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The Trump administration’s announcement on December 10th 2020 that the USA recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the territory of Western Sahara disregards international law by endorsing colonialism and occupation. It also threatens prospects of future peace in northwest Africa. The decision reflects the priorities of Trump’s administration, but it is not new that global leaders disregard international law and prospects for peace in Western Sahara, nor that they tolerate and support colonialism and occupation there. Rather, the Trump administration’s decision has given these realities new public visibility. Ongoing efforts to support Sahrawis’ right to self-determination must go beyond pushing for a reversal of US recognition, and advocate for genuine conditions for decolonization.
On December 10th, the Trump administration announced the results of a deal agreed with Morocco’s Mohammad VI. Morocco will follow the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan to become the fourth Arab country to normalise relations with the state of Israel. As in these other cases, the Moroccan normalisation of relations with Israel advances foreign policy aims of the Trump administration concerning Israel. In the Moroccan case, Morocco used the deal as an opportunity to pursue a major foreign policy issue for the last 45 years: Moroccan claims to sovereignty over Western Sahara. In the words of John Bolton, former US representative to the United Nations, Trump decided “to throw the Sahrawi people under the bus”.
Morocco invaded and occupied parts of Western Sahara in 1976, after Spain’s withdrawal from its former colony of Spanish Sahara. Morocco’s army, and Moroccan settlers, moved in to “reclaim” a territory that the monarchy proclaimed was part of Morocco. The occupation has dispossessed, displaced and oppressed thousands of the indigenous Sahrawi inhabitants of Western Sahara. Sahrawis, however, had already been mobilizing for independence from Spain under the leadership of the Polisario Front national liberation movement, which the UN recognises as the Sahrawi people’s legitimate representative. Through wartime and then decades of failed UN conflict resolution, Morocco and Polisario Front have vied on multiple fronts: for territory in the divided Western Sahara, for the loyalty of its people, and for international legitimacy. In this longrunning struggle, US official recognition for Morocco’s claims is the Kingdom’s latest achievement.
This recognition is unprecedented. The International Court of Justice, the European Court of Justice, the African Union, the UN General Assembly, and the UN Security Council have consistently recognised Western Sahara as a non-self-governing-territory (a colony), whose people have the right to decolonization through an act of self-determination. In recognising Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, Trump’s administration has disregarded this international legal designation of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing-territory. Trump’s administration has both flouted international law, and publicly endorsed and legitimized colonial occupation.
Equally troubling are the risks that the US decision poses to prospects for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Trump’s announcement presented the recognition as a means of advancing a “realistic” solution to the Western Sahara conflict, namely autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. But Trump’s move jeopardizes prospects for peaceful resolution. At the time of the announcement, the situation on the ground was already extremely tense. In November 2020 Moroccan military shot at Sahrawi protestors at a border checkpoint between Mauritania and Western Sahara, leading Polisario Front to declare the resumption of war. At this critical moment, the US’s recognition signals to Morocco that the Kingdom can continue to disregard international law with impunity, and signals to Sahrawis that global leaders will continue to overlook them and their rights. These messages endanger, rather than support, prospects for future peace.
US recognition of Morocco’s claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara threatens to set a precedent of new legitimization for Morocco’s occupation. In practice, though, it has long been the case that allies of Morocco, such as the US and France, have tolerated and endorsed Morocco’s occupation. Morocco’s allies have actively shielded Morocco from accountability for its occupation, for instance by manoeuvring or conceding to exclude human rights monitoring from the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara. With Morocco being a strategic ally on counterterrorism and on the western Mediterranean route for undocumented immigration to the EU, the US and Morocco’s other powerful and influential allies are likely to continue enabling Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara.
Consequently, for those concerned to support self-determination and oppose colonial occupation, it will not be enough to mobilize for President elect Joe Biden to reverse Trump’s move – important though such a reversal would be for upholding international law and supporting peace efforts. There needs to be a bigger shift in which global leaders work with, and not against, the creation of genuine circumstances for decolonization and the protection for human rights in Western Sahara, and beyond. Collective failure to hold global leaders to account on these questions allows colonialism, occupation, and support for them to thrive, while leaving Sahrawis burdened with the punishing costs.
Alice Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex. Her work examines revolution, state building and social change among Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. She is the author of Sovereignty in Exile: a Saharan Liberation Movement Governs.