A few weeks ago, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution calling on Morocco and the Polisario Front to “continue negotiations without preconditions and in good faith […] with a view to achieving a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution” to end the Western Sahara conflict.” (The Polisario, a Cold War era separatist group, has challenged Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara in southern Morocco for nearly 40 years.) In 2007, Morocco proposed a compromise solution, and the Security Council reiterated in the resolution that it welcomed “serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution.” To date, the Polisario has refused to even discuss and debate the compromise proposal.
The Polisario did, however, make a proposal of its own as the Security Council debated the resolution. Mohammed Abdelaziz, the leader of the Polisario, threatened that if the talks continued to “fail” in his eyes, pursuing his goals through violence and armed conflict “would be almost inevitable.”
These repeated threats by the Polisario have serious implications for US security interests in North Africa. The Polisario runs tightly controlled refugee camps in southern Algeria that have become a targeted crossroads of trafficking and refuge for terrorist-linked groups in the Sahel and West Africa. (Last year, European aid workers were kidnapped from inside the Polisario camps and released after a $20 million ransom was paid to an al-Qaeda splinter group in northern Mali.) The U.S. and its international partners must not tolerate bullying and threats by authoritarian leaders like Abdelaziz who come disingenuously to the negotiating table packing.
So, the last thing the US should do is appease those who threaten us with violence in the pursuit of their political agendas. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) and Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN) did last week when they welcomed Polisario leader Mohammed Abdelaziz to Capitol Hill, calling it an “honor” to receive him and even posed for photos.
There are so many things wrong with this picture.
First of all, Abdelaziz does not legitimately represent the interests of the Sahrawi people. For nearly 40 years, Abdelaziz has been the unelected, unopposed (forbidden by the “constitution” that he authored) authoritarian ruler of the Polisario’s government-in-exile in southern Algeria and its refugee camps where tens of thousands of Sahrawis are being held against their will. Sen. Inhofe’s and Rep. McCollum’s welcoming of Abdelaziz sends the wrong message that the U.S. supports such anti-democratic rule.
Secondly, as she stood alongside Abdelaziz, Rep. McCollum pledged to “continue to work to ensure the U.S. is doing everything possible to protect their [Sahrawis] democratic and human rights.” The U.S. position on the Western Sahara conflict, through the Bush, Clinton and Obama Administrations, along with bipartisan majorities of the U.S. House and Senate, is to resolve the dispute along the lines of Morocco’s proposed compromise. Former Secretary Clinton called the Moroccan proposal “serious, realistic, and credible, and that it represents a potential approach that could satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity.” Rep. McCollum’s very public endorsement of the Polisario – the party to the conflict which has refused to even consider this compromise – directly counters US efforts to resolve the conflict and protect the human rights of the Sahrawis.
Lastly, that warm, official welcome in the halls of Congress – memorialized in that official photo – sends a chilling message to the thousands of Sahrawi refugees – who can’t leave the camps to come to Washington to plead their case because Abdelaziz won’t let them – that they are indeed powerless and defenseless against human rights abuses. It emboldens Abdelaziz’s running partners, protégées, mentees and wannabes to believe that “agreeing” to negotiations might get you to the U.N., but threats to violence and war buy you direct access to Congress. Furthermore, it weakens U.S. credibility with our major international allies – none of whom recognize the Polisario or its pseudo-government SADR – who see us as cowering to belligerent threats by a Cold War era quasi-dictator.
Regardless of party or policy position, Members of Congress must wield the influence that emanates from their high office carefully. They must be smarter about the hands they shake and the photos they take – because public endorsements of foes of peace send the wrong picture to the world.