the existence of legal ties of allegiance between the Moroccans sultans and some tribes of the Sahara:
“The materials and information presented to the Court show the existence, at the time of Spanish colonization, of legal ties of allegiance between the Sultan of Morocco and some of the tribes living in the territory of Western Sahara. They equally show the existence of rights, including some rights relating to the land, which constituted legal ties between the Mauritanian entity, as understood by the Court, and the territory of Western Sahara.”
Based on the facts that I mentioned it appears clearly that the editors’ note is based rather in hearsay and their political convictions rather than on a well documented and painstaking research. What matters to those who defend the Polisario and Algeria’s political agenda is not to present the whole spectrum of historical, political and legal facts of the dispute as much as to present the facts that can help them in their attempts to tarnish Morocco’s image at the international level and portray the Polisario as a legitimate entity. They are fully aware of the lack of information available on this issue and the quasi-absence of an efficient and fact-based Moroccan counter-narrative, and they try to make the best out of it.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @Samir Bennis
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