By Irina Tsukerman
By Irina Tsukerman
Ban Ki-Moon Sets Aside Sahrawi Human Rights, Regional Security, and International Law To Push Forward a Dubious Legacy
New York – United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent controversial comments about the “occupation” of the Western Sahara generated a great deal of pushback from a broad spectrum of Moroccan circles – from the government’s decision to cut down the number of staffers and funding at the UN mission in the Sahara to global protests from France to New York.
Ban Ki-Moon’s statement comes at an odd time – after many years of failure in trying to resolve the conflict, in his last year of tenure, and with the backdrop of further destabilization in Syria, Libya, Mali, Yemen, and other international crises that are taking many lives on a daily basis. Interestingly, his trip around North Africa, bypassing Morocco, and his commentary were followed closely by the European Court’s decision to invalidate a trade deal between Morocco and the EU following the Polisario Front’s claim that Western Saharan products would be included. The EU quickly disavowed and appealed this decision, citing international law.
These two incidents follow one another at an inauspicious time – Morocco is enjoying an unprecedented level of stability and political liberalization, while playing an important role in intelligence sharing with the EU, the US, and the Gulf region. The undiplomatic criticism of an issue that generally does not earn a great deal of attention in the media, due to a proliferation of global conflicts, and a growing number of terrorist attacks around the world, appears to be aimed at stirring up additional tensions rather than resolving them.
Ban Ki-moon overlooks
Indeed, Ban Ki-Moon claims that his comments were a personal statement, and claims to be motivated by his concern for the wellbeing of the Sahrawi people. In reality, he puts aside genuine humanitarian and human rights considerations in order to promote his desire for a legacy in his last year in office. For instance, he ignores the consistent reports on the embezzlement of aid by the Polisario Front and Algeria, designated for the Sahrawis in the Tindouf Camps, which has caused the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control to adopt a resolution slashing the funding.
Additionally, the unquestioning adoption of the Polisario Front as the sole legitimate leader and representative of Sahrawi interests shows a lack of understanding of the group and the underlying issues. Polisario, in fact, hijacked the role of self-appointed leaders, thanks largely to Algerian backing and Sahrawi isolation. Indeed, the real human rights issue at the crux of this complicated situation is the infringement of the rights of the Sahrawis to choose their own leadership, criticize the self-appointed spokespeople of the Polisario Front, and take control of their own voice in the matter.
The Polisario constitution prohibits the establishment of associations and political parties, thus ensuring the perpetuation of its own existence and the shutdown of any emerging opposition. Whether the leadership of the self-proclaimed liberation movement is a trustworthy agent of the people’s will remains an open question when it allows any possibility of popular self-expression. Sahrawi critics such as Mustapha Salma Oueld Sidi Moloud who have criticized the Polisario for being, in essence, born outside the Sahrawi territories, have been forcibly exiled.
What is concerning, however, which the Secretary General seems to bypass entirely, is the very existence of the Tindouf Camp. Algeria and the Polisario Front, which appear to be so outraged at Morocco’s alleged impediment of the political freedom of the Sahrawis, see no contradiction in perpetuating the impoverished and dependent status of this group by having it shut in what essentially amounts to detention camps rather than providing for them to integrate into society until such time as the conflict is resolved and they decide to move elsewhere.
Indeed, the existence of these camps is the ultimate human rights violation – not by Morocco, but the seeming benefactors of the Sahrawis, who perpetuate miserable conditions for people deluded into believing they have no other place to go in order to siphon money off from naïve or ignorant international institutions, largely for self-enrichment. That such a large group of people is situated in isolated camps, essentially ghettos, brings into question the humanity of Algeria and its leadership, as well as the Polisario Front’s aims with respect to caring for its won constituents.
What we see at play is a “the ends justify the means” philosophy, which hearkens back to separatist and revolutionary movements sponsored by the Soviet Union, and that disregard the well-being of the local populations for the sake of spreading the ideological revolution and sustaining the Soviet Union’s expansionist goals. Algeria, upon closer examination, suffers from the same weakness as its former backer – a corrupt military dictatorship that keeps its own population poor, uneducated, and distracted by the continuation of a conflict with Morocco, a perfect way to scapegoat outsiders and keep a possible overthrow at bay. Ban Ki-Moon cannot be unaware of this situation. Yet influenced by his personal envoy, the former US Ambassador to Algeria, Christopher Ross, appears to disregard the obvious calculations behind this easily avoidable and resolvable human rights disaster.
No less concerning is the Secretary General’s apparent disregard for the security situation, and the effect his shortsighted and thoughtless “personal comment” may have on the situation at Morocco’s border. The large presence of ISIS in nearby Libya and Mali is threatening the stability of the entire region. ISIS proponents are finding an increasingly welcoming haven inside Algeria, where both the human rights and the economic situation are causing the disenfranchised population to seek answers in radical political movements.
Ban Ki-moon’s violation and misuse of international law
Ban Ki-Moon’s comment that Morocco is “occupying” the Sahrawi territory will be used as a liberation call and encouragement both by the Algerian junta seeking to further centralize its own control via increased militarization and by radical Islamists that lie in wait for an opportunity to exploit a security weakness at the border. They can do so both by exploiting the existing conflict and by spreading their own ideology inside the camps, promising the Sahrawis liberation from occupation via their own brand of Islamic interpretation.
Worse still, as a symbol of international authority, Ban Ki-Moon in essence gave a green light to interventionism from self-proclaimed liberators. Losing control of the strategically important piece of land will weaken Morocco and give easy access to external terrorist groups seeking to infiltrate and break the camp from within.
It is also worrisome that the implications of these unfortunate comments for the understanding of international law. Although the Secretary General’s status is largely administrative and the comments he made bear no authority, they will no doubt set an important precedent in the understanding of the conflict, as well as lead to a possible misinterpretation of the legal status of the Sahara territory and other relevant issues.
The term that he used for the current status of the Sahara, “occupation”, is not in-keeping with its existing legal status, or even the understanding of the word. First, in the parlance of the United Nations, the Sahara is considered a disputed territory rather than an occupied territory. Thus, Ban Ki-Moon’s comment was unduly prejudicial, inflammatory, and simply inaccurate. Second, his comment is not in line with the history of the region. The Sahara was indeed occupied and colonized at one point – but by Spain, which took the land from Morocco in the 19th century, and fully relinquished it in 1975. At no point did the territory constitute an independent state or a distinct nation.
Rather, nomadic tribes roamed freely up until the point Spain took control of the territory, resisted the Spanish at various points in history, and finally were returned to the possession of Morocco. The tribes since have become largely sedentary and integrated with rest of Morocco, though some have migrated to Algeria and are now contained within camps with only temporary permits to occasionally visit Algerian cities.
Reclamation of territory over which Moroccans previously exercised dominion and control cannot, by definition, be considered occupation. Nor can a people indigenous to a country and granted citizenship by the internationally recognized government of the country be considered “occupied”. That brings us to the underlying definition of the word “occupation”.
Mainstream international law doctrines referred to occupation as a short-term imposition of a foreign power over a territory. The implication here was that the land would then either be legally annexed and become part of that country’s territory or it would eventually transition to independence, commonwealth, or some other legal status.
Spain’s presence in the area, albeit significantly longer than what the contemporary legal term generally means, largely falls under this definition. The territory transitioned from complete control by Spain, to partial control, to full return to Morocco. That the Secretary General of an international body such as the United Nations would fail to recognize this important legal and practical distinction and utilize a term used mostly for European colonies to refer to the Western Sahara is mindboggling and only serves to obfuscate and exacerbate the existing issues.
There is a need to dispel the misunderstanding of this term and to clarify the legal issue before the language becomes completely subsumed by political agendas and words cease to have any meaning.
Irina Tsukerman is a New York based attorney, whose focus is on assisting human rights defenders, liberal democratic dissidents, and persecuted minorities, and who frequently writes about security issues, human rights, international affairs, and geopolitics.