US: Bipartisan Senate Group Seek Reversal of Trump Policy in Africa, Urge Biden to Reverse Recognition of Morocco’s Sovereignty on Western Sahara

In the last days of his tenure at the White House, US President, Donald Trump made a couple of foreign policy decisions aimed at improving relations between Arab countries and the State of Israel. One of such decisions involved the displacement of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Mr. Trump also sealed deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

In a move that shocked, frustrated, and created tension among the people of Western Sahara and some officials at the United Nations, was the decision by the United States to officially recognize the Kingdom of Morocco’s unacceptable claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara, a territory that is already self-governing and poised to participate in an UN-supervised referendum to determine by fate.

Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican Senator from the State of Oklahoma (C) Chicago Tribune

On Wednesday, February 17, United States Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) led 25 of their Senate colleagues today in sending a letter urging President Biden to reverse the previous misguided decision to officially recognize the Kingdom of Morocco’s illegitimate claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara and recommit the United States to the pursuit of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara.

The senators wrote that: “The abrupt decision by the previous administration on December 11, 2020, to officially recognize the Kingdom of Morocco’s illegitimate claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara was short-sighted, undermined decades of consistent U.S. policy, and alienated a significant number of African nations. We respectfully urge you to reverse this misguided decision and recommit the United States to the pursuit of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat Representing the State of Vermont (Twitter)

The senators wrote that: “The abrupt decision by the previous administration on December 11, 2020, to officially recognize the Kingdom of Morocco’s illegitimate claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara was short-sighted, undermined decades of consistent U.S. policy, and alienated a significant number of African nations. We respectfully urge you to reverse this misguided decision and recommit the United States to the pursuit of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara.”

They further stated that: “The United States owes it to the Sahrawi people to honor our commitment, to help ensure the Moroccans live up to theirs, and to see this referendum through. The Sahrawi people deserve the right to freely choose their own destiny. We hope that we can count on you to be a partner in this effort.”

The move by these Senators has been seen by observers as confirming the opinion widely held by pundits that the Biden/Harris Administration is likely to run a more aggressive and bold policy in Africa. The halt on deportations to countries like Cameroon where a war of independence is raging in a former UN Trust Territory has also confirmed these signals. Below is a full text of the letter.

 

Dear President Biden:

The abrupt decision by the previous administration on December 11, 2020, to officially recognize the Kingdom of Morocco’s illegitimate claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara was short-sighted, undermined decades of consistent U.S. policy, and alienated a significant number of African nations. We respectfully urge you to reverse this misguided decision and recommit the United States to the pursuit of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara.

The fate of the Sahrawi people has been in limbo since the United Nations first adopted a resolution calling for a referendum on self-determination in 1966. For more than five decades following the United Nations’ action, the simple and fundamental goal of the Sahrawi people to freely decide, for themselves, their fate has been stymied and subjected to broken promise after broken promise.

The issue of Morocco’s claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara is not new. The International Court of Justice rejected such claims in 1975, stating clearly that the materials and information provided by Morocco “did not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco.” Despite the Court’s unambiguous judgment, Morocco maintained its unlawful claim to Western Sahara and, after decolonization, attempted to annex the territory with force. The people of Western Sahara, acting through the Polisario, defended their rights and land.

After more than a decade of violence, the United Nations finally intervened in 1991 and both sides agreed to a cease-fire and a path forward. Under the so-called “Settlement Plan,” Morocco and Western Sahara agreed to hold a referendum and established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara – a mission that has been repeatedly extended and continues to the current day.

Subsequent diplomatic efforts, including those led by former Secretary of State James Baker, worked multiple plans with Morocco and Western Sahara, including, notably, the so-called “Houston Agreement,” that recommitted Morocco and Western Sahara in 1997, to a referendum on self-determination. Morocco, recognizing they would likely lose a vote, effectively walked away from the negotiations the following year by declaring they would never accept a referendum that included independence as a potential outcome, despite years of promises otherwise. Tragically, Morocco’s unwillingness to negotiate in good faith has been a consistent theme over the years. The previous administration’s decision to recognize their claims has only served to reward decades of bad behavior by the Moroccan government. 

The situation in Western Sahara has been called a “frozen conflict” – where no resolution exists, yet there is no perceived active conflict. This makes it easy for the rest of the world to forget about the plight of the Sahrawi people. To call this a “frozen conflict” makes it seem harmless, when the reality is that it is anything but that.

Tens and tens of thousands of Sahrawi live in refugee camps, primarily in Tindoof, Algeria. They have been forced from their homes, waiting for a resolution. Allowing this process to stall year after year has cost them a generation of freedom. Some of us have visited those camps many times – as recently as 2019 – where we saw clearly their persistence and hope.

The United States owes it to the Sahrawi people to honor our commitment, to help ensure the Moroccans live up to theirs, and to see this referendum through. The Sahrawi people deserve the right to freely choose their own destiny. We hope that we can count on you to be a partner in this effort.

Sincerely,