Reversing Course on Western Sahara Serves US National Interests

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Reversing Course on Western Sahara Serves US National Interests -  Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

The former Trump administration’s persistent pattern of violating international law has put the United States on the same level as the rogue nations that subvert international consensus and the rules-based international order.

This pattern is most profound in former President Trump’s last foreign policy act: a tweet in which he recognized Morocco’s claim of alleged sovereignty over occupied Western Sahara—     a territory long defined by a stalled process of decolonization and referred to as Africa’s last colony. Issued as part of a series of agreements brokered by the former president at the end of his tenure known as the Abraham Accords, this proclamation is inconsistent with settled international legal principles. The move, indeed, condones the forced seizure and de facto control of a disputed territory by an occupying power and denies the indigenous people of Western Sahara the right to self-determination in blatant violation of fundamental principles of international law: the prohibition on threat or use of force, the prohibition on acquiring territory by force, and the right of peoples to self-determination. Further, the declaration represents a heedless approach to a complex international dispute with far-reaching consequences. A reversal by the Biden administration of the United States’ unilateral recognition of Morocco’s claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara will condemn forcible territorial changes as a violation of international law. In addition, the move will signal the return of the United States to principled international leadership, multilateralism, and a rules-based world order. But in a period of receding belief that a strong moral and legal-based approach to foreign policy is what the United States needs now, reversing this decision will, most importantly, guard America’s interests, security foremost among these, in a strategic region of the world.

Formerly colonized by Spain and bordering the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania to the northeast, Western Sahara is a vast area boasting abundant natural resourcesphosphates, iron ore, sand, fishery, potential off-shore oil drilling, and uranium reserves. In 1975, without any concern for the wishes of its original inhabitants, Madrid ceded its colony to Morocco and Mauritania. Following its invasion and unilateral annexation of Western Sahara, Morocco tried to tip the population balance in its favor encouraging Moroccan settlements and investments in the annexed territory. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of native Sahrawis have been forced to live in the uninhabited and harshest fringes of the territory or flee to desert refugee camps in neighboring Algeria.

In 1976, under the leadership of the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro, known as the Polisario—a genuine national liberation movement and the Sahrawi people’s legitimate representative—the Sahrawis mobilized to proclaim independence and declared the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic (SADR). War ensued between Morocco and the Polisario Front. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew from the conflict renouncing definitively all claims over Western Sahara and recognizing the SADR.  Morocco saw its chance. It promptly annexed Mauritania piece of the territory. In 1991, the warring sides agreed to a UN-brokered and monitored ceasefire and an independence referendum, but they remained deadlocked over how the referendum should be carried out.  In 1995, disagreement over eligibility criteria brought the voter identification process, core to the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), to a standstill.  Controlling most of the territory and exploiting Western Sahara’s natural resources to the detriment of its indigenous people, Morocco refused to allow the vote to take place.  Instead, it proposed some form of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, without full de jure independence. However, the proposal has never been implemented. Since 1991, negotiations have failed to reach a compromise, thus maintaining the status quo ante. On November 14, 2020, the nearly three-decade cease-fire broke down, sparking a new wave of violence between Moroccan armed forces and the Polisario front. Amid a resumption of active fighting, the former Trump administration announced that it unilaterally recognizes Morocco’s claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Morocco has no legal claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara. The UN General Assembly and UN Security Council resolutions which have recognized Western Sahara as a “non-self-governing territory” pursuant to Chapter XI of the UN Charter—that is a colony—whose people have the right to decolonization through an act of self-determination, with the Polisario Front as its legitimate representative. This right has been confirmed in a landmark ruling of the International Court of Justice. In addition, the European Court of Justice ruled that Western Sahara has a separate and distinct status from Morocco.  And in 1984, Africa’s regional organization, the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), admitted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as a full member state which has been recognized by many African countries.

Former President Trump’s sudden shift from a mostly neutral US stance towards Western Sahara prompted Morocco’s re-engagement with Israel, becoming the fourth Arab nation to do so as part of the Abraham Accords.  Driven in part by US-led efforts to counter Iran and curtail its successful influence in the region, the Abraham Accords mark formal normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel — the first peace agreement between an Arab nation and Israel since Jordan recognized Israel in the 1990s and Egypt in the 1970s.  Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco shortly followed in the UAE’s footsteps by thawing relations with Israel.  The four countries have no geographic proximity to Israel; none of them were ever at war with Israel; and all played a minor role to none in the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict.

In Trump’s signature transactional diplomacy, some of the inducements offered for the normalization deals were not only an aberration but an affront to binding international legal norms. For the UAE, the US-brokered deal included a promise for the UAE to acquire American weaponry from the United States.  For Sudan, the price for reluctantly signing a peace deal with Israel was immunity in American courts from terrorism lawsuits.  Bahrain appears to have been driven by a desire to strengthen its relations with Washington.  As to Morocco,  this “deal” orchestrated by the Trump administration sweet-talks the Moroccans to embrace Israel by endorsing Morocco’s decades-long quest to affirm its assertion of sovereignty over the territory of colonized Western Sahara. The quid pro quo reportedly also includes a planned arms sale to Morocco, as well as a promised three billion USD in commercial investments in the North African kingdom,  a déjà vu Trump playbook.

The United States’s abrupt change in its long-held policy concerning the Western Sahara conflict—a largely bipartisan issue in Washington until the former administration’s decision— upends years of international consensus. Until Trump’s tweet neither the United States nor any other country formally recognized Morocco’s alleged sovereignty over the bitterly disputed territory. In fact, as early as October 2020, the United States supported the UN Security Council resolution that renewed the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) for a year. Further, in the words of Professor Stephen Zunes, a leading scholar of US Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action:

The fate of Western Sahara is a rare issue that does not fall neatly along partisan lines, and senators ranging from Democrat Patrick Leahy to Republican James Inhofe have pushed successive U.S. administrations to support Sahrawi’s right to a referendum on independence.

Trump’s decision represents, therefore, a renegade act intended only to bolster a flawed Middle East policy, recklessly endangering peace in the process.  As such, it must be denounced as a tendentious and unlawful interference by a former self-interested US administration prepared to put peace at risk for short-term geopolitical gain.

Trump’s declaration had the unintended consequences of bringing a thorny conflict—largely unknown to many and obscure on the global front—to the forefront of the US foreign policy debate. The Western Sahara question combines a number of difficult global issues—it is a humanitarian crisis; it is located in a part of the world that is of increasing strategic relevance, and it pits questions of colonization and decolonization. Indeed, the worst part of the decision relates to the hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi people who suffer because of Morocco’s illegal seizure of Western Sahara. In addition, the collapse of the nearly three-decade ceasefire could lead to an escalation of violence in a volatile corner of North Africa critical to US security interests. This escalation could reopen the long-standing tension in the region, particularly between Morocco and Algeria, important allies of the European Union and the United States in the fight against terrorism and the containment of migration flows to Europe Moreover, it could exacerbate instability in North Africa and the Sahel after the war in Libya and insurgencies in Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso.

In the short to medium term, beyond damaging US credibility to resolve an international conflict through UN-based diplomatic efforts, a decision by the Biden administration not to change course on Western Sahara could have the potential of upsetting other influential African Union members supportive of the Sahrawis’ right for self-determination.  This is even more important at a time when the United States is striving to gain a stronger foothold in Africa and reorganize its priorities to counter Russia and China’s growing footprint on the continent.  In the long term, apart from hindering any chance for political and economic unity of the Maghreb countries, a non-reversal of Trump’s policy could antagonize Sahrawi youth and push them to resolve the conflict through arm struggle. If the violence goes unchecked, it could lead the region to become a fertile ground to extremist groups, fueling criminal networks in the Sahel, potentially making the broader region more volatile as a result. Finally, a non-reversal of this precedent-setting decision could embolden potential aggressors to conquer territory by force, “and have those conquests legitimatized by the international community.”

In his first major foreign policy speech intended to send a clear message to the world that “America is back,” President Biden spoke about values-led engagement to reset relations with the world. He pledged to “start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom; championing opportunity; upholding universal rights; respecting the rule of law; and treating every person with dignity.” Reversing course on Western Sahara will signal the Biden administration’s foreign policy orientation, its commitment to deploy principled diplomacy, and return to a UN-based, comprehensive, and diplomatic approach to the conflict. Reversing this decision will also condemn forcible territorial changes, compelling the Kingdom of Morocco to live up to its international obligations and allowing the people of a nascent nation-state to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and national independence.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, revoking this decision will guard and strengthen US national interests, security foremost among these, in a strategic region of the world.

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Djaouida Siaci is an international lawyer specializing in international litigation and arbitration, and cross-border criminal investigation with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. As part of her pro bono work, Mrs. Siaci has been engaged in efforts to pursue international justice and accountability on behalf of victims of human rights violations and mass atrocities. She is the founder and vice-president of the Rohingya Support Group (RSG). Mrs. Siaci holds a Master of Laws from Harvard Law School;  a postgraduate degree in Public International Law and Law of International Organizations from the University of Paris, Sorbonne; and a law degree from the University of Algiers, Faculty of Law.

Image Credit: Michele Benericetti, Creative Commons License