This week the latest Co-Chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a briefing on the topic of the Western Sahara. While these members have every right to do this, I was disappointed that an institution named after the late, great Tom Lantos would take positions that are directly contrary to those held by him. While the carefully chosen panel and a few Members of Congress all talked about holding a referendum like it was still 1991 – nobody was able to say or admit that the US Government and the United National Security Council abandoned the referendum and have since advocated for negotiated political solution; in reality, at almost the same time as the briefing, Secretary Kerry and King Mohammed VI were having a phone call where Secretary Kerry repeated longstanding US support for the Moroccan autonomy plan as serious, realistic, and credible. As someone who admires Chairman Lantos and who was very fortunate to work with him when I was a staff member in Congress, I think there would have been a very different and much more balanced briefing had he held the gavel.
Why do I think that? Because it actually happened.
In 2007, Chairman Lantos convened a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the subject of “US Policy Challenges in North Africa,” which made his thoughts plainly known on the subject of Western Sahara. As a man genuinely concerned with resolving the conflict for the betterment of the entire region as well as the Sahrawi people, Chairman Lantos realized that all of the parties needed to come together to achieve a political compromise.
True to his nature, Chairman Lantos lamented the frustrating stalemate and envisioned a “generation of Western Saharans [that] will enjoy a peaceful life, without having to eye one another suspiciously in markets and town squares…mercifully free of an armed conflict that strains their daily existence and limits their future.”
To achieve this dream, Lantos implored the Polisario to change course and become “wise enough to accept the reasonable and realistic offer currently on the table,” referring to Morocco’s recent autonomy proposal as a “promising new day” for the region. As Chairman Lantos so eloquently put it:
“This will all happen if the Polisario is wise enough to accept the reasonable and realistic offer currently on the table. The Moroccans have proposed far-reaching autonomy for the people of the Western Sahara region. They would elect their own leaders, run their own affairs, levy taxes and establish budgets, maintain their own police forces, and control the education of their children. Only external security and foreign affairs would be conducted and controlled by the central Moroccan Government.”
Chairman Lantos was also concerned about the conflict as a potential enabler for the spread of violent extremism, which has certainly been validated in recent years. He was also deeply disturbed that the opportunity presented by the autonomy plan for “peace has been summarily rejected by the rebel Polisario Front.” As a result, he co-led a letter with 172 other Members expressing the strong bipartisan support in Congress for Morocco’s autonomy plan as an “historic opportunity” to end the conflict. This strong support in Congress continues today.
This proposal, supported by longstanding US policy and reaffirmed as recently as last week by a State Department official, remains on the table nearly a decade later. Even the UN has repeatedly called for a formal 5th round of negotiations between the parties to be held on the formula of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. After all this time, the Polisario still refuses to even consider negotiating this offer and brings no compromise proposals of its own.
With the Western Sahara once again in the headlines, I can only hope that the resurgent attention paid to this conflict will focus on solutions. If more attention was paid to the Honorable Tom Lantos himself, and to the actions—including letters from the House and Senate, hearings, and even laws—taken by actual Congressional majorities, there may have been an opportunity to do some good and to help resolve this issue.