Monday, November 16, 2009

RSF & Cartographic Genocide in the Western Sahara

For a number of years now, Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders) (RSF) has chosen to completely contradict its high ideals by writing the Western Sahara off its on-line maps and including the territory within Morocco. If you visit RSF.com, click on any of the countries on the drop-down menu under Middle East & North Africa (MENA), and scroll down to their MENA map you will find a Morocco that stretches from Gibraltar to Mauritania. The only hint of Western Sahara’s existence can be found if you click on Morocco itself to reveal a red-highlighted greater Morocco with a barely visible line depicting the border with the Western Sahara.
Weirdly, if you click on any of the other MENA countries, you will find the same MENA map but without the thin line in Morocco.

This is not a new problem. Alle at Western Sahara Info brought RSF’s inexplicable treatment of the Western Sahara to our attention in 2007, and way back in 2003 this tidbit about RSF’s mapping shenanigans appeared on the ARSO website:

Following a protest campaign, the "North Africa to Iran" office of Reporters without Borders (RSF - Reporters sans frontières) decided to withdraw a map of Morocco which included Western Sahara. This map which did not conform to international law figured in RSF publications relating to the campaign for Ali Lmrabet. The President of the Spanish office, said that she realised the map used expressed the expansionist claims of Morocco, but wanted to make clear that RSF did not campaign politically about it, as they were trying to save the life of the Moroccan journalist !!!


Before looking closer at RSF’s mapping problem, a quick review of the Western Sahara’s status is in order. Legally, the territory is categorized by the United Nations as a non-self-governing territory. Claims to sovereignty over the territory by Morocco and Mauritania were rejected by the International Court of Justice in 1975. Diplomatically, no country officially recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, even though a couple dozen mostly Arab League countries give lip service to Moroccan sovereignty. Close to 80 countries have at some point recognized the sovereignty of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), but current recognitions number around 40 if you believe that de-recognitions are acceptable. Another element in the diplomatic equation is the full membership of the SADR in the African Union. Militarily, Morocco has de facto control of around 75-80% of the land with the SADR controlling the rest.

On all three counts RSF’s map is totally inaccurate. International law and diplomatic recognition clearly reject any inclusion of the Western Sahara in Morocco; and any depiction of de facto occupation must show the division of the territory between Morocco and the SADR.

RSF’s complete offing of the Western Sahara raises serious issues.

RSF is no Moroccan-American Center for Policy, which clearly is paid by Morocco to lie about the Western Sahara. It is a well-respected human rights NGO that cares about international law and does consistently superb work in support of beleaguered journalists around the world. Furthermore, it has been very forceful in its condemnation of Moroccan press freedom abuses. Why then would they choose to ignore international law and use a map that is rejected by just about everybody except Morocco and its agents?

Then there is the question of consistency and double-standards. RSF on its MENA map unambiguously gives Rabat its greater Morocco, but denies Tel Aviv its greater Israel (The West Bank is clearly not included in Israel). Why has RSF applied different mapping standards to two similar cases of occupation? Alle, once again, has commented on this.

Whenever I run into something as strange as this RSF thing, I can’t help but wonder about motives. Why in the world would a group as basically outstanding as RSF resort to cartographic genocide by mapping the Western Sahara out of existence. Does it have to do with the fact that they are headquartered in France, which supports without reservation Morocco’s illegal occupation? Is there any French political pressure at play, or maybe corporate financial pressure? Is there anyone on their Board that particularly loves Morocco or hates the Western Sahara? Not being privy to RSF internal politics, I am at a loss to understand their persistent refusal to do the right thing on this issue. All I know is that RSF has been made aware of their mapping problem for years now (and I have recently contacted both their offices in Paris and Washington DC about it), and they stubbornly resist changing their maps.

If anyone can shed any light on RSF’s behavior, we here at Western Sahara Endgame would love to hear from you. But until they decide to do the right thing and remove the Western Sahara from Morocco on their maps, I urge you to email your objections to:

Soazig Dollet, North Africa & Middle-East Desk, Reporters without Borders: moyen-orient@rsf.org

Clothilde Le Coz, Director Reporters without Borders USA: clc@rsf.org

Jean-François Julliard, Secretary General RSF: rsf@rsf.org

I went through, it seems, hundred of maps of Morocco and the Western Sahara in putting together this post – many of them quite original if not altogether accurate. In line with their iconoclastic image, Lonely Planet gets the award for Most Bizarre Map. Apparently having missed the part of the ICJ ruling about terra nullius, they clearly separate the two entities, refraining from naming the southern entity, and writing “Western Sahara Desert” overlapping the borderline. For those of you who wonder why so many Moroccans are perpetually constipated over the Western Sahara issue, there’s the Greater Moroccan Map. They just can’t get over being smaller than Algeria and not being able to steal fish from the Senegal River like they do from the Western Saharan waters (actually I was surprised not to find Washington DC on the Greater Moroccan Map given the US’s perpetual genuflecting before the King on the Western Sahara issue; but then I guess I could say the same thing about Israel). The award for Most Conflicted Mapmaker goes to the National Geographic Society. Between their On-Line Atlas , On-Line World Map , and Africa Political Map, they map the area in at least three different ways using a mind-boggling array of borderline, color, and nomenclature gimmicks. Finally, the Most Accurate Map prize goes to MINURSO, the UN Mission in the Western Sahara. I detect a crazy amount of time being spent by a lot of organizations trying to figure out how to map the area. Why not show it as it is and use the MINURSO map that clearly separates Morocco and the Western Sahara and marks the zones of occupation?

2 comments:

  1. Since this went to press on November 16, RSF has moved quickly and added a line at the Morocco-Western Sahara border on all its on-line maps. In other words, no matter on which MENA country you click the boundary is now clearly in evidence. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the consistency issue regarding occupied territories remains; a click on Morocco still brings up a red-highlighted Morocco that includes all of the Western Sahara while a click on Israel shows an Israel without the West Bank. (Dare I mention Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabagh, and Somaliland?) Given the discrepancy between the vicious totalitarian police state in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara and the relatively moderate despotic and autocratic rule in Morocco proper, other human rights groups and media watchdogs have chosen either to treat the two entities separately or else to treat them together under a combined name such as “Morocco/Western Sahara." In any event, I would say that the new line is an improvement.

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  2. The most accurate map is probably to be found with people who use it on the ground like this map. It is not politically correct for it shows Mauretanian area to be included in the Moroccan occupation zone..

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