A Congressional Divide: Morocco’s Western Sahara Issue Continues to Be Misunderstood

 While Morocco has a history going back more than a thousand years, a congressional hearing I attended on March 23 on the controversial issue of the Western Sahara’s disputed sovereignty addressed the question as if the history surrounding the territory had begun only in 1975.


Congressmen Joseph Pitts and James McGovern, the co-Chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, convened a hearing to take the testimony of four supposed experts on the status of human rights in the Sahara region.  Unfortunately, the deck was stacked against Morocco from the get-go. From the Co-Chairmen’s introductory remarks all the way through to the remarks adjourning the hearing, an unbalanced view of the situation emerged, unbalanced both as to history and as to who is responsible for the conflict and accountable for the current situation of the Saharawi people.


Having attended and prepared witnesses for Congressional hearings over the course of my legal career, it seems impossible from a legal perspective, to have orchestrated a more imbalanced hearing.  Out of four witnesses, four evidenced a pro-Algeria/pro-Polisario view, couched in concern for the human rights of the Saharawi people.


The first witness, Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, spent her entire remarks narrating a litany of human rights abuses, at times emotionally, even raising her voice to a level of a rant, reciting decades old information and facts and blaming one side of the dispute for perpetuation of inhumane conditions for residents of the Tindouf camps.


Although the camps are controlled by the Algeria-backed Polisario, she laid the blame entirely at Morocco’s door.  Three other witnesses were called to testify:  Eric Goldstein, Deputy Director MENA Division of Human Rights Watch; Erik Hagen, Board Member of Western Sahara Resource Watch; and Francesco Bastagli, a Former Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara at the United Nations.


While at least two of the speakers acknowledged that the U.S. government has stated that the Moroccan proposed autonomy plan for the region is “serious, realistic, and credible,” nevertheless they dismissed it entirely.  Each of the four witnesses had an anti-Morocco agenda.  There was, in fact, no witness for the Moroccan side who could have provided balance at the hearing.


Only Representative John Conyers, Jr., the only other Congressman present at the hearing, indicated that better ”understanding” is needed for “a more peaceful resolution of the process.”


Indeed, an understanding of Morocco’s significant history — a history much older than the 41 years since the 1975 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion — is needed.


Historically, Morocco became a kingdom as the result of a dramatic consolidation of indigenous Amazigh (or Berber) tribes that began in the 11th century in the Western Sahara itself and continued geographically all the way to Spain under a charismatic Berber ruler name Abdullah ibn Yassin.  This unmentioned and apparently forgotten history is vibrantly narrated and depicted in a BBC documentary entitled, “The Lost Berber Kingdom of Morocco.”


In 1054, ibn Yassin, a highly educated and well-travelled nomad, named himself spiritual leader of the Amazigh and embarked on a holy war with an alliance of Amazigh tribes from the Sahara to unite the Amazig Muslims of Northwest Africa.  He and his followers were known as the Almoravids (meaning “those bound together in the cause of God”).  Ibn Yassin’s success marked the first time in history that the entire corner of Northwest Africa bordering the Atlantic and the Mediterranean was brought together under one Muslim spiritual leader.


After Ibn Yassin’s death, his successor, Youssef ibn Tashfin, turned the then fledgling kingdom into an empire. Only 20 years after ibn Yassin had left the desert and taken the city of Sijilmasa, an important trading hub for Africa located at the edge of the desert, the Amazigh Almoravids had taken Marrakech as their capital, and gone further north to Fez and Tangier, and even east all the way to Algiers, well beyond what we know today as Morocco. Soon thereafter, the Almoravids were moving up through Spain and Portugal.


The origins of Morocco, as the kingdom we know today, are Amazigh-Saharawi. The Amazigh ascent to power occurred long before the Arabs arrived in Morocco from the east, resulting in the present line of the throne, through King Mohammed VI, who has direct descent from the prophet Mohamed.


So why did a congressional commission hearing take such a myopic view of history and the issue of sovereignty?  Was the hearing simply grandstanding in an election year anniversary of Spain’s withdrawal as a colonial power from the territory and the original proposal for a people’s referendum, or does the hearing suggest that Congress really would like to resolve the issue?


In fact, Congress appears to have a split personality on this issue. While the TLCHR hearing had the deck stacked against Morocco, in stark contrast this past week the “Congressional Morocco Caucus,” a bi-partisan group of 40 Representatives of Congress, wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.N. Chief’s actions during his visit to the region when he called it an “occupation” by Morocco were “unprecedented.”  Moreover, the Congressional Caucus Representatives acknowledged that the Western Sahara is “fundamental for Morocco and for its national security.”


It is telling that the State Department declined to participate in the March 23 hearing despite several invitations to do so. The Executive branch is well aware of Morocco’s contribution to safety and security in the region, through sharing of intelligence and dismantling terrorist cells, and undoubtedly did not want to jeopardize the present good diplomatic relations with the Kingdom by appearing at a Congressional hearing so stacked against Morocco. This observation highlights the difference between the executive and legislative branches. The Executive has to deal in the real world with diplomacy and consequences.


Francesco Bastagli summed it up quite correctly when he said that the “Western Sahara is a decolonization process gone awry.”  However, Morocco is not the colonial power.  Morocco’s claim to the territory goes back far beyond the Spanish colonial power to Morocco’s beginnings as a kingdom in the 11th century.  If history is not forgotten, and the dispute is put into historical perspective, perhaps better progress can be made in finding a resolution.  In any event, congressional hearings should at least have the appearance of procedural fairness in reviewing all the facts and not merely considering only one side of the issue.


Elisabeth Myers
Elisabeth R. Myers, a Washington lawyer with more than 20 years experience in large law firms, is the founding principal of Myers Energy International. She is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington ...