The 45-year-old conflict over Western Sahara between Morocco and the Sahrawi people—long defined by a stalled process of decolonization—has shifted dramatically over the last month.

Sahrawis shout slogans for the freedom of Western Sahara, in southwestern Algeria, where over 160,000 Sahrawis live in several refugee camps. 2011 Juan Medina/Reuters

On November 13, 2020, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a state-in-exile based in Algeria representing the Sahrawi’s United Nations-recognized right to self-determination, withdrew from a ceasefire brokered by the UN with Morocco in 1991. The proximate cause was a dispute over the buffer zone at Guerguerat, a busy border checkpoint between Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara and northern Mauritania. Guerguerat has been a flashpoint in the conflict since 2016 when Morocco entered the buffer zone with the intention of clearing and paving the 4 km strip. After Moroccan military vehicles opened fire on a recent nonviolent sit-in in mid-November, SADR’s president, Brahim Ghali, repudiated the ceasefire and announced a return to armed combat.

Then, on December 10, 2020, the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, outgoing US President Donald Trump made two announcements in quick succession, first tweeting: “Today, I signed a proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Morocco’s serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal is the ONLY basis for a just and lasting solution for enduring peace and prosperity!” He subsequently posted on Twitter that Morocco and Israel had normalized relations as part of his administration’s Abraham Accords, which have induced similar normalization agreements from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. The quid pro quo of Morocco recognizing Israel in exchange for US recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara reportedly also includes an arms deal and a promised $3 billion investment in tourism, banking and renewable energy projects. While the arms sale can be blocked by Congress and the Trump administration claims that the investment scheme constitutes a separate deal, these transactions provide an indication of what the US government believes Sahrawi autonomy and the principle of self-determination are worth.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s return to a state of war and Trump’s tweet both mark the end of a phase of nonviolent Sahrawi resistance in this longstanding conflict.
SADR’s return to a state of war and Trump’s tweet both mark the end of a phase of nonviolent Sahrawi resistance in this longstanding conflict. Since a 2006 youth-led uprising across the cities of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, Sahrawi nationalists increasingly relied upon nonviolent demonstrations to make their claim to self-determination legible and compelling to an international community. The idiom of human rights provided certain tactical advantages by calling attention to the illegitimacy of Moroccan rule in Western Sahara through sustained protest in the territory under its control. Morocco’s persecution of media activists—and specifically videographers—perhaps best illustrates the effectiveness of human rights activism as a tactic to make a movement for national sovereignty visible to a transnational audience. Following the violent breakup of Gdeim Izik, a protest encampment in 2010, Morocco arrested a group of young media activists and sentenced them to life imprisonment in a military trial widely condemned by human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Gdeim Izik prisoners appealed but in late November their sentences were upheld by Morocco’s highest court, timing that further confirms the political nature of their detention.

Despite the pressure felt by the Moroccan security state from nonviolent protest, SADR’s withdrawal from the ceasefire appears to acknowledge the shortcomings of this approach. The protest movement never quite succeeded in achieving its central demand for the UN Security Council to expand the UN peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, to include human rights monitoring—although it came close in 2013 when it was debated at the Security Council. While the movement heightened the visibility of Sahrawi nationalism through the idiom of human rights, this activism also prompted an increase in different forms of watching or monitoring, such as the surveillance of protesters by the Moroccan state, activist sousveillance of the Moroccan state and peacekeeping monitoring of buffer zones such as Guerguerat. But all without advancing SADR’s fundamental aim of achieving self-determination.

The events of November 13 in Guerguerat interrupted this period of human rights discourse as “war by other means,” but it is not entirely clear what the new terrain of conflict will entail, post-ceasefire.[1] Although SADR claimed military gains from skirmishes carried out along the buffer zone, weeks passed with little concrete evidence of military escalation. The Moroccan government was particularly quiet and, given that the parties were no longer constrained by a UN peace plan, the tens of thousands of soldiers stationed in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara remained remarkably—even suspiciously—quiet. Trump’s tweet appears to have revealed the reason behind Morocco’s curious stillness during this interregnum.

Trump’s proclamation, in the waning days of his presidency, resembles a modern-day papal decree or an amity line between two princely states. It may have just as much legal force. Israel has so far shied away from recognizing Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara, and sundry US elected officials have criticized the president’s tweet. But aside from its complete circumvention of international law, the proclamation has other ramifications. In repeating the hackneyed diplomatic keywords for Morocco’s autonomy plan, Trump lends further legitimacy to a proposal once dismissed by UN Special Envoy James Baker for its lack of credibility.[2] And in a context of territorial dispute where sovereignty is contingent upon international recognition, the US president’s statement bolsters Morocco’s claims, which lack any authority under international law.

Trump’s declaration also validates Rabat’s enduring approach to the conflict. Sahrawi nationalists have shifted tactics with changes in the terrain of conflict, from armed struggle for national liberation to a referendum for self-determination to negotiated settlement and then to human rights discourse. Meanwhile Morocco’s approach has remained consistent throughout: occupy, settle and exploit the territory, forestall any agreement under the rubric of UN-based decolonization, maintain French and American support within the Security Council, use Western Sahara as leverage in diplomatic negotiations with other nations and ruthlessly repress domestic dissent. As Jacob Mundy notes, “The internationally undetermined status of Western Sahara, nearly four decades in operation, has become the central tool in Moroccan statecraft.”[3]

Indeed, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI’s engagement with Trump echoes the Madrid Agreement of 1975, when Mohammed’s father Hassan II made an agreement with Spain to transfer authority over Western Sahara directly to Mauritania and Morocco.[4] This secret agreement contravened a UN International Court of Justice opinion that validated the Sahrawi right to self-determination. Then, as now, Morocco capitalized on the weakness of an outgoing autocrat (in 1975 General Franco was on his deathbed) to assert its sovereignty and circumvent human rights and international law. Then, as now, Sahrawis were left stranded between contradictory claims and regimes of authority.

Then, as now, Morocco capitalized on the weakness of an outgoing autocrat (in 1975 General Franco was on his deathbed) to assert its sovereignty and circumvent human rights and international law. Then, as now, Sahrawis were left stranded between contradictory claims and regimes of authority.

The Madrid Agreement and Morocco’s subsequent attempt to annex Western Sahara led to 16 years of war, ending with the 1991 ceasefire. The ramifications of Trump’s tweet are potentially just as destabilizing. But in the short term this proclamation will surely exacerbate regional tensions beyond the direct parties to the conflict, complicating relations with Algeria, SADR’s main backer. In a curious twist, however, the widespread suspicion and contempt that greets most of the American president’s foreign policy-by-tweet declarations appears to have accomplished what a decade and a half of Sahrawi human rights activism struggled to do: cast a pall over Morocco’s claim and elevate the visibility of the Sahrawi struggle for self-determination.

Post-World War II decolonization struggles put a spotlight on a new kind of global political sphere, but anticolonial struggles in the Sahara remained uniquely hidden. For example, in 1958, under complete secrecy, France and Spain carried out a joint counterinsurgency in what was then a Spanish colony, even as the Algerian struggle for independence was attracting world attention. In the 1970s, a movement for Sahrawi national liberation emerged just as the United States moved to undermine UN authority in the face of Third World sovereignty.[5] And throughout the 2000s, Sahrawi human rights activism struggled to reach a receptive audience. Morocco, by contrast, has instrumentalized the marginal significance of the Western Sahara conflict toward its own ends. Whether it can manage the conflict’s now-heightened visibility remains to be seen.

Sahrawis—especially those living under intense repression in Moroccan-occupied territory—remain stranded in a state of permanent decolonization, with the possibility of self-determination always imminent yet perennially out of reach. Scholars have noted that the case of Western Sahara has served to enshrine self-determination in international law, yet that right has yet to be applied to the people of this territory.[6] This contradiction has remained in place through over four decades of political conflict. Trump’s tweet has simply elevated it to new heights.

 

[Mark Drury is a lecturer in anthropology at Princeton University.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

[2] Anna Theofilopoulou, “The United Nations’ Change in Approach to Resolving the Western Sahara Conflict Since the Turn of the Twenty-First Century,” in Raquel Ojeda-Garcia, Irene Fernández-Molina and Victoria Veguilla eds. Global, Regional and Local Dimensions of Western Sahara’s Protracted Decolonization: When a Conflict Gets Old (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 47.

[3] Jacob Mundy, “The Geopolitical Functions of the Western Sahara Conflict: US Hegemony, Moroccan Stability and Sahrawi Strategies of Resistance,” in Raquel Ojeda-Garcia, Irene Fernández-Molina and Victoria Veguilla eds. Global, Regional and Local Dimensions of Western Sahara’s Protracted Decolonization: When a Conflict Gets Old (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 63.

[4] Mauritania subsequently withdrew its claim to the territory in 1979.

[5] Mark Mazower, “The United States in Opposition,” in Governing the World: The History of an Idea (New York: Penguin Books, 2012) pp. 305–42.

[6] Catriona Drew, “The Meaning of Self-Determination: ‘The Stealing of the Sahara’ Redux?” in Karin Arts, Pedro Pinto Leite eds. International Law and the Question of Western Sahara (International Platform of Jurists for East Timor (IPJET), 2007). Karen Knop, Diversity and Self-Determination in International Law (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

 

How to cite this article:

Mark Drury "Sahrawi Self-Determination, Trump’s Tweet and the Politics of Recognition in Western Sahara," Middle East Report Online, December 22, 2020.
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