Last month, as part of the Trump administration’s mission to foster “peace in the Middle East,” the United States (U.S.) announced that it had successfully facilitated a deal to establish friendly relations between Morocco and Israel. As part of the deal, the United States agreed to recognize Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara, a long-disputed territory inhabited by the Indigenous Saharawi people. For decades, Morocco has laid claim to the territory and has ignored the major resistance from the Polisario Front, the Saharawi nationalist movement fighting for recognition and sovereignty.
The United States’ decision to officially recognize Morocco’s claim is historic as it makes the U.S. the first country in the world to do so. Not only is it symbolic, but this recognition will potentially undermine the nationalist movement of the Saharawi people and their calls for sovereignty. Similarly, the Moroccan government will potentially feel further empowered to expand the occupation and subjugation of the Saharawis.
A Violation of International Law
Under Chapter XI of the United Nations (U.N) Charter, Western Sahara is classified as a “non-self-governing territory.” Essentially, this means that the territory is under the protection of the U.N. and consequently requires U.N. member states to respect its authority. The U.N. is supposed to facilitate nation-building in non-self-governing territories with the ultimate goal of allowing local populations to establish their own systems of governance. While this goal has not been realized in Western Sahara, some progress has been made: today, the territory operates under a system of “limited self-government” and is a self-declared state under the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic (SADR). In further support of Sahrawi sovereignty, the International Criminal Court (ICJ) ruled in 1975 that territorial claims made by the Moroccan kingdom and other neighboring states like Mauritania were invalid. Whatsmore, the SADR, which operates in exile out of Algeria, was made a member of the African Union in 1984 and has been recognized by over 80 states as the legitimate governing body of the territory and the Sahrawi people.
Both the United States and Morocco are members of the UN and as such, they should comply with UN regulations regarding non self-governing territories. Clearly, both nations are choosing to ignore the UN’s mandate, however it is difficult to punish any states as the UN has no formal mechanisms to ensure legal compliance from member states. Punishing the United States in particular is even more difficult seeing as the US has immense authority in the UN derived from its position on the Security Council. This allows the US government to veto any attempts to challenge their actions. In fact, the US has already established a precedent of using its authority in the UN to legitimize the illegal occupation of non-self-governing territories: most notably, the US has repeatedly used its veto power in the Security Council to support the Israeli government’s unlawful control over the Palestinian territories. If this is any indication of American foreign policy in the UN, it is clear the United States will have no qualms defying the UN to continue with its support for Morocco’s hold on Western Sahara. Ultimately, not only is it frustrating from an outside perspective to see state actors blatantly disregarding international law, it is more concerning to see how very real and harmful the effects of the occupation have been on the local populations.
The Moroccan Occupation and the Refugee Crisis
The Moroccan occupation has substantially damaged the way of life of the Sahrawi people, and unfortunately, the new American support for Morocco’s claim will most likely only serve to exacerbate this oppression. Over the years, the Moroccan government has violently cracked down on any movements for Sahrawi nationalism – and many protests held throughout the occupied areas have been met with extreme state-sponsored violence. Human rights activists and journalists have often been met with aggression facing torture or imprisonment under false and obscure charges. e. American professor and scholar, Stephen Zunes, described the occupied territory as “the most repressive police state I have ever seen.”
Not only has the occupation caused violence and distress for those inhabiting the territory, it has led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Most Sahrawi refugees, numbering roughly 173,600, were forced into neighboring Algeria, in the desert region of Tindouf, and are greatly dependent on international humanitarian assistance. Unfortunately, such aid is insufficient and most refugees do not have access to basic necessities like food, water and medicine. Conditions in these refugee camps have worsened this year as a result of COVID-19 along with a pulmonary epidemic that affected livestock, which many Sahrawi people rely on for food and a source of income. Without the necessary resources like livestock and without enough humanitarian assistance, Sahrawi refugees are facing severe health problems, like anemia, malnutrition, and issues with pregnancy.
On top of all this, Sahrawi refugees face oppression from the Polisario Front and the SADR, even though these two bodies are supposed to represent and support them. The Polisario Front has been criticized for violating human rights and neglecting the actual needs of the people in the camps. Human rights activists in the camp have been targeted and any attempts by international actors to monitor human rights has been barred by the Polisario Front. Tensions in the camps and in the occupied areas are expected to rise in light of the United States’ recognition of Morocco’s claim: fighting between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government has already begun to flare up and many more Sahrawi people will most likely be displaced.
The full effects of the United States formal recognition of Morocco’s occupation are not yet known, however the Sahrawi nationalist movement in Western Sahara is resilient and will most likely not abandon its mission to foster complete sovereignty. As Mouloud Said, a representative for the Polisario Front, has indicated: “the Sahrawi people are going to continue with their struggle. We are not going to stop.” For the thousands of Sahrawi refugees living in neighboring territories, the future is uncertain but no matter what transpires in relation to the Moroccan occupation, further support and aid must be provided. The global media and the international community have been deafeningly quiet in regards to the struggles of the Sahrawi people; this must change and proper attention and resources must be allocated towards this issue.