Western Sahara makes NYT op-ed page —but not Sahrawi perspective

Frederick Vreeland, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asia affairs and former US ambassador to Morocco, has an op-ed in the March 3 New York Times on the usually obscure crisis in Western Sahara, optimistically entitled “Will Freedom Bloom in the Desert?” Its nice to see the “newspaper of record” finally paying some note to the long struggle in Africa’s last colony, but the paucity of coverage makes it all the more frustrating that this lead op-ed is a piece of dishonest propaganda for Morocco’s pseudo-solution of an “autonomy” plan, which Vreeland writes “it behooves all members of the United Nations Security Council to support.”

Nowhere does Vreeland mention that UN resolutions have repeatedly called for a referendum on independence for Western Sahara—a solution still demanded by the Polisario Front resistance movement, which has observed a ceasefire since 1991. This rather relevant point seems consigned to Orwell’s Memory Hole as Morocco seeks to build international consensus for its annexation of the territory. In lesser but still significant distortions, Vreeland writes that Western Sahara as “deep roots” in Moroccan history—neglecting to inform the reader that the World Court has ruled that Morocco has no legitimate claim there. He writes that Algeria “helped create” the Polisario Front—actually, it is an indigenous movement which existed for years before Algeria, for its own reasons, began loaning support. He implies, on no evidence, that the Polisario-run refugee camps across the Algerian border have become a recruitment ground for al-Qaeda, and states that an independent Western Sahara would “likely” be “terrorist-controlled.” He does not note that the Polisario Front is avowedly secular, and that its Sahrawi Republic is recognized by the African Union. He accuses Polisario of cynically “holding on to the refugees” as “their strategy for ‘governing’ these people,” and claims Morocco has an “open door” policy towards the refugees. He does not note that Polisario recently freed hundreds of Moroccan prisoners of war held at the camps since the 1970s, while Morocco remains unaccountable on the status of hundreds of “disappeared” from the occupied territory. It will be interesting to watch the Times letters page in the days to come to see if there is a response from Polisario leaders or other voices for Sahrawi independence.

Meanwhile, WW4 REPORT has received a letter in response to our earlier coverage of Western Sahara which sheds further light on the dilemmas raised by the “autonomy” plan:

Dear friends at WW4 Report,

First I’d like to congratulate you on your efforts – I have seen you latest request for support and will make a donation!

I’ve been reading your coverage of Western Sahara with interest, as I run a scientific research project in the Polisario-controlled zone or “Free Zone” (see http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/~e118/WS/wsahara.htm).

One issue that is systematically neglected in the coverage of Morocco’s “autonomy” plan is the fate of the Free Zone under any such plan. This isn’t meant as a criticism of your coverage, which does address Polisari activity in the Free Zone, but as an observation about coverage of Western Sahara in general.

The autonomy plan, which Morocco is touting around various capitals with apparently positive results (as far as Morocco is concerned), is effectively a way of persuading the international community to accept the occupation and annexation of Western Sahara. Most people seem to assume that Morocco occupies the whole territory. A major question is, what would happen to the Free Zone in the event of Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara being accepted as a result of its autonomy plan? There seem to be four plausible scenarios, none of which are particularly hopeful.

Accepting the Moroccan position that Western Sahara is a part of Morocco is likely to lead to one of the following outcomes, all of which have severe security implications:

1. Morocco consolidates its occupation of existing territory but does not attempt to occupy the Free Zone, which remains under Polisario control, essentially becoming a de facto Sahrawi state. An uneasy peace continues as Algeria exerts pressure on the Polisario to avoid conflict with Morocco, but continues to support them as part of its ongoing political conflict with Morocco.

2. Morocco consolidates its occupation but does not enter the Free Zone. However, under pressure from the exiled Sahrawi population the Polisario declares war against Morocco, once it is apparent that they have nothing to lose, the international community having washed its hands of the issue. The scale and consequences of the ensuing conflict depend largely on the position of Algeria.

3. Morocco immediately attempts to occupy the Free Zone to extend its control over the entire territory of Western Sahara and in order to remove a potential future threat from a Polisario-controlled Free Zone. The Polisario resist, and the conflict drags in Algeria, and possibly Mauritania. (The Moroccan wall which separates the occupied territories from the Free Zone has already annexed a small area of Mauritanian territory. This is not shown on any maps – perhaps to avoid embarrassment to Mauritania – but is apparent on the ground and visible on satellite imagery.)

4. With the help of the West, Morocco makes a deal with Algeria in which Algeria agrees to restrain the Polisario from restarting the conflict as Morocco completes its occupation. A best case outcome under this scenario would be the dispersal of the exiled Sahrawi population in Algeria, Mauritania and other countries (including the EU and countries such as the UK). A worst case outcome would be that the Sahrawi in the camps resist and are expelled or exterminated by the Algerian security forces. With nothing to lose, the Sahrawi, who have to date been vehemently against terrorism in support of their cause, might change this position Eschewing terrorism has certainly not helped them regain their homeland.

It appears that ignorance of the political and geographical reality of the conflict in in Western Sahara, on the part of western politicians, could well lead to renewed conflict in the region, and at worse to genocide of the Sahrawi people. Presumably the Moroccan authorities have considered the implications of their autonomy plan as far as the Free Zone is concerned, and are not discussing this issue with those whose help they hope to secure for their grand plan for the region.

A further sign of increasing covert Western support for Morocco’s occupation is the reduction in the estimate of people at risk from food shortages in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria by the World Food Programme. With somewhere between 165,000 and 200,000 people in the camps, and all of them relying on food aid, the WFP recently reduced its estimate of the population “of concern” to 80,000. A senior manager from an international aid agency told me in November 2006 that they believed this represented a deliberate attempt by the major donors to the WFP to starve the Sahrawi into accepting Moroccan control over Western Sahara. Without food aid the population of the camps cannot be supported. The alternatives to life in the camps are dispersal of the refugee population (mostly in Algeria and possibly Mauritania, as well as among the growing Sahrawi diaspora), or a return to live under Moroccan sovereignty in an occupied Western Sahara, the annexation of which has been normalised as far as the international community is concerned.

There are some posts about the above issues on my blog (http://nickbrooks.wordpress.com/)… In any case feel free to check out the above and use any material in future articles.

All the best


Dr Nick Brooks
Visiting Research Fellow
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
School of Environmental Sciences
University of East Anglia
Norwich NR4 7TJ

Director, Western Sahara Project:

See our last posts on Morocco and Western Sahara.

  1. Unpublished letter
    Anthony G. Pazzanita, author of the Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara, sent the following letter (dated March 5) to the Times, which, of course, the “newspaper of record” has seen fit not to print:

    To the Editor:

    Ambassador Frederick Vreeland’s treatment of the situation in the Western Sahara dispute in North Africa (“Will Freedom Bloom in the Desert?”, Op-Ed, March 3), is a biased, mendacious, and factually incorrect article that runs a serious risk of misleading those readers who are not familiar with this long military and political conflict. Indeed, the errors of fact and interpretation he makes are so numerous that it is difficult to know where to begin in correcting his narrative.

    Mr. Vreeland states that in “around” 1976 (actually, in November 1975), “thousands of unarmed Moroccans streamed into the Western Sahara and effectively reclaimed it for their homeland.” But this so-called Green March, which was tightly controlled by then King Hassan II and which penetrated only a couple of miles into the territory, was only a smokescreen for a massive simultaneous invasion of Western Sahara by the Moroccan army. Ignoring a decison by the International Court of Justice that the people of the territory were fully entitled to exercise their right to self-determination despite the limited ties which existed in antiquity between Moroccans and Western Saharans, Morocco ruthlessly occupied the contested land, subjecting many fleeing Saharawi refugees to aerial attacks by United States-supplied aircraft, and forcing them into Algeria, the only country willing to accord them refuge.

    In the years since, Morocco has not altered its Western Sahara policy one iota. Few Saharawis, even if allowed full freedom of movement by the Polisario Front, are fooled by Morocco’s “open door” to refugees; rather, the Moroccan state is highly centralized and repressive, something which was not addressed by either the Saharan autonomy proposal or King Mohammed VI’s human rights commission. Protests against the Moroccan occupation have occured at frequent intervals since at least 1999 in areas under government control (in other words, far from Polisario’s zone of influence), and the king’s autonomy proposal, whatever its character, should be sen against the backdrop of Morocco’s refusal to allow a genuine vote of self-determination during the 1990’s as mandated by the United Nations Security Council, and its later categorical rejection of another limited autonomy plan –which included a supervised up-or-down independence vote — presented in 2003 by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

    Mr. Vreeland’s attempt to conflate Polisario’s campaign for Western Saharan independence with al-Qaeda’s activities in North Africa is particularly shameful and devoid of supporting evidence. Neither I nor any other serious commentator, to my knowledge, has ever seen so much as a scintilla of proof that any of the Saharawi refugees living under the Polisario Front’s jurisdiction in Algeria have succumbed to the blandishments of “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (formerly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known by its French acronym, GSPC).

    Instead of concocting a Qaeda-Polisario connection out of thin air and calling Morocco a “modernizing, moderate Islamic country” and a “strategic ally” of America, Mr. Vreeland should instead consider the fact that decades of political exclusion and a sclerotic economy have driven many Moroccans to express their dissatisfaction with their government, and impelled a small desperate minority to plan and carry out acts of terrorism, including the Casablanca nightclub and Madrid railway bombings, both perpetrated mainly by Moroccans. He might also realize that indepedence for Western Sahara is already consdered a viable option by a fair slice of the international community. Since 1976, over 80 countries have formally recognized the Polisario Front’s government-in-exile (with South Africa, Kenya, Haiti and Uruguay extending recognition just since 2004), and it enjoys full membership in the African Union.

    The people of Western Sahara, who are correctly described in the article as living in very poor circumstances, need the opportunity to express their wishes without outside interference or Morocco’s fiat, with a strong international peacekeeping presence to ensure their safety. This, and not a chimerical autonomy proposal existing only at the whim of an unreformed Moroccan monarchy, offers the best chance to bring genuine peace and stability to Western Sahara and help immunize the region from Islamist influcence. Surely, it is not too much to ask Mr. Vreeland, with his 40 years of diplomatic experience, to grasp this essential truth and advocate this fruitful course of action.

    (signed) Anthony G. Pazzanita

    Pazzanita also writes (April 10):

    As of today, the Times did not publish any letters on the Vreeland Op-Ed, but on March 22 (at page A-27), it did print an editor’s note stating that Vreeland “is also the chairman of a solar-energy company that has had contracts with the Moroccan government.”

  2. Editor’s Note
    On March 22, the Times carried the following “Editor’s Note”:

    An Op-Ed article on March 3, about Morocco’s proposal for an autonomous Western Sahara, should have more fully disclosed the background of the author, Frederick Vreeland. Mr. Vreeland, a former American ambassador to Morocco, is also the chairman of a solar-energy company that has contracts with the Moroccan government.