At a time when tensions between the Polisario and Morocco in their fight over Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony, are at the highest point since the 1991 ceasefire, WikiLeaks documents have enhanced the cause of the Polisario by revealing that the supporters of the Polisario are the good guys in this fight.
One of the difficulties the Polisario has had to overcome is a well-financed Moroccan lobby that spends millions of dollars annually to obscure the facts in this conflict. Ten lobbying firms are currently registered to do King Mohamed VI’s bidding and spread outright lies and distortions about the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, where 165,000 Sahrawis live, having fled when Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975; about the motivation of Algeria in giving them refuge; and about the nature of the Sahrawi Republic itself — a democratic, pro-Western exile government recognized by over eighty nations as the legitimate government of Western Sahara.
The Polisario, formed by the Sahrawis in 1973 as a liberation movement against their Spanish colonizers, is now dedicated to one goal: ensuring the Sahrawis get their vote on self-determination, first called for by the United Nations in 1966, promised by Spain, reaffirmed by the International Court of Justice in 1975, and promised by the United Nations in 1991 as part of the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario. Among the outlandish claims that the Kingdom of Morocco and those on the King’s payroll are spreading: the Polisario is holding the Sahrawi refugees against their will in these camps; the Polisario is involved in illegal activities from human trafficking to terrorism; the Polisario is restricting access to the camps; and the camps are a breeding ground for al Qaeda.
The truth is that the Polisario long for visitors to the refugee camps, and there are regular visitors from Spain as well as a constant UN presence. I have personally organized delegations of Americans to visit the camps, and this Christmas thousands of Spanish citizens will travel there to celebrate this holy Christian day with their Muslim friends.
Not only do the Polisario welcome visitors, but their embrace of Western ideals including religious freedom and women’s equality, their intolerance of extremism, and their severe punishments for traffickers and anyone associated with terrorism have caused Islamic extremists to label the Sahrawi as “too close to the West and not pious enough.”
U.S. Ambassador–at-Large for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin affirmed there are no links between al Qaeda and the Western Sahara in a press conference last month.
Morocco has also tried to cast suspicion on the motivations of Algeria. Algeria saved thousands of Sahrawi women and children by allowing them to enter Algeria when the Moroccan air force was dropping napalm and phosphorus on them as they were fleeing from the invading Moroccan army. Today, Algeria allows the Sahrawis to govern and oversee their refugee camps, which are located in northwest Algeria, without interference. When former Secretary of State James Baker served as UN Special Envoy on Western Sahara, he attempted to spur a settlement by offering Algeria part of Western Sahara, believing the Algerians would sell out their friends for a land route to the Atlantic. The Algerians were offended that such an offer would even be made. WikiLeaks has revealed the consistency of Algeria’s position. WikiLeaks has also revealed that Algeria’s support of the Polisario is based on principle. Algeria has no interest in stealing the Sahrawis’ land, as Morocco has done, and only wants the people of Western Sahara to have the opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to self-determination, as Algeria President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has strongly argued to U.S. officials.
Western Sahara has the greatest potential of any Arab country to become a pro-Western democracy, something the United States is expending great blood and treasure to create in Iraq and Afghanistan. For decades the Polisario has appealed to the United States to uphold self-determination, believing that the United States shares its values and can help it realize this goal. This is why the Polisario’s cause has attracted such wide-ranging support. Among its supporters: the late Senator Edward Kennedy, Senators Russ Feingold, Patrick Leahy, Jim Inhofe and Jim DeMint, and Congressmen Donald Payne, Frank Wolf and Joseph Pitts. I have only found two types of people who support Morocco’s position: individuals who are ignorant of the facts and individuals who are getting money or another favor from the King.
The greatest strength for the Sahrawi cause is truth, and the more truth that comes out, whether through WikiLeaks or from those who take the time to examine the facts, the greater the cause of the Polisario.
The King’s propagandists would have you believe that hundreds of Sahrawis have “escaped” the refugee camps to live under the benevolent Mohamed VI in occupied Western Sahara, but what happened last month is a more accurate picture of what’s really happening. The Moroccan security forces decimated the tent city of Gadaym Izik set up by an estimated twenty thousand Sahrawis living in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara who were peacefully protesting their treatment as third-class citizens in their own homeland. While the Polisario longs for and welcomes observers to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, Morocco banned any observers, expelled journalists and even turned back European parliamentarians who tried to visit the area to assess Morocco’s latest bloody assault on men, women and children.
The violence against the Sahrawis has been well documented by human rights groups from Amnesty International to Freedom House, which regularly lists the regime in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara as one of the world’s worst.
At this critical time, the United States must demand that Morocco allow access to occupied Western Sahara and insist the long-promised referendum be held. A vote on self-determination is all that the Polisario seeks: let the Sahrawis have their vote and choose to be free or part of Morocco. If the King’s paid propagandists’ claims are true, they should be the last to fear the free expression of the Sahrawi people.
Dr. Suzanne Scholte is the President of the Defense Forum Foundation and the 2010 recipient of the Walter Judd Freedom Award and the 2008 Seoul Peace Prize for her work promoting freedom, democracy and human rights.