In November 2020, the “peaceful war” between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front shifted into hostile military confrontation. The situation was worsened by a series of then US President Donald Trump’s tweets on 10 December 2020 that undid three decades of negotiations, resolutions, political activism and court judgments which, it had been hoped, would culminate into a just, permanent and peaceful solution for the Sahrawis. Trump’s tweets have caused havoc among many actors for various reasons. For the Sahrawis, they have cost them their homeland. For current US President Joe Biden’s administration, they have set a political snare and, for the Maghreb and Africa as a whole, they have set the clock on a time bomb that could explode at any second.
However, the tweets have also had some positive impacts. They have guided the world’s attention back to the Western Sahara question, reminding everyone that this state is Africa’s last colony. The tweets have reminded the United Nations that it has not completed its mandate to decolonise all states as set out in its Declaration for Human Rights, to which the United States is the signatory holding the boldest pen. For South Africa, the tweets have highlighted the country’s need to re-establish itself as the champion of human rights it was under the Nelson Mandela administration. This is an opportunity for South Africa to regain the trust and respect of its African counterparts, and even be rewarded with the continental hegemony it has been competing for with Morocco and Nigeria.
This report seeks to achieve the following:
highlight the protracted struggle of the Sahrawi people for self-determination and the urgent need for South Africa to vigilantly advance their cause at the African Union and United Nations Security Council levels;
alert relevant political actors that the fulfilment of the promised referendum is imperative before a deadly armed conflict explodes between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan military; this eruption will certainly metastasize into a regional conflict involving Algeria and Israel;
expose the unholy US (Trump), Moroccan and Israeli alliance as a project of imperialism and colonial expansionism which are illegal under international law;
call for an end to the Moroccan-imposed embargo on media and humanitarian assistance in order to curb the spread of Covid-19 and empower the Sahrawi people through their re-integration into the global trade system. This can only be achieved by a collective international consensus that recognises the SADR as a free, independent and sovereign state;
hold the African Union and Arab League accountable for their lack of political will to ensure the completion of the decolonisation process of Africa and the Maghreb; and their lack of investment of military and financial resources for the purposes peacebuilding and peacekeeping efforts in Western Sahara, thereby leaving a vacuum that will be filled by Israel and further exposing already fragile Afro-Arab states to Western interventionism, destabilisation and exploitation.
This report was originally written on 30 September 2020 during the twilight of the Trump administration and at a time when South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was the Chairperson of the African Union (AU). Both statesmen have vacated their above-mentioned respective positions - Trump has been replaced by Joe Biden as US President and Ramaphosa dismounted the AU chair, which is now occupied by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) President Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo. The report’s initial aim was to establish whether or not a long-standing and consistent member of the AU - South Africa – and a newly re-instituted proverbial prodigal son of the AU – Morocco – were using Sahrawi territory as a playing field for political posturing to fulfill their goal: to ensconce each one’s economic and political hegemony on the African continent. The Covid-19 global pandemic naturally presented itself as the context within which this piece was constructed because the epidemic and its adverse repercussions augmented the harsh reality of life under occupation and the urgency with which the international community must rally against statelessness.
However, as the fluidity of foreign policy and obstinacy of realpolitik prevailed, the report has also had to change to incorporate current shifts in the global political environment. The aim of the report, therefore, could no longer remain the same. The report now explicitly addresses a more urgent matter than political posturing: the human rights of the Sahrawi people and South Africa’s role in ensuring their protection in its capacity as Mandela’s beacon of human rights.
The objectives of the report have also expanded and diversified. This report’s primary, secondary and tertiary objectives were encapsulated under the following sub-headings: 1) The Covid Contextual Background: The Situation for Sahrawi Refugees; 2) War of Words on World Stages and 3) The Sahrawi Question: Is there hope for Self-Determination in Africa’s Last Colony? Additional quaternary and quinary objectives have been necessitated by developments since the fractious Trump tweets that erased three decades of collective diplomatic efforts by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Courts of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), AU, Arab League, International Court of Justice (ICJ) and humanitarian organisations.
The Covid Contextual Background: The Situation for Sahrawi Refugees
“He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker.”
In an ideal world, suffering or hardships in the form of plagues, war or natural disasters ought to be ‘great equalisers’. They should appeal to politicians’ humanity and inspire them to reconsider poor decisions they made which adversely affected others. This is the silver lining that was hoped for in the dark cloud of the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, the behaviour of states (especially those which enjoy socio-economic and political power over others) has either not changed or has worsened. The realist perspective in International Relations and Foreign Policy asserts that all states operate from a point of self-interest. This is particularly an accurate analysis of Morocco’s aggressive political action and humanitarian inaction towards the Sahrawi people.
The global Covid-19 pandemic has had far-reaching consequences for all nations. Where developed countries have been greatly inconvenienced, developing countries have regressed even further. For stateless people, however, the epidemic has compounded their vulnerability, isolation and halted their pursuits for statehood as well as prolonged their struggle by possibly as long as another generation. The Sahrawi refugees living in the five camps (Wilayas-settlements) - Laayoune, Awserd, Smara, Dakhla and Boujdour, which are located between 10 and 180 km from Tindouf province in the south-western region of Algeria, have experienced major socio-economic setbacks due to necessitated Covid lockdowns. A report by the World Food Programme confirms this by stating: “The current global public health emergency has exacerbated an already difficult situation for a population that has been living under harsh conditions in the Sahara Desert for the past 45 years and is dependent on external humanitarian assistance”.
The prioritisation of life over all else necessitated an unprecedented imposition of lockdowns across all five wilayas since mid-March 2020. The lockdown has exacerbated their already dire situation. Sahrawi refugees have lost jobs and alternative sources of income, camp schools have shut down, their lack of water and sanitation infrastructure as well as sufficient health care systems pose major challenges to the protection of the approximately 200 000 people against the spread of the virus. Euronews journalist Yaiza Martin-Fradejas interviewed a Sahrawi doctor, Abdala Banani Saaid, who confirmed the shortage of protective gear with “just 600 pairs of gloves and 2000 masks…no health center is really ready…the national hospital does not have respiratory equipment”.
It is not only people who have suffered under Covid restrictions; the animals have also been affected. Livestock farming has long been an alternative source of income and supplemented basic food rations for the Sahrawi people. Russel Fraser and Yamina Djoudi reported for the UNHCR that: “A pulmonary epidemic affecting livestock has resulted in the death of over 1700 sheep and goats in the camps this year…Some families that lost their animals had received them only recently as part of a programme funded by the UNHRC, the UN Refugee Agency, targeting some of the most vulnerable refugees in the camps”.
South Africa has also sent humanitarian aid to Western Sahara and, in an official statement by its Department of International Relations and Cooperation, “called on the international community to support the efforts in the occupied territories and refugee camps, where the health care system is poor and medical supplies and equipment are limited”. This call was extended further to the “Kingdom of Morocco to fulfil its responsibility as the occupying power by ensuring the necessary access, and unhindered passage of humanitarian and medical supplies, to the territories it occupies”.
War of Words on World Stages
“If the judge is against you, you should withdraw the complaint”
Three decades of diplomatic efforts in the form of spoken and written words which were invested in resolving the Moroccan-Western Sahara dispute have been undone by one tweet from former US President Trump. The following statements underscore the disjuncture in theories of statehood, sovereignty and methods of conflict resolution between major stakeholders in the Moroccan-Western Saharan dispute. However, what is apparent is that the foreign policy overhaul expressed in Trump’s untimely tweets are in direct contravention of international law and a flagrant infringement upon Saharawi human rights.
Trump’s deal has made the United States the only Western country to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The relationship between the US and Morocco spans centuries, since 1777, when Morocco became one of the first countries to recognise the newly independent United States. Morocco formally recognised the United States by signing a treaty of peace and friendship in 1786, a document that remains the longest unbroken relationship in US history. Although recognition of sovereignty was never his to grant, Trump cited this as the basis for his parting gift to Morocco.
The Trump Tweets
“The United States recognises Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory and reaffirms its support for Morocco’s serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal as the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara territory.”
-Twitter, 10 December 2020
The United Nations General Assembly
5. Immediate steps shall be taken, in Trust and Non-Self Governing Territories or all other territories which have not yet attained independence, to transfer all powers to the peoples of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire, without any distinction as to race, creed or colour, in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.
7. All states shall observe faithfully and strictly the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the present Declaration on the basis of equality, non-interference in the internal affairs of all States, and respect for the sovereign rights of all peoples and their territorial integrity.”
-Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960
The United Nations General Assembly
“1. Reaffirms the inalienable right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination and independence, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, the charter of the Organisation of the African Union and the objectives of General Assembly resolution 1514(XV), and the legitimacy of their struggle to secure the enjoyment of that right as envisaged in the relevant resolutions of the United Nations and the Organisation of the African Union.”
-UNGA (Resolutions adopted on the reports of the Fourth Committee) at the Thirty Fourth Session 34/37 Question of Western Sahara, 75th Plenary Meeting, 21 November 1979
The International Court of Justice
“…the Court’s conclusion is that the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.”
-Summary of the Advisory Opinion on 16 October 1975
The Court of Justice of the European Union
“As the Court has previously held in its judgement of 21 December 2016, that concept itself refers to the geographical area over which the Kingdom of Morocco exercises its sovereign powers under international law, to the exclusion of any other territory, such as that of Western Sahara. In those circumstances, if the territory of Western Sahara were to be included within the scope of the Fisheries Agreement, that would be contrary to certain rules of general international law that are applicable in relations between the EU and Kingdom of Morocco, inter alia the principle of self-determination.”
“The Court therefore holds that, taking account of the fact that the territory of Western Sahara does not form part of the territory of the Kingdom of Morocco, the waters adjacent to the territory of Western Sahara are not part of the Morocco fishing zone referred to in the Fisheries Agreement.”
“The Court concludes that the Moroccan fishing zone under the Protocol does not include the waters adjacent to the territory of Western Sahara.”
-Excerpts from the Judgement in Case C-266/16, The Queen, on the application of Western Sahara Campaign UK v Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Press Release No 21/18, 27 February 2018
Trump’s declarations drew criticism not only from the aforementioned bodies but from the AU, European Union Court of Justice (EUCJ) and various human rights groups. Democrats and, unexpectedly, Republicans in the US Senate were also extremely displeased by Trump’s policy shift. Peter Fabricius in his Institute for Security Studies article reported: “Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a long-time champion of the rights of the Sahrawi people, called the decision ‘shocking and deeply disappointing’ adding that Trump could have made the deal between Morocco and Israel ‘without trading the rights of a voiceless people’.” In the same article, Fabricius added that “John Bolton, outspoken former US Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) under President George W Bush and also former national security adviser to Trump before they fell out spectacularly, agreed as he tweeted: ‘Trump was wrong to abandon thirty years of US policy on Western Sahara just to score a fast foreign policy victory’.”
There has been a clear, resounding disapproval from individuals and bodies who are usually polarised on matters of statehood involving the Middle East and Africa, but Trump disregarded these outcries. In such an instance, when a war of words is not sufficient to deter behaviour, stronger measures of dissuasion are in order. The best form, currently, would be an imposition of sanctions against Morocco and Israel. Unfortunately, the debate on sanctions has not gained momentum over the recycled and ineffective calls for Morocco and Western Sahara to return to the negotiation table to discuss the referendum that never materialised.
The Unholy Trinity: Morocco, The United States (of Trump) and Israel
“An agreement is a kind of debt”
The recently-concretised alliance between Morocco, the US and Israel poses multiple political crises not only for Morocco’s imagined existential threat – the Saharawi liberation struggle – but also for all the stakeholders in the war, including the Kingdom; the US as well as the de facto Israeli state. Morocco is the fourth Arab country to normalise relations with Israel in 2020 after the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Bahrain. This recognition of Israel by an Arab state, especially one of Morocco’s political stature in the Arab Maghreb and economic influence in Africa, was awarded to Israel in exchange for the US’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
It was previously understood that Morocco’s and Israel’s policies towards and treatment of Sahrawis and Palestinians were pre-requisites for the treatment they themselves would receive from their respective regions and the international community. Since the Dark Triad’s bold Machiavellian agreement of December 2020 and lack of much needed and concrete retaliatory measures such as sanctions by the UN, AU and Arab League, it would seem that the conditions of the Western Sahara and Palestinian questions no longer hold urgent significance in the international human rights discourse.
On 26 January 2021, Israel reopened its liaison office in the Moroccan capital of Rabat after over two decades of their relationship being destroyed following the second Palestinian Intifada. Moroccans on the ground bemoan the Kingdom’s alliance with Israel as a betrayal of the Palestinian struggle, with which they have stood in solidarity. It is important that Rabat does not underestimate People Power, especially in the era of the Arab Spring. Civilian dissent is capable of overthrowing governments and monarchs who abuse human rights, do not listen and adjust policy accordingly. In its cost-benefit analysis of normalising relations with Israel, Morocco may be convinced that it can only gain from US and Israeli arms trade deals and influence while maintaining control of its population, but it would be naïve of the Kingdom to find its domestic security and regional stability in US and Israeli arms.
In his dramatic and resistant exit from the White House, Trump left Biden with a problem he did not cause. President Biden has inherited the difficult task of quelling fires he never ignited. The Biden administration needs to return to the basic principles of human rights and self-determination which are the only yardstick by which civil societies throughout history have measured the humanity of powerful states. The Biden administration itself needs to reinvent the damaged image of the United States after the torrential Trump years and earn back its respectability on the global political stage.
The African Union also sees cause for concern in the relationship between Morocco and Israel. On 9 March 2021, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the African Union held a meeting to follow up on the implementation of Silencing the Guns of the 14th Extraordinary Summit. After a lengthy discussion was held on the agenda of the upheaval in the Western Sahara since the Trump tweets, the following general consensus were reached:
1. Notes with deep concern the resumption of military confrontation between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Sahrawi Republic, in violation of the ceasefire agreements, notably the Military Agreement number 1; and also notes with concern the worrying repercussions of this conflict on regional stability and the continent”.
The AU’s decision to limit its peacekeeping presence has left a vacuum in the Western Sahara which Morocco with the ready military assistance of Israel will fill in due course. This will give Israel the long-coveted and welcomed opportunity to expand its sphere of influence in the Maghreb region and beyond on the African geo-political and economic landscape. This kind of Israeli presence on African soil can only yield instability in already fragile Afro-Arab states plagued by protracted armed conflicts and severe levels of poverty.
The Sahrawi Question: Is there hope for Self-Determination in Africa’s Last Colony?
“Endurance pierces marble”
As long as states operate from a point of self-interest, hope will remain elusive. Failure to convince the Kingdom of Morocco that it is not in its best economic interest to continue its occupation of Western Sahara will necessitate pressure from the international community in the form of a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. This BDS drive will have to be spearheaded by South Africa at the UNSC in its capacity as a non-permanent member and legitimised by the United States, which holds the ultimate veto power at the UNSC. To date, South Africa remains the quintessential success story of the decision by the US to completely isolate the apartheid National Party-led government from the international community to force it into ending its racist and oppressive rule over the Black majority, the rightful owners of the land. This can be done again. It needs only a decision to be made by lucid and fair minds.
Sceptics who argue that this approach is idealistic at best and unattainable at worst will cite Israeli support for Morocco as well as its influence on the US as immovable barriers to BDS and isolation tactics. To a certain extent, such an argument carries significant weight; however, Israel was also a staunch supporter of apartheid South Africa but the latter government was still dissolved. This proves that when states rally behind a common cause even the unholiest of trinities can be dismantled. The call for South Africa to lead a BDS movement against Morocco is not new. It was raised in March 2017 at a meeting hosted by the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation attended by the Ambassadors of Western Sahara, Algeria, the Chairperson of Friends of Western Sahara and international law experts, where it was demanded that “South Africa should boycott Morocco through sanctions, to increase the pressure on that country”.
Julianna Katenga, member of the Pan African Parliament (PAP) from Rwanda, recommended that the PAP, as the legislative organ of the African Union, should “strengthen its advocacy of the plight of Western Sahara and that it should urge the AU, through its Peace and Security Council, to push member states to impose sanctions or use other forms of leverage to force Morocco to abide by the UN mandate that affirms the people of Western Sahara’s right to self-determination”.
Ouaddadi Cheikh Ahmed El-Haiba, PAP member from SADR, expressed that “the AU should take its own recommendations into practice. Despite the resolutions that have come through from the U.N., security councils and human rights bodies etc, each affirming the rights of the Sahrawi, Morocco is still not willing to accept any of them…If they are not sanctioned they will continue to act as they are doing in Western Sahara, because they feel they are supported by international powers.”
South African President Ramaphosa, in his September 2020 United Nations General Assembly address, said: “As we celebrate the founding of an organisation dedicated to freedom and equality, the people of Palestine and Western Sahara continue to live under occupation”. He continued: “We repeat our call for an end to the illegal occupation of Western Sahara and for the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.” “South Africa’s approach to the Western Sahara is guided by the position of the African Union, which has consistently supported the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, in line with the relevant AU and UN Security Council resolutions.” The Sahrawi people will not be able to withstand greater forms of oppression than what they already have from Morocco. It is time for South Africa to put action behind its words and the entire weight of its continental influence behind its actions for the freedom of Africa’s last colony.