Home Editorials Western Sahara: ‘Democracy Now’ Ignores Facts, History to Criticize Morocco

Western Sahara: ‘Democracy Now’ Ignores Facts, History to Criticize Morocco

Refugees from Western Sahara walk through a school in a refugee camp in the Tindouf reigon of south-western Algeria on October 18, 2005 (AFP Photo/Fayez Nureldine)
AFP Photo/Fayez Nureldine

New York – American NGO “Democracy Now” released a podcast on November 24 that purports to provide coverage of the Western Sahara issue. 

While its perspective in this podcast is faithful to its editorial line which has sided in the past with the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed effort that seeks to destabilize North Africa by establishing a state in the Western Sahara, Democracy Now’s portrayal of Morocco as an “occupier” of the territory and “repressor” of its people is false.

Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan, co-authors of the podcast report
Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan, co-authors of the podcast report

Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan, co-authors of the podcast report, claim that the Saharawis “face terrible repression” by Moroccan authorities. As apparent proof, they offer the case of a young Saharawi who says that she was maimed by Moroccan police forces. The woman goes on to claim that “thousands of Saharawis have been tortured, imprisoned, killed and have disappeared” over the past 40 years.

However, the podcast does not provide evidence of such ongoing repression by the Moroccan authorities. With the notable exception of the Robert Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which is notorious for its bias in favor of the Polisario, no report published by the United Nations nor by any human rights watchdog organization over the past 40 years has claimed that Morocco has “tortured thousands of Saharawis.”

While there is no denying that some instances of torture occurred in the past, these cases have been addressed within the framework of the Institution of Equity and Reconciliation, established in 2004 at the direction of King Mohammed VI. The institution is responsible for investigating and addressing allegations of torture and disappearances throughout the Moroccan territory before the reign of King Mohammed VI. This entity, the first of its kind in the Arab world, has provided financial and moral compensation to the victims of such practices. Saharawi political activists such as Al Ghalia Djimi, Aminatou Haidar, Mohamed Dadash, and Brahim Sebbar have been treated and benefited from financial compensation the same way as other Moroccans in the in other parts of Morocco have been treated.

Morocco does not occupy the Western Sahara

Among the most significant errors the Democracy Now podcast makes is that the Saharawis are prevented from exercising their right to self-determination because “Morocco has blocked the vote for over 25 years.”

To understand why this is incorrect requires an understanding of the history leading up to the present, reflecting the reality on the ground, both of which the podcast entirely omits. The claim that Morocco is an “occupier” of the Western Sahara is false and simply ignores the period that preceded Spain’s occupation of the territory. Before 1884, when Spain laid claim to the territory, the entire region had been part of Morocco. International agreements signed by Morocco and other countries before Morocco came under French and Spanish protectorate in 1912 show conclusively that the Western Sahara was part of Morocco. The most important of these agreements is the agreement between Morocco and the Great Britain signed in March 1895, in which Great Britain recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory.

Under international law, the notion of an “occupying power,” as defined by The Hague in 1907 and by the 1949 Geneva Convention, applies to the occupation of the territories of an existing state during an international armed conflict. The definition is inapplicable to the Western Sahara.  There was no existing state in the Western Sahara when Morocco reclaimed its sovereignty over the territory following negotiations with the Spanish government and the signing of the Madrid tripartite agreement in November 1975.  Instead, Morocco was reclaiming its own territory from the Spanish occupying power.

Morocco’s recovery of its Western Sahara territory in 1975 was the culmination of a lengthy process it had undertakenin 1956, the year of its independence from the French protectorate, to liberate its southern territories from the yoke of Spanish colonialism. While the podcast references the statement of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations describing Morocco as an “occupier,” the outgoing UN chief  in fact retracted the statement last April.  Not a single resolution of the Security Council or the General Assembly has described Morocco as an occupying power.

1991 Settlement Plan leads to a stalemate 

The 1991 Settlement Plan which was ineffective in helping the parties to put an end to the dispute by means of referendum, is also key to understanding the problem.

Neither Morocco nor the Polisario accepted the Settlement Plan in its entirety. During its negotiation, both sides agreed in principle to the plan, but each expressed significant reservations that were ultimately not taken into account by the task force entrusted by then United Secretary General Javier Perez De Cuellar, with the task of drafting the plan and submitting it to the parties.

Morocco and the Polisario had divergent interpretations of the relevant paragraphs of the plan that addressed voter eligibility and which Saharawis would be entitled to vote in such a referendum. However, despite the imperfections of the settlement plan and its failure to take Morocco’s reservations into account, Rabat engaged in good faith in the process.

However, Morocco’s endeavors were hindered by the intransigence of the Polisario and that group’s intent to exclude large segments of the Saharawis eligible to vote from participating in the referendum. In fact, from the perspectives of the major stakeholders, Morocco and the Polisario, the 1991 settlement was “still-born” and had no chance of being implemented.

Erik Jensen, who served as head of the United Nations mission in the Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, between 1994 and 1998, remarked in his book, Western Sahara, Anatomy of a Stalemate, that Morocco and the Polisario had “agreed to differing and incompatible interpretations of what was proposed. But the security council endorsed the proposal on the premise that the parties would be willing to cooperate to implement the plan.”

According to Jensen, the reservations that both Morocco and the Polisario had expressed with regards to the settlement plan were neither conveyed to the Security Council nor to the other member members of the task force. When the Security Council presented the settlement plan, both Morocco and Polisario reacted vehemently, as if they had not agreed to the same plan.

In a letter to the Secretary General in July 1990, King Hassan II expressed his frustration that the plan submitted to the Security Council did not take into account Morocco’s reservations. Again, this letter was not conveyed to the Security Council nor to the task force in charge of drafting the settlement plan.

Despite Morocco’s attempts to negotiate in good faith a resolution, the process itself was fraught with error and doomed the plan to failure. In his memoirs, De Cuellar says “I was never convinced that independence promised the best future for the inhabitants of the Western Sahara.” Before the adoption of the plan, De Cuellar was also convinced that the plan could not meet all the concerns of the two parties and that a compromise solution needed to be sought.

Why did the then Secretary General espouse this view? Simply because the nomadic way of life of the Saharawis, reflecting constant migration across national borders, the people having been subjected to colonialism and conflict over many decades, with individuals and families seeking refuge outside the territory, was not conducive to creating an independent state. Even the Spanish had admitted that the census they had conducted had not reached the entire Saharan region, and many tribal chiefs had asserted that thousands of Saharan and Saharan refugees had been omitted from the census.

Definition of “Saharawi People”

Thus, the key question is who are the Saharawi and what are their origins? The Democracy Now podcast ignores this question and fails to consider the fact that there has never been a “Saharawi people” referring to a people living in a defined territory. The Saharawis are in fact a mixture of Amazighs (Berbers) mainly from the Senhaja and the Arab tribes of Beni Hassan who came from Yemen and settled in the territory.

After they arrived in the region over ten centuries ago, they lived as nomads and wandered throughout the Saharan territories in Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco. Therefore, during Spain’s occupation of the territory between 1884 and 1934, there were no people called the Saharawi established in one only territory. If there is such a thing as a “Saharawi people,” it includes those who settled in Morocco, as well Algeria, and Mauritania.  If the Saharawis were to have a state of their own, such a state would span throughout the Moroccan, Algerian, and Mauritanian Sahara. All the Saharawis descend from the same origins and are linked by blood.

Security Council calls for a political solution 

Despite the efforts made by the UN since 1991 to conduct a referendum on the future of the Sahara, it failed to achieve this goal. In 2003, James Baker, former Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary General to the Western Sahara, James Baker, concluded that, because of the procedural flaws of the plan, it would never be implemented with the parties’ willing cooperation.

As a result, since 2004 the Security Council has called upon the parties to reach a mutually acceptable political solution to the conflict away from the winner-take-all approach. This political solution excludes an independent state.

Despite the repeated calls made by the Security Council to achieve a political solution, the Polisario has steadfastly clung to its position of holding a referendum allowing for the possibility of independence. Morocco on the other hand proposed an autonomy plan in 2007, which was lauded by the Security Council as “serious, credible” and offering the basis for a long-lasting solution to the conflict.

While the Democracy Now podcast addresses only the tip of the iceberg and erroneously mischaracterizes Morocco as an intransigent occupier of its own territory, the report also fails to address the status of Saharawis living in the Tindouf camps and the restrictions and repression imposed on them by Algeria. Saharawis there are prohibited from travelling freely from inside the camps to other parts of the Algerian territory. Mustapha Salma Oueld Sidi Mouloud, the former chief of the Polisario Police, for example, was prevented from returning to his home in the Tindouf camps, after simply stating in August 2010 that the Moroccan autonomy plan could serve as a basis to reach a mutually acceptable political solution to the Western Sahara conflict.

The Democracy Now podcast reflects a misunderstanding of the conflict and only a superficial appreciation of the facts on the ground. While violent suppression of peaceful protest can never be condoned, the Kingdom of Morocco is not the villain in this story as Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan appear to be portraying it.  Morocco has endeavored over the last 10 years and more to reach a resolution that reflects its territorial integrity and respects the rights of people in the region.

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