Friday, April 13, 2007

What wall? What occupation?

It's time to stop Morocco's prevarication over Western Sahara.

Ian Williams

It's not double standards, it's no standards at all. The world has let scoff-law Morocco ride roughshod over international law and the UN Charter. It helps to have friends!

Their territory split by a huge wall built at enormous expense, an occupied Arab population suffers under police raids and arbitrary imprisonment while the occupiers try to swamp the territories with settlers from their own population. In response, the locals are beginning an intifada, but face a much larger, better-equipped military force, the beneficiary of substantial overseas aid. Refugees living in camps are refused the right to return to their homes.

Despite clear decisions of the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council, the occupiers hedge whenever it comes down to the question of a peace settlement that grants independence even when American emissaries try to nudge them towards serious talks.

Welcome to Western Sahara, the occupation that admittedly has lasted only three decades compared with Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but which has excited much less media interest.

This week, the issue came back to what passes for the fore in this forgotten conflict, when the Polisario, on behalf of the Sahwaris and the Kingdom of Morocco both submitted their plans for the resolution of the problem.

The Moroccan one is superficially attractive after all these decades, offering Scottish-style devolution. But their track record on keeping promises is far from stellar. Over 15 years ago, Morocco accepted a peace deal that involved the referendum on self-determination. The cash-strapped UN has spent hundreds of millions on keeping a force there to monitor the cease-fire and arrange a vote. But as soon as it became clear that Morocco would lose any vote that involved independence, the king and his father before him, gave prevarication a bad name. They tried to stack the voters' rolls, and when that failed, simply refused to allow a vote that asked the question.

Morocco's human rights record leaves much to be desired, as indeed did Polisario's in the old days. But the Moroccan reticence about allowing a vote is eloquent testimony to the government's assessment of the popular mood.

What is the secret of Morocco's success? In essence, it is choosing friends carefully.

Morocco claims Arab solidarity - and is one of the best friends of Israel in the Arab World. Immediately after the Moroccans occupied the territory despite the ICJ ruling that rubbished its territorial claims, the UN security council passed resolutions 379 and 380, which explicitly and unconditionally called on Morocco to withdraw. However, the French and Americans blocked the enforcing of these resolutions. According to then-US ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

While the US's anti-communist fervour has died down - with communism - France has remained an important and unprincipled supporter of the king. Despite all that Cartesian rhetoric with which it opposed the invasion of Iraq, over the Sahara it has a novel and disturbing principle: the security council cannot impose its decisions on parties if they disagree.

France has claimed there was a tradition of using consensus on Western Sahara, which was a bit like the apocryphal prisoner who had killed his parents and then asked for the court's sympathy because he was an orphan. Any such "tradition" developed in response to constant French and American attempts to railroad a pro-Moroccan position past the other security council members in defiance of all previous decisions.

Britain's attitude seems to be that it does not have a dog in the fight, so it is prepared to go along with the Americans and the French. But the standing of international law, the UN charter and principles are surely a dog worth backing in any foreign policy with - in Robin Cook's words - "an ethical dimension". In the end, the illegal Indonesia occupation of East Timor succumbed to the persistent refusal of the world to recognise it.

Polisario has made a very reasonable offer, which is in complete accordance with UN resolutions and international law. It could also offer, instead of a Scottish style solution with the Moroccan army and secret police still in occupation - a Canadian style solution. We will put King Mohammed on our coins and welcome an occasional royal visit - but nothing more.

But in any case, the UK, the EU, and the UN, should stop accommodating Morocco and France and step up the pressure on Rabat. It's the law.

Born in Liverpool, Ian Williams graduated from Liverpool University despite several years’ suspension for protests against its investments in South Africa. Consequently, his variegated career path included a drinking competition with Chou En Lai and an argument about English literature with Mme Mao at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. He has been living in New York since 1989.

He has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, ranging from the Australian, to The Independent, from the ew York Observer and the Village Voice to the Nation and the New Statesman and Newsday, to the Financial Times and the Guardian. His byline has been in the Baptist Times, Penthouse, and Hustler.

He has also “pundited” on BBC, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, CBC and innumerable radio stations, for example appearing on “Hard Ball,” “the O’Reilly Factor,” etc on Fox, where he plays the liberal lion thrown to the Christian Right.

His first book was The Alms Trade, a study of the role of charities in Britain and the second was The UN For Beginners. Deserter: was published by Nation Books July 2004 and his latest is Rum: A Social & Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776. He is currently writing a book on the Americans who blame the UN for all the US's ills.

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