Just when U.S.-Moroccan relations couldn’t get any closer thanks to an ongoing strategic dialogue to deepen the relationship, they were torn asunder. The rift was brought about by reports that Washington is pushing the United Nations Security Council to include what Morocco perceives as a devastating mandate to “monitor” human rights in the Western Sahara, a disputed territory governed by Morocco.
The Western Sahara dispute dates back to the Cold War, when Morocco sided with the West against the Soviet Union. This strategic choice created domestic Marxist adversaries of the state, some of whom—with Soviet, Algerian and Libyan backing—went on to create a secessionist guerilla group called the Polisario and declare war on Morocco. The country fought back and eventually succeeded in securing most of its borders before the United Nations created the Minurso mission to observe the ceasefire.
The UN mission has so far consisted of ensuring that the parties stick to the peace plan and implement a referendum on the status of the territory. Unfortunately, the poll was never implemented because of irreconcilable disagreements over who was eligible to vote. To avoid the status quo and prevent the problem from festering, Morocco moved forward and in 2007 proposed the alternative solution of autonomy for the Sahara, which would grant self-governance to the territory and would guarantee cultural, political and economic rights of the local population.
As Morocco made more and more concessions, the Polisario under the leadership of Mohamed Abdelaziz, the man who has led the group for more than 37 years, has clung to the same views it held 37 years ago.
In these uncertain times, with a fast-changing strategic and political landscape in the Middle East and North Africa, and persistent threats of terrorism, Morocco has stood as a fortress again extremism and anti-Americanism. It has withstood the violence and tremors of political instability emanating from the rest of the region. The country has done so not by ignoring the need for change, but precisely by embracing the most fundamental principles of human rights and democracy—moving forward on every aspect of human development.
There is not a dimension in which Morocco has not improved in the last ten years: participatory democracy, fighting corruption, advancing the cause of women, enshrining the rights of all the different religious and ethnic groups, opening the economy for young entrepreneurs, improving infrastructure, and protecting the environment by being a world leader in renewable energy. Yet Moroccans are not congratulating themselves. Everyone in Morocco feels that this is not enough and that more needs to be done. King, government and civil society are working tirelessly everyday to accomplish this.
I have returned to Morocco after almost two decades because I believe that the country is moving on on the right track. The changes for me are not just theoretical, they are palpable as I navigate the new business climate in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city and interact with civil society through a foundation that runs community and participatory development projects across the Kingdom, including in the Sahara.
If Morocco is making all of these changes, why should anyone here worry about human-rights monitoring? The innocuous-sounding UN human-rights monitor will dangerously politicize human rights, making them a tool in the hands of Polisario and its supporters. These secessionists will use the UN process to taunt police and other residents, create havoc, stoke ethnic tensions and multiply violent incidents such as the one in which they hacked eleven Moroccan soldiers to death in 2010.
This does not mean there are no violations of human rights in Morocco or instances of police abuse. There are and they should be promptly dealt with and widely reported. And they often are publicized by the increasingly outspoken Moroccan press, the Moroccan human-rights monitoring watchdog, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and many other NGOs and government agencies.
The United States should have taken a more active role in resolving the Western Sahara stalemate—not by seeking to tie the hands of its invaluable ally in the region, but by supporting a clear, realistic political solution to the conflict. Both sides need to negotiate the details of the only sensible way forward: autonomy for the Western Sahara within Moroccan sovereignty.
Politicizing human rights as Susan Rice and John Kerry seem to have opted to do only will weaken a rare example in the region of a country that has chosen the path of authentic, gradual, relentless and unmistakable progress. Doing so in regular times is perplexing enough, but to do so at an unstable time, when the international coalition is still fighting Al Qaeda remnants in Mali and the Sahel, calls into question the wisdom of the administration’s foreign policy toward the whole region—and shows that it is haphazard rather than strategic and coordinated. It shows friends and adversaries that the United States does not differentiate between these groups and will indeed go against the fundamental interests of its friends for no apparent reason.
If this policy departure is part of a pursuit of lofty ideals, it is misguided and will certainly backfire. Already Rabat has canceled a joint military exercise between the United States and Morocco, which would have involved thousands of troops on both sides. Before relations get any cooler it is time for both sides to get back to dialogue and present a unified front against terrorism and secessionism in the Sahara and beyond.
Talal Belrhiti, a former political consultant in Washington DC, is a business executive based in Casablanca, Morocco.
Image: Flickr/Magharebia. CC BY 2.0.