In recent weeks, some conservative analysts have pointed out supposed international hypocrisy in the treatment of Morocco’s possession of and presence in Western Sahara. After the Wall Street Journal reported on African migrants seeking to transit Morocco to reach Europe, Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor who has taken his excellent blog brand “The Volokh Conspiracy” to the website of the Washington Post, wrote:
The Wall Street Journal has an interesting story today on African migrants attempting to get into Spanish enclaves in Morocco. However, it makes a major factual error [when it writes] “Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz said during a visit to Ceuta in February that 80,000 migrants were waiting in Morocco or along its border with Mauritania for a chance to reach the enclaves.”
The problem, of course, is that Morocco has no border with Mauritania. Rather, in between the two countries is Western Sahara, currently illegally occupied by Morocco and inundated with Moroccan settlers, but not recognized by any country as Moroccan territory.
Mistakes happen of course – and it is possible the journalist is reporting without qualification the Spanish minister’s words, which itself would be interesting. What is more surprising is the lack of outraged reaction from international law professors, experts, NGOs, and other peace-loving types (according to my quick Google search). If someone suggested in the Journal that the West Bank was within Israel’s borders, it would lead to an immediate outcry, and a rain of derision from learned people….
Similarly, one could imagine the international law outrage if the Congress authorized U.S. aid to Israel to go support its presence in the West Bank. Yet in the 2014 Omnibus Spending Bill, this is exactly what happened with Western Sahara.
And, over at UN Watch, the fantastic organization which monitors and exposes UN hypocrisy, Hillel Neuer takes the French government to task for agreeing to cancel a human-rights monitoring mechanism in the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
Both authors make certain assumptions which may not be fully warranted. Western Sahara is less occupied than disputed. The Spanish had seized it in their own colonial scramble but, historically, Morocco has deep roots in the territory. Indeed, several Moroccan dynasties have roots in the region which is now in Western Sahara. Many Sahrawi are and always have been Moroccan, and many have never embraced the separatism that the authoritarian Polisario Front promotes. The dispute itself is more a relic of the Cold War, with both Cuba and Algeria sponsoring the Polisario and using it as a tool in the broader struggle against, respectively, world capitalism and the Western-leaning Morocco.
The policy of the United States is to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The idea that Western Sahara isn’t recognized as Moroccan is questionable. First, Morocco has given the territory autonomy. Second, only 45 states (and South Ossetia) recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which claims ownership of the territory.
And as for MINURSO, it is worth asking why anyone would want a UN organization dedicated to holding a referendum—and failing to do that for decades—to expand its mission into human-rights monitoring, especially given the inability of the UN to address human rights anywhere with credibility. MINURSO has become the North African equivalent of UNRWA—an organization that was created as a temporary mechanism to fulfill a specific mission in but which subsequently became a monster of politics. That France and the United States have decided not to enable MINURSO to be used as a weapon against Morocco, the most stable, moderate, and responsible state, is good news.
It is easy to lament how Israel is singled out for its occupation of disputed territory and point out the hypocrisy of the world not treating Morocco the same way. Indeed, there are additional parallels that neither Kontorovich nor Neuer consider. To punish Morocco, however, simply justifies the absurdity of so many Palestinian claims and the insanity which consideration of Israel brings to the international community. Indeed, when it comes to the international law surrounding the status of Western Sahara, it may be more productive, from the standpoint of American national security and positive precedents to be applied elsewhere in the Middle East, to consider Samuel J. Spector’s argument that “from a legal perspective, national self-determination does not necessarily offer a one-size-fits-all remedy, let alone a helpful framework, for the settlement of conflicting claims and grievances over disputed territories.”