MOROCCO’S EFFORT TO LEGITIMIZE ITS OCCUPATION OF WESTERN SAHARA by Carmen Johns*
Let it be said once more: expressing support for the Moroccan thesis is one thing. Official recognition of its claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara is very much another. Up to now, no country in the world has officially recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Not even France. Not even the US.
Western Sahara was the prize sought by late King Hassan II. It still is the goal today. Hassan had the genius PR idea to organize a “Green March” to take back the then Spanish colony, the size of New Zealand. The March set off within days of the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion of 1976, more on that later. The military invasion of the Territory was practically simultaneous. Morocco labels its conquest its “southern provinces”.
Today, the dispute – a cease-fire is in place – is practically unknown. Western Sahara is not a household word. The UN’s continued involvement and financial support of the UN peace-keeping mission concerned Western Sahara is not negligible.
There is no dearth of academic and legal papers on Western Sahara. One entitled “Keeping it secret”. But the world at large has been deliberately kept uninformed of the issue through this type of disinformation, which is the deliberate spreading of distortions and falsehoods to push an agenda.
The Kingdom of Morocco, in a press release published in recent days by the State-owned news agency MAP, referred to South Africa’s policy of support to Western Sahara’s cause. It also made three statements, which deserve clarification for a proper rebuttal.
First, Morocco claimed again that its occupation of Western Sahara is not, in fact, an occupation. As should be obvious, Morocco’s violent 1975 invasion and its oppressive, continuous military presence in the Territory and lustful exploitation of its resources could constitute a textbook definition of the term “occupation”.
Secondly, Morocco refers to the “terra nullius” question asked of the International Court of Justice’s 1976, contained in its advisory opinion on Western Sahara. It is cited by MAP as supporting the Kingdom’s decades-long claims of sovereignty. Yet the ICJ’s conclusion in no way favors Moroccan claims. The Court recognized that the Territory was inhabited by peoples which, if nomadic, were socially and politically organized in tribes and under chiefs competent to represent them. In other words, at the time of Spanish colonization, the Territory was not terra nullius. More importantly, the Kingdom again willfully ignores the ICJ’s substantial conclusion when it says, unambiguously, that Morocco “cannot claim territorial sovereignty” over Western Sahara. It’s worse: Morocco has always proclaimed that the ICJ verdict was favorable to their thesis.
Thirdly: Morocco insists the conflict is entirely regional. It is not. But a resolution favorable to the Kingdom would have regional consequences: if Morocco legally incorporates Western Sahara, its geographical size would come close to doubling. That’s regional impact, at least.
The Kingdom’s PR machinery has been flawless, if managed through disinformation and misleading statements. After stating that the ICJ favored their position, Morocco studiously ignored it for at least a decade. This latest press release goes in another direction: the legalistic bluff.
International law states that the people of Western Sahara have a right to vote in a referendum on self determination. The UN supports the Frente POLISARIO as representative of the Saharawi people (the acronym refers to the two geographical parts, north and south, that compose the Territory). Morocco’s record on its human rights violations is compounded by the fact that it was used by the US as a rendition during the period after September 11, 2001 in “black sites” such as Temara detention center outside the capital Rabat. It’s still hard to believe that a lusty and grab of a territory the size of New Zealand in the final quarter of the twentieth century would drift slowly into oblivion.
The case of Western Sahara is closely entwined to international principles. It should not become a symbol of the failure of international law.
Former political officer, United Nations
Independent consultant on Western Sahara