The debate comes as Morocco’s 2007 Autonomy Plan gathers unprecedented diplomatic and political momentum.
Rabat – A heated debate has shed additional light on Western Sahara and exposed frequently-published fallacies on the conflict and on Morocco’s position and territorial integrity.
Taking part in the tense debate was Samir Bennis, Moroccan foreign policy analyst and senior political advisor to a Gulf state embassy in Washington.
The Moroccan analyst joined a panel that included Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, and Meriem Naili, a French PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, to discuss the history and current state of the Sahara question.
Throughout the panel, Bennis, who is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News, deconstructed the usual pro-Polisario fallacies about the origins of the Western Sahara conflict. He also made a compelling legal and socio-historical case for Morocco’s position.
Asked whether Western Sahara is “Africa’s last colony,” Zunes and Nailli answered in the affirmative. As well as describing Morocco as an “occupying power,” they consistently argued only a self-determination referendum could end the decades-long dispute in Western Sahara.
“The International Court of Justice ruled in November 1975 that despite some claims by Morocco that some tribal leaders had declared fidelity to the Moroccan sultan back in the 19th century, that did not trump the right of self determination,” Zunes argued.
Nailli agreed, saying: “Today, there are 17 non self-governing territories listed by the UN and the Western Sahara is one of them. It is the longest and the biggest with the biggest population. And so, yes, it is the only one in Africa… technically speaking, yes.”
In response, Bennis “set the record straight.” He invited his co-panelists to look at history with objectivity, “without being driven by any agenda.”
Western Sahara and colonialism
Rather than a colonial or occupying power, he explained, Morocco itself was the victim of European colonialism. He said, “If we go back to history, and I guess that’s what most of those who support Polisario have failed to do for many years, they always try to portray the conflict as a conflict that starts in 1975 until now. And they do so purposefully to mislead and lure people into believing that there existed before 1975 a country that was colonized by Morocco.”
Bennis also rebuffed claims that the conflict over Western Sahara dates back to 1975, explaining that the dispute over the region started long before Polisario supporters’ preferred timeline.
Citing both historical documents and recent developments in the region, he argued that Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara is backed “by legal facts.” There are countless documents and statements that date back to the 19th century that support the thesis of the Moroccanness of the region, he explained.
One of many such documents “is an agreement signed between Morocco and the UK in March 1895, in which the UK said in a clear cut way that the territory between Cap Juby which is Tarfaya, and Cap Boujdour which is nowadays Western Sahara, belong to Morocco.”
Taking the panel to the 19th century, Bennis recalled the endless feud between colonial powers over North Africa, including Morocco.
He particularly noted a 1904 agreement between France and the UK, in which the French colonizers agreed to give Morocco’s southern provinces to Spain.
Without consulting Morocco, which had historically held sovereignty over the region now known as Western Sahara, France, Spain, and the UK entered into agreements that ended up severing the territory from mainland Morocco.
After achieving its independence from France, Bennis went on to explain, Morocco claimed sovereignty over the region and was the only country that pressured Spain to decolonize what was at various points in history, mostly precolonial, widely recognized as the Moroccan Sahara.
For “most of the 1950 and the 1960s,” he said, “Morocco was the first and only country that claimed sovereignty over the Sahara and this was the first time in the trusteeship council and the UN fourth committee in 1975.”
The unfeasible referendum
On the question of the referendum, Bennis stressed the need to correct the half-truths and pseudo-facts that continue to sustain Polisario’s separatist claims.
Professor Zunes said Morocco “never allowed the referendum to take place,” claiming that the country was “confident it would lose a referendum.”
In response, Bennis explained that Spain wanted to use the referendum in its favor, promoting the creation of an “an independent state” in Western Sahara after it discovered that the region is rich in phosphates and other resources.
“In the beginning of the 1970s, Spain took advantage of the disunity between Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria and tried to take it to its advantage to further assert its control over the territory,” he argued.
Bennis also dissected the much-advertised misconception that Morocco’s continuous obstructions of the UN’s agenda are the main reasons the referendum did not happen. Both Morocco and the Polisario Front “stood in the way of referendum” when they did not agree with some conditions, he said.
Because the two parties had radically different interpretations of the “relevant paragraphs, provisions of the settlement plan,” he explained, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan eventually arrived at the conclusion that “it was impossible to hold a referendum.”
The panel also discussed potential solutions for the conflict. Bennis reiterated one concept on which most diplomats and observers now agree—that a referendum is no longer a viable option.
He pointed to a body of historical documents and recent developments in the Sahara conflict, including successive UN resolutions in the past decade and the widespread consensus over the obsolescence of the referendum thesis. Still, Zunes insisted that only a self-determination referendum could end the dispute over Western Sahara.
Bennis responded by again pointing out that the referendum route has long been deemed impossible, with both sides accepting or opposing the referendum based on their expectations of the outcome.
Morocco, he conceded, has at times been uncooperative when it came to a referendum in Western Sahara. Bennis added, however: “Morocco in 1981, during the summit of the nowadays African Union, proposed the holding of a referendum of self-determination, based on the census of 1974. But guess what happened? Algeria and the Polisario refused it.”
Polisario, Bennis explained, “refused that the UN goes ahead with the plan to open the appeal of Sahrawis categorized in the 1974 census as H41, H61 and G51 and G52. This is included word by word in the UN report.”
Given the impracticality of a referendum, Bennis suggested, the Security Council has shifted its focus to a much more feasible alternative, namely a compromised-based political solution.
Together with the unsettled divergences about who should vote in the referendum, the fact that all UN resolutions in the past decades appear to have embraced the alternative of a political solution has created a pattern known in international law as the principle of consistency of practice.
In 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of self-determination. For Bennis, the court’s ruling was based on the consistency of practice principle, “because Morocco in 1966 accepted that a solution to the conflict be through a referendum.”
But the pendulum has swung in the past four decades. “For the past 41 years, not a single UN resolution has mentioned Morocco as an occupying power. If we apply the principle of consistency of practice in customary international law, that means Morocco is not occupying the Western Sahara. No country can occupy a country that has always belonged to it, but was snatched by colonial powers,” Bennis said.
Human rights monitoring
The panel also debated the state of human rights in the disputed region. PhD candidate Naili claimed Westrern Sahara is the only “modern” conflict region where an ongoing UN mission lacks a mechanism to monitor human rights.
She also said Polisario has long asked for a human rights monitoring mechanism in the region. However, she failed to point out how Polisario and Algeria continuously rejected a census in Tindouf camps.
Morocco has long called for a census in the Polisario-administered camps in Tindouf.
Along with NGOs, public figures, and other organizations, Morocco has also stressed the worsening conditions in the camps and called on the international community to provide humanitarian assistance to aid distressed Sahrawis living there.
For Bennis, claims that MINURSO, the UN mission Western Sahara, is the only mission that does not have human rights monitoring mechanisms, are a “flagrant lie.”
He explained, “It only takes a few clicks, if you go to the UN website and you would find that the UN mission in Liberia which ended in 2018 did not have this mechanism, the UN mission in Abyei in Sudan does not have this mechanism.
“The claim that the Western Sahara is the only UN mission—and also past UN missions in relation to Liberia did not include this mechanism … This again shows that the claim is just a false claim that seeks to advance the narrative of Polisario and the agenda of Algeria which is the main party involved in the conflict, not Polisario but Algeria is the main party.”
While “nobody can deny that human rights violations exist in Western Sahara as they exist in other parts of Morocco,” noted the Moroccan expert, the same is true of every other country in the world.
He also suggested that, judging from Polisario’s heavy-handed crackdown on dissent and constant reports of other violations, the Front’s human rights breaches are far more concerning. “What about the Tindouf camps?” Bennis asked.
“Let me just remind you that the Polisario, in its constitution, states that no political party can be established in the Tindouf camps until it reaches its independence. There is no dissentive voice in Polisario that are allowed to be there,” he said.
“Saharawis have no refugee cards, this is in violation of International law, they cannot even move within Algeria, this is against international law,” Bennis added.
Rising to Algeria’s defense, Zunes claimed the country’s only role in the Sahara issue is its support for Polisario in its “pro-independence struggle.”
Even as he claimed that he supports neither Algeria’s diplomatic activism nor Polisario’s statehood agenda, Zunes’ contradictory and biased remarks constantly lashed out at Morocco while idealizing Algeria and the Polisario Front.
“Saying that Algeria is the main party of the conflict, this is about the Western Sahara. The Polisario is an Indigenous popular movement, in fact Algeria supports a rival in the pro-independence struggle,” he said. “They become independent of Algeria on a whole number of levels. But it is not an Algerian creation. If Algeria cut off its support tomorrow, it would certainly hamper the Polisario in many respects,” Zunes added.
To this, Bennis replied by emphasizing Algeria’s involvement in the conflict, as all UN Security Council resolutions passed in the last decade have copiously documented.
“I saw that someone was shocked that Algeria is the main party. Of course Algeria is the main party and has been supporting Polisario since 1974. Who took Polisario over since 1974? Go and read what Daniel Lynn Price wrote in his book Western Sahara in 1979, look what he said about how Algeria took over the Polisario in [its] first congress in May 1973 in Mauritania,” Bennis said.
The analyst said the book made no mention of “independence” nor of what should take place in the territory. “It was all about Spanish colonialism.”
He cited the book documenting that there were 5,000 people in Tindouf, half of them Sahrawis from the Algerian faction of the Rguibat tribe in Tindouf, and the majority of people in Tindouf were from Niger, Mali, Algeria, and Mauritania.
For years, Algeria has refused to shoulder responsibility in the conflict, describing itself as an observer rather than a main party, in defiance of UN texts and resolutions.
The heated debate comes amid a marked paradigm shift in the narrative about the Western Sahara conflict and how to get out of the region’s decades-long political impasse. Since Morocco submitted its Autonomy Plan to the UN in 2007, the country’s position has been dubbed as the most viable and “credible” shot at a pragmatic, feasible, and lasting political settlement.
In addition, the mention of Algeria as a primary party to the Sahara conflict in the most recent UN resolutions is perhaps the most eloquent suggestion that Morocco’s consistent calls for Algeria to be an integral part of any negotiations on Western Sahara have not been lost on the international community.
During the debate, Zunes made a comparison between the Western Sahara conflict and other regional disputes, saying that he visited many “occupied territories.”
The professor also claimed he did not see any “worse police state” than Western Sahara, describing human rights in the Tindouf camps is not “nearly as bad.”
The Moroccan analyst, however, rebuffed the claims, emphasizing that the comparisons Zunes made are impossible in context.
“We cannot compare Iraq and Kuwait,” he said. “First Morocco is a twelve-century nation-state, it is not Iraq. Iraq and the whole Middle East was for four centuries under the Ottoman empire. Morocco was not under the Ottoman empire. Even Algeria was part of the Ottoman empire. Algeria as a state was created by France. Morocco was created in the early eighth century,” Samir Bennis emphasized.
Polisario is an entity
The political analyst condemned the fallacies pro-Polisario activists promote regarding “self-determination.”
Samir Bennis clarified that Polisario is a separatist group, an entity.
Many pro-Polisario observers cite UN resolutions to promote self-determination. The analyst acknowledged that Security Council resolutions mention self-determination, but they don’t mention a referendum.
Explaining the meaning of self-determination, Bennis said self-determination does not necessarily mean “independence.”
Citing Resolution 2652 of 1970, Bennis said self-determination can be achieved through “independence or integration with an independent state, or autonomy.”
He added that the Security Council is now seeking more alternative solutions to end the conflict, emphasizing that none of the resolutions since 2007 has mentioned a referendum.
The foreign policy expert argued that the UN-led political process is focusing on means to reach a consensual solution.
“All of them call on the parties to achieve a mutually acceptable political solution. … As I said, self-determination could be achieved through autonomy.“
Western Sahara is in Moroccans’ blood
Samir Bennis emphasized the mobilization of all Moroccans against all fallacious claims and hostile positions towards Morocco’s territorial integrity.
“The Western Sahara is in our blood because we know that Morocco has been wronged by history, has been wronged by its neighbors, first of them Algeria… as it got its independence.”
Bennis slammed Algeria for its inaction and refusal to shoulder responsibility in the conflict.
He also recalled that Morocco is the first country that helped Algeria throughout its independence, providing Algiers with medical, military, financial, diplomatic, and political support.
“Moroccans are mobilized and we will be mobilized to stand against anybody who tries to spread propaganda and tries to defend a fictitious state that will never exist,” he argued.
Francois Tamba Koundouno and Perri Huggins contributed to this story