To James Baker: Morocco’s Sahara Sovereignty Culmination of Post-Colonial Self-Determination

Dear Mr. James Baker III,

In you recent Op-Ed for the Washington Post you stated that the United States’ recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara is a “retreat from the principles of international law and diplomacy,” deliberately ignoring that international law, when it comes to sovereignty, is based on the recognition of states and individual governments, which could in itself pave the way for “international” recognition through collective bodies such as the UN.


Your statement that such a move “threatens to complicate our [the US’] relations with Algeria, an important strategic partner” is not only surprising but quite edifying as well.

International law is not some abstract system imposed on nations but the sum of acts and practices of individual nations that impact and influence the collective action of nations.

Your statement that such a move “threatens to complicate our [the US’] relations with Algeria, an important strategic partner” is not only surprising but quite edifying as well. In fact, your concern appears to be not in respecting international law but in protecting US interests, especially oil interests with an oil producing country such as Algeria.

It seems it is acceptable to anger a long-standing strategic partner like Morocco, a country with the longest partnership treaty the US has ever had, and the first country to recognize the self-determination and independence of the United states, as long as the US does not anger Algeria.

Is it acceptable to sidestep the principles of diplomacy and international relations and values of partnership when it comes to interests? We all know that Algeria produces oil but Morocco does not.

Your reference to Algeria is interesting because when you acted as the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004, you treated this very country as if it were an “observing party” to the conflict. Now it seems that Algeria has become a full-fledged actor in the conflict, vulnerable to being angered by the government of the United States’ recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty.

You also stated that the recognition “should never come at the price of abandoning the United States’ commitment to self-determination, the bedrock principle on which our country was founded and to which it should remain faithful.”

When the US was taking baby steps towards sovereignty in 1777, besieged by British, French, and Spanish empires, the very self-determination you are referring to did not come only from the struggle of revolutionaries in Boston and Philadelphia. It was enhanced by recognition from countries like Morocco, a recognition that had its weight in the concert of nations as history books would tell.

On the other hand, why would you accept self-determination when it comes to the US, who you call “the people of Western Sahara,” and even the Palestinians, but refuse to consider the same concept when it comes to Morocco’s struggles against colonialism? Morocco’s self-determination process started in 1956 when France and Spain were forced to leave the northern and middle parts of the country.

Then the Saharan city of Tarfaya was retroceded by Spain in 1958, followed by the southern city of Sidi Ifni in 1969. It was Morocco which registered Western Sahara as non-colonized territory with the UN Fourth Committee on Decolonization in 1964.

The aim was to carry on its national efforts to achieve its full-fledged self-determination and independence from Spanish colonialism. Polisario was even created in Rabat by Sahrawi students to liberate Western Sahara and bring it back within Morocco’s sovereignty.

The Green March of 1975 was the epitome of a people’s will to achieve its territorial unity and historical self-determination. It seems, Mr. Secretary of State, as if some forms of self-determination are, for you, “better” than others, in a strangely Orwellian fashion.

The 1975 International Court of Justice ruling acknowledged that there were allegiance ties between the Kings of Morocco and the Sahrawi tribes, the decision of the Jemaa (the collective body that represented the Sahrawis back then) to accept Morocco’s sovereignty, and the Madrid accords (1976)—these acts do not count, for you Mr. Baker, as part of international law or self-determination. Your selective approach is not only unfair but is not warranted by historical facts, unfortunately.

What is also surprising is that you seem to ignore the various treaties that tied Morocco to different Western powers over the centuries whereby Moroccan governments granted rights of passage and accostment as well as protection to European and American ships navigating the large of Western Sahara. If that is not proof of sovereignty what is? That is the basis of international law in the Westphalian order of nation states, sovereignty, and territories.

UN decisions regarding the conflict cannot ignore history; A “new history” was made when the US recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. A layer that only confirms legal and historical realities on the ground. And, as it apparently needs saying, recognition is part and parcel of international legality.

In conclusion, Mr. Baker, I have much respect for you as an experienced politician and as a person of principles. But when it comes to this matter I beg to differ. I find your position difficult to understand and your arguments not at all based on facts and history.

Please accept my best regards and my utmost consideration.


 By Lahcen Haddad Lahcen Haddad is a Strategic Studies Expert