Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Tale of Deception and Dishonesty about Morocco’s Autonomy Plan for the Western Sahara


Likewise even the touchy issue of Moroccan sovereignty over the former Spanish Sahara has seen forward movement. In 2007, the government advanced a proposal to break the long-standing impasse over the issue by offering generous autonomy to the area (including not only an elected local  administration but also ideas about education and justice and the promise of financial support). Under the plan, the only matters that would remain in Rabat’s control would be defense and foreign affairs as well as the currency. The regional authority, meanwhile, would have broad powers over local administration, the economy, infrastructure, social and cultural affairs, and the environment. No less senior a U.S. official than Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has described the autonomy proposal as “serious, credible, and realistic.”
From “Morocco’s Momentum” by J. Peter Pham, Journal of International Security Affairs. Spring/Summer 2012

Since the ”Moroccan Initiative for Negotiating an Autonomy Statute for the Sahara Region” was released by Rabat in 2007, the Moroccan government, and its lobbyists and fellow travelers in the U.S., have united behind the proposal, portraying it as a noble and generous compromise to once and for all end the thorny Western Sahara crisis. I quote the above paragraph from a recent article by J. Peter Pham because it is typical of the deceptive and dishonest pro-autonomy material flooding the media of late.
The paragraph begins with the predictable pro-Moroccan spin: “Likewise even the touchy issue of Moroccan sovereignty over the former Spanish Sahara has seen forward movement. In 2007, the government advanced a proposal to break the long-standing impasse over the issue by offering generous autonomy to the area….”
Pham’s painting Morocco’s offer of autonomy as “forward movement” is puzzling given that the Polisario Front has categorically and adamantly rejected the proposal and refuses even to discuss it.  Furthermore, the series of meetings between the parties organized by UN Personal Envoy Christopher Ross in the wake of Rabat’s autonomy proposal have failed miserably to bring the parties closer together. With pro-independence demonstrations in the occupied territory becoming increasingly frequent and confrontational and with the Polisario’s renewed contemplation of a return to arms, it is much easier to see Morocco’s autonomy proposal as contributing to a deterioration of the issue.
Similarly, Pham’s proposition that Morocco is “offering generous autonomy to the area” is pure unadulterated spin. Morocco can offer anything it wants, but unless the offer includes independence as an option it is clearly incompatible with widely accepted international law, is unlikely to be considered by the Polisario and the Western Saharans, and if forced on the region is unlikely to work.  And, of course, Morocco took independence off the table years ago. The Moroccan Initiative is nothing more than a ploy to get international legitimization for its illegal occupation.
Having informed us of the generosity of Morocco’s proposal, Pham continues: “Under the plan, the only matters that would remain in Rabat’s control would be defense and foreign affairs as well as the currency.”  This is the point where Pham’s commentary spins out of control and lurches over the line from spin into flat out dishonesty. Anyone who has actually read the Moroccan Initiative knows that what Pham is saying here just isn’t true. Even more damning, it is far from the truth.  Items 13 and 14 of the Moroccan Initiative deal specifically with the proposed division of powers between the autonomous region and Rabat:
13. The Sahara autonomous Region will have the financial resources required for its development in all areas.  Resources will come, in particular, from:

· taxes, duties and regional levies enacted by the Region’s competent authorities;
· proceeds from the exploitation of natural resources allocated to the Region;
· the share of proceeds collected by the State from the exploitation of natural resources located in the Region;
· the necessary funds allocated in keeping with the principle of national solidarity;
· proceeds from the Region’s assets.

14. The State shall keep exclusive jurisdiction over the following in particular:

· the attributes of sovereignty, especially the flag, the national anthem and the currency;
· the attributes stemming from the constitutional and religious prerogatives of the King, as Commander of the Faithful and Guarantor of freedom of worship and of individual and collective freedoms;
· national security, external defense and defense of territorial integrity;
· external relations;
· the Kingdom’s juridical order.
While the major statement of those areas in which the State “shall keep exclusive jurisdiction” is contained in Item 14, I have also included Item 13 for what it has to say about control of natural resource income.  In particular, I point to the statement that, “[financial] Resources will come, in particular, from … the share of proceeds collected by the State from the exploitation of natural resources located in the Region;” What this tells me is that Rabat envisions retaining control over the Western Sahara’s natural resources and doling out a portion to the region. In other words, income from the Western Saharan phosphate mines – which alone would make an independent Western Sahara one of the largest phosphate exporters in the world – would continue to flow to Rabat. Similarly, it appears that revenues from fishing licenses sold to foreign states to fish in Western Saharan waters would also be retained by Rabat. And if oil is one day discovered in Western Saharan waters, anyone who thinks that the autonomous region would get a fair share of the revenues has probably been smoking too much Rifian hashish.
While Pham for some reason identifies only the “currency” as “an attribute of sovereignty” that would be retained by Rabat, the Initiative goes much farther specifying “the attributes of sovereignty, especially the flag, the national anthem and the currency.”
The next category of Item 14 is totally ignored by Pham: “the attributes stemming from the constitutional and religious prerogatives of the King, as Commander of the Faithful and Guarantor of freedom of worship and of individual and collective freedoms;” Keep in mind that, even with the recent constitutional changes, Morocco is still a far cry from a western-style constitutional monarchy such as Spain or the UK. The crown retains the bulk of the power in the country. This assertion of the primacy of the King’s constitutional prerogatives means that democracy in the region would be just as flawed as in the rest of Morocco, and the Crown would have carte blanche to interfere as it deemed necessary in the autonomous region’s affairs. Similarly, Pham’s ignoring the bit about the religious prerogatives of the King is inexcusable since the hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi who despise the King and resent his authority would chafe mightily at any assertion of these religious prerogatives.
Of the next areas reserved for Rabat, “national security, external defense” and “external relations” appear to be adequately covered by Pham under “defense and foreign affairs.”  He ignores, however, Rabat’s exclusive jurisdiction over “defense of territorial integrity.” Inclusion of this specific item in the Initiative means to me that the Crown retains the right to prevent the autonomous region from seceding. And I think it is fair to assume that ultimately what this means is that Rabat would have the right to cancel autonomy if “territorial integrity” were threatened.  And if you believe, as I do, that any imaginable autonomy plan is doomed to failure, this is not a very encouraging feature.
Finally, Pham totally ignores the Initiative’s keeping “the Kingdom’s juridical order” within Rabat’s exclusive jurisdiction. Given the Kingdom’s notoriously corrupt and non-independent judiciary, this is likewise a recipe for disaster. The judiciary could and would overrule anything in the autonomous region the Crown found objectionable.
Again, it is not my purpose here to give a comprehensive critique of the Moroccan Initiative. That is a topic for another day, because there are just too many things seriously wrong with the plan. My purpose is to highlight the extent to which pro-Moroccan commentators, and specifically J. Peter Pham, have been systematically lying about the autonomy plan to make it more palatable for US policymakers.
Once again, Pham informs us that “Under the plan, the only matters that would remain in Rabat’s control would be defense and foreign affairs as well as the currency.” In recap, he neglects to inform us that under the plan, control of natural resources, all the attributes of sovereignty, constitutional and religious prerogatives of the King, defense of territorial integrity, and the juridical order would also remain in Rabat’s control. The autonomy plan is far from being “generous.”
In conclusion, I think a short comment is in order about why I like to pick on J. Peter Pham so much. After all, he is hardly the only one out there lying about Morocco’s autonomy plan.  Former Congressman and notorious Sahrawi hater Tom Lantos, for instance, characterized the plan even more dishonestly than Pham at a 2007 Congressional hearing: “Only external security and foreign affairs will be controlled by the central Moroccan government.” Right.  It’s just that Pham, as director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, is a widely known and visible Africa scholar who is very much a professional researcher. When he gets something very very wrong (as he does with the autonomy proposal), I think you can be confident that it is not because he has done sloppy or lazy research, but because he is pushing some agenda. In other words, I am totally sure that he has thoroughly read the Moroccan Initiative, and he just chooses to lie about it. Of course, this begs the question of what his agenda is. Is it a zionist thing? The fact that the quote under discussion here appeared in the in-house rag of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a right-wing zionist think tank, might support this thesis. Or is it the neo-con thing? His thoroughly inconsistent support of South Sudanese independence and simultaneous rejection of the far more justifiable independence of the Western Sahara might support this idea. Or is he just a Moroccophile? I. William Zartman’s faulty research on the Western Sahara would be a precedent here.  Or is it a Jarch Capital thing (more on this at a later date)? Who knows? What I do know is that he gets a lot of things seriously wrong on the Western Sahara, and he should be held accountable.
In the end, however, the important point is that NO autonomy plan will work. Whether autonomy is as good as Pham would have us believe or whether it is a bad as the actual Initiative, the Sahrawis are unlikely to accept it given their long history of opposing Moroccan rule.

The New York City Bar Association recently came out with a marvelous study on the legal aspects of the Western Sahara crisis, "The Legal Issues Involved in the Western Sahara Dispute: the Principle of Self-Determination and the Legal Claims of Morocco." The study concludes that “any plan which eliminates the independence option for the exercise of self-determination is illegitimate under well-established international law” and “limiting the choice of the people of Western Sahara to the Moroccan 'Autonomy Plan' does not comply with international law.” In their “Recommendations for a Way Forward,” they offer up a very sober and realistic set of options for once and for all resolving the crisis:
 (1) Enforcement of the original U.N.-OAU Settlement Plan:
Under this alternative, the referendum would be conducted by MINURSO in accordance with the provisions of the Settlement Plan agreed to by the parties to the conflict, and the list of eligible voters established by MINURSO, under the supervision of the Security Council and the AU, and consistent with internationally recognized legal norms.
(2) Enforcement of a version of the Peace Plan, or an alternative plan which provides for an act of self-determination with an option for independence, and which ensures that the electorate will be those entitled to the right to self-determination under international law; Under this alternative, a referendum would ultimately be held which includes among other options a ballot option for independence. The contours and the specifics could vary, so long as the provisions are aimed at ensuring that the decision is made by the “people of Western Sahara.
(3) Order negotiations on a “political solution with preconditions, which include (1) the requirement that all options for self-determination be included, including independence, and (2) a timetable for such negotiations, after which, if no agreement is reached, a referendum will be held with all options available.

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