Monday, April 16, 2007

The Washington Times’ Onedownsmanship on the Western Sahara

It seems that just when you start thinking that media coverage of the Western Sahara crisis can’t get any worse, an article comes along that sets a new standard for dishonesty.

A few weeks ago, a stunningly blatant piece of Moroccan propaganda from the pen of former US ambassador to Morocco, Frederick Vreeland, appeared as an editorial in the New York Times. Vreeland’s piece in support of Morocco’s stillborn autonomy plan certainly raised eyebrows among those who know a thing or two about the issue. It took only a few days for the Times to discover that a company of which Vreeland is chairman had Moroccan government contracts and that he was certainly not some disinterested analyst of the situation. Vreeland was quickly and emphatically discredited.

That fiasco was just starting to recede from memory when last Friday (April 13) the Washington Times (WT), in a rather incredible case of onedownsmanship, came out with an editorial titled “A Solution in the Western Sahara.” I think it is fair to say that this bit of editorial nonsense, also in support of Morocco’s autonomy plan, breaks new ground for Moroccan propaganda.

Truly the WT comes out with stuff that would make even Frederick Vreeland blush. Take the opening sentence: “On Wednesday, the Moroccan government presented the United Nations with a framework for autonomy for the Western Sahara region, taking the first step, which the United Nations has called for repeatedly, toward a political dialogue with its longtime adversary, the Polisario Front.” What is it, let us think, that the UN has been calling for repeatedly. Well if I recollect the UN has for over thirty years repeatedly called for a referendum on independence in the Western Sahara. There has been plenty of political dialogue already between the parties in the 1990’s before, during, and after the 1991 cease-fire agreement, and Morocco has already broken all the agreements resulting from this dialogue. And while the UN recently has indeed been calling for a renewal of talks, it has been careful not to endorse the autonomy plan which is clearly not consistent with international law regarding self-determination. It is just somewhat hard to comprehend how the autonomy proposal is “a first step…toward a political dialogue” when the other party, the Polisario Front, has already categorically refused to join the dialogue and so far the UN refuses to endorse the idea.

It gets even worse. Two paragraphs down from this opening volley we learn that “The terms of the 1991 cease-fire agreement were not fully met until August 2005, when the Polisario, under pressure from the international community -- particularly the United Nations and the United States -- finally released the last 404 Moroccan prisoners of war.” I’m still trying to figure out what this means. Wasn’t the MAIN “term” of the cease-fire agreement the holding of a referendum on independence? Since the last I looked Morocco unilaterally cancelled the referendum process and refuses to discuss it further, it is hard to understand how all the terms of the cease-fire agreement were met in August 2005.

And then we learn, “The heinous conditions the POWs faced, including barbaric torture and forced labor, was a human face on the political struggle, and revealed the true nature of the Polisario Front, which had long portrayed itself as victim.” While the extent of torture and forced labor at the hands of the Polisario is a matter of continuing discussion and debate, there is no doubt about the extent of Moroccan torture and forced labor, not to mention disappearances and murder. Don’t take my word for it. Check out the results of Morocco’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission and any number of Human rights Watch and Amnesty International reports. The true nature of Morocco stares us in the face, and the Washington Times wants to turn the Western Saharans over to these monsters.

Unbelievably, the editorial continues downhill: “Allowing the Sahrawi people to vote on a referendum seems like a simple enough solution, but the Polisario's insistence on restricting the voter lists locked that process into more than six years of effectively fruitless discussion.” Pinning the blame for the scuttling of the referendum on the Polisario just doesn’t stand up to any kind of honest scrutiny. Certainly, the Polisario would have preferred the narrowest possible voter list based on the old Spanish census, which would have unquestionably led to an overwhelming vote for independence; but they compromised several times on this in the hope that it would lead to a vote. The Polisario’s eventual acceptance of the Baker II plan which would have allowed most of the illegal Moroccan settlers (who outnumber the Western Saharans some two or three to one) to vote doesn’t sound to me like “insistence on restricting the voter list.” In fact, it was Morocco’s insistence on EXPANDING the voter list to include many Moroccans with no history of living in the territory that killed the process. And, of course, Morocco’s true colors were revealed when they rejected Baker II. No matter how broad a voter list was forced down the throats of the Polisario, Morocco was just not going to allow a referendum on independence.

The WT continues: “The Moroccan initiative is the first, and to date the only, proposed framework for a political solution to come from either side, and from it the two sides can craft a final agreement.” First of all, we must not forget that back in the 1990s Morocco and the Polisario already agreed on a “framework for a political solution” with the cease-fire agreement and then the Houston Accords. And then the Times conveniently ignores the fact that one day before Morocco brought its autonomy plan to the UN, the Polisario released its own plan -- for holding a referendum and with a special relationship with Morocco should the vote be for independence. Morocco’s initiative is hardly the first and only proposed framework for a political solution.

And the WT goes on: “It preserves Moroccan sovereignty, but gives the Western Sahara sufficient autonomy to become effectively self-governing.” Must I repeat for the umpteenth time that no country on earth, nor the UN, recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, and the International Court of Justice has ruled that Morocco doesn’t and never did have sovereignty. According to international law “sufficient autonomy” just doesn’t cut it.

And on: “The autonomous region would, for instance, have a local legislature that would, in turn, elect an executive, who would be invested by the king.” Yes, “invested by the king,” who was never elected by anyone and can unilaterally dismiss his own Moroccan legislature and cabinet. Some autonomy that would be.

And on: “Resolving this issue is also necessary for the entire Maghreb region to move forward economically.” Oh so true, even though it is not immediately apparent why forcing autonomy down the throats of the Western Saharans is a better way to resolve the issue than to say hold a referendum and allow an independent Western Sahara if they so choose.

And on: “Inasmuch as poverty and dire economic circumstances fuel the recruitment of terrorists, two incidents this week -- one an attack in Algiers claimed by a group that now calls itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the other a standoff in Casablanca that ended after three suicide bombers blew themselves up and a fourth was killed by police -- testify to the importance of helping the region.” Again, it seems to me that this is more an argument for holding a referendum on independence than on forcing autonomy on the Western Saharans. Inasmuch as poverty and dire economic circumstances fuel the recruitment of terrorists, giving the Western Sahara its independence and relieving Morocco of the huge financial burden of a highly unpopular military occupation, would go a long way towards improving Morocco’s dire economic circumstances.

The WT begins its conclusion: “The Polisario now needs to reciprocate the Moroccan government's move to the negotiating table.” The Polisario needs to do nothing of the sort. For over thirty years the UN and the world community have been assuring the Western Saharans that they have the right to self-determination (which includes independence) through a referendum. Why should the Polisario engage with Morocco on a plan that defies the UN and international law, and terminates a just struggle on the aggressor’s terms? The WT somehow condemns the Polisario for “continu[ing] to demand a referendum” as though that is what is perpetuating the misery in the region. Hey, come on now – the UN demands a referendum, James Baker wanted a referendum, most of the world is for a referendum, even John Bolton was pro-referendum. Why not just force Morocco to hold a referendum? The WT similarly condemns the Polisario for its threats of “renewed violence.” It seems to me that once the centerpiece of the cease-fire agreement, the holding of a referendum on independence, was taken off the table by Morocco, Rabat was asking for a return to violence. If Rabat tries to unilaterally impose annexation or autonomy without a referendum that includes independence that would be tantamount to a declaration of war.

And finally the editorial ends: “A firm line is required. The United States can make clear to the Polisario that if it cares for the Sahrawi people, it needs to begin serious negotiations.” NO NO NO NO. Negotiations? There is no longer anything left to negotiate here. The US must make clear to Rabat that it just cannot continue defying the UN and international law, and that it must hold a referendum.


  1. nice to see you're back posting.

  2. Hi Alle,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Will has been shaming us all with his daily postings, so I thought I'd better get myself back in gear.

    All the best,


  3. Darn right I have been! Glad to see you're back.

    As long as we're talking about shaming people into posting, Alle deserves some credit for putting my feet to the fire.

    Anyway, about the editorial--freaking Washington Times is always backing up Morocco. First they were the only paper that cared about the POWs, then they actually the children to Cuba story. But what can you expect from Sun Myung Moon's fanzine?