Trump Trades Away Western Sahara’s Self-Determination: Will Biden Reverse the Decision?
The right to self-determination is enshrined within the United Nations Charter and is the basis for forming new internationally-recognized countries today, but if you ask the Catalans, Kurds, or Sahrawis, realizing that right is much harder in practice than in theory.
Sadly, as the Sahrawi people recently discovered in their fight to form Western Sahara, those aspirations are often used by larger nations as a political football.
In order to achieve what they consider a huge diplomatic win by getting Morocco to warm relations with and officially recognize the legitimacy of Israel, the Trump Administration recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. This reverses a long-standing US position of neutrality on whether they will be part of Morocco or their own independent nation.
In short, Donald Trump sacrificed the democratic self-determination of the Sahrawi people in a deal that gives them nothing on the issue.
[Trump] “could have made this deal without trading away the rights of this voiceless people” — Republican Sen. James Inhofe
This new US position stands in stark contrast with the international consensus. Western Sahara has been classified by the United Nations as a Non-Self-Governing Territory since 1963, a classification of “territories whose people have not yet attained a full measure of self-government.”
Just two months ago, the United Nations Security Council voted 13–0 with two abstentions (Russia and South Africa) in favor of UN-led negotiations for a referendum on Western Sahara’s self-determination. The European Union reiterated their support for that process in their response to the recent shift in US position.
A top official from the Polisario Front, the UN-recognized national liberation movement for Western Sahara, criticized the new US position saying that it “violated… the decisions and resolutions of all international bodies.” The evidence described above seems to agree.
Even Sen. James Inhofe, a member of Trump’s own Republican party, disagrees with his deal with Morocco, saying that he “could have made this deal without trading away the rights of this voiceless people.”
Inhofe is right: Sahrawi independence activists enduring human rights abuses should not have their democratic right to self-determination used as bargaining chips in a separate negotiation.
From the Moroccan government bugging activists’ phones with spyware, to using excessive force on protestors, to arresting journalists simply for covering independence protests without proper media credentials, the list of human rights abuses committed by the Moroccan government against independence activists in Western Sahara is extensive.
The media censorship of the situation is particularly troubling. Just this week, Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! published a news segment documenting the human rights situation on the ground in Western Sahara. She described how difficult it is for media to get into the region because of the Moroccan government not wanting news about the situation to get out. Goodman was regularly followed by who she suspects were spies and was eventually warned by government officials against reporting on the Western Sahara independence movement.
Nevertheless, Goodman’s interviews with residents of Western Sahara documented reports of police brutality, torture, even murder, among other human rights abuses independence activists in the region face.
Donald Trump’s shift in US position on the issue completely ignores these human rights abuses, the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination, and the international consensus on this decades-long conflict. With his presidency nearing it’s end (despite his baseless claims otherwise), that begs the all important question: will Joe Biden reverse the US position on Western Sahara to address these concerns?
It isn’t clear yet, but according to American University Professor William Lawrence, it isn’t likely either.
“They’ll probably try to thread the needle, which is not derail these accords but reopen promises related to the deals that were made … and try to perhaps use that as leverage to do more of what the US wants,” he said.
I tend to agree with Lawrence’s prediction. Due to his desire to look as pro-Israel as possible and the risk that leaving the agreement will break down newly built relations between Israel and Morocco, Biden will be tempted not to tear it up.
That being said, it is difficult to see how Biden can possibly balance recognizing Western Sahara’s self-determination while also staying part of Trump’s recent agreement which recognizes Morocco’s sovereignty over the same territory. If his ultimate goal is to stand up for human rights and self-determination, Biden will need to take a stand for the people of Western Sahara.