Wednesday, June 04, 2008

MACP Steals A Page from Karl Rove's Playbook

The Moroccan-American Comittee for Policy (MACP), a lobbying group funded by the King of Morocco, has scored two media coups recently against the Polisario Front, leaders of the Western Saharan independence movements. The first was a highly uncritical post from the Associated Press that would have failed any Journalism 101 student. The second is a more recent article in the New York Times that places more doubt upon the subject.

Brining a half dozen alleged victims of abuses in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria to the US and the UN headquarters, MACP has revved up its campaign to discredit Polisario morally. These defectors -- who have essentially become paid lobbyists for Morocco and whose word is to be trusted at that level -- are claiming a whole range of misdeeds at the hands of Polisario.

This new media campaign suggests that Morocco is increasingly frustrated with the peace process and is launching a new offensive to build support for unilateral autonomy.

What is more interesting, though, is that these smear tactics reek of Carl Rove, the largely discredited (if highly successful) former political advisor to President George W. Bush. How so?

Attack your opponent where he is strongest and you are weakest.

In 2004, Rove used this tactic against Sen. John Kerry's war record in Vietnam, which was clearly a lot more stellar than Bush's cushy time in the National Guard. Indeed, there was clear evidence that Bush had been derelict in his duties. But after being 'swift boat-ed', there was an air of doubt clouding Kerry's claims to being a morally superior Commander and Chief by virtue of his war service. Now we all know that these attacks against Kerry were false, libelous and distracting. But they worked. Their effect was to strip the Democratic Nominee of his one claim to moral superiority over Bush: he had actually fought in war and thus could responsibly manage the war in Iraq.

Now the same is being played out in Western Sahara. In this case, for Polisario, their strongest suit is, and always has been, international law and human rights. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights and High Committee for Refugees, International Red Cross/Red Crescent and dozens of other NGOs (including a permanent presence of English teachers from the US and a Moroccan journalist) have all stayed in the Polisario controlled camps and never found any evidence supporting the claims now being launched by Morocco's surrogates. But that doesn't matter. Rove's tactics -- whether insinuating Sen John McCain had an African-American love child in 2000 or Kerry was a French-speaking effete with a trumped up war record in 2004 -- are based on alleging. It is the allegation that matters: placing doubt in the back of the mind.

The flip-side of this tactic is to distract people from the reality. For a self proclaimed 'war president', Bush's war record was non-existent. That's why Rove went after Kerry's military service: to distract.

The parallel with Morocco is quite telling. The world knows that Morocco's human rights record in Western Sahara is among, as Freedom House puts it, the 'Worst of the Worst'. At home and in Western Sahara, Morocco has a long history of brutally repressing opposition, whether by 'disappearing' dissidents (in the days of King Hassan II) or imprisoning them en mass as the new king does with Islamists and Western Saharan nationalists.

Year after year, report after report, it becomes clear and clearer that Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara is one of the world's most neglected human rights situations in the world. And this is exactly why MACP is attacking Polisario on its human rights record. In reality, everyone knows that Polisario is very careful about its international image and has gone to great lengths to be transparent, even opening themselves up to attacks like the 2003 France Libertés incident.

Meanwhile Morocco continues to prohibit free expression, movement and organization in Western Sahara, and repeatedly ejecting journalists from the territory who attempt to uncover these facts without supervision from the interior ministry.

If Morocco is to sell the world on the idea that it should keep Western Sahara through autonomy, then it has to distract the world from its human rights record there. And the best way to achieve unilateral autonomy solution is to discredit Polisario in the eyes of Washington through Rove's masterful 'guilt by doubt' association.

But will the AP and NYT send reporters to the occupied Western Sahara and the camps to see for themselves? Probably not.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Van Walsum: Nobody's fool

If you thought things couldn't get much worse for the peace process in Western Sahara, then you haven't read the latest interview with Peter van Walsum, the lead UN negotiator to the conflict.

What's refreshing is that Van Walsum finally calls a spade a spade. The much hyped face-to-face talks in 2007 and 2008 -- the first since 2000 -- have been 'a mockery, a farce, a false game', he says, explaining that nobody believes in them, neither Morocco nor Polisario.

'If I continue to sit here as a good boy and do what is expected of me then I will mediate in not four rounds, but eight, twelve or sixteen rounds. There is no solution, because the two main points of view of the parties are irreconcilable on the point about a referendum concerning independence. For Polisario that is essential and for Morocco it is unthinkable. You will never resolve that problem.'

Last month, Van Walsum jumped into some hot water when he pointed out the banal yet uncouth reality that unless France and the United States will it, a referendum on independence in Western Sahara is unrealistic. Morocco and its allies quickly affirmed the consequent, arguing that if independence is unrealistic, then autonomy must be realistic.

Polisario's response was to claim that Van Walsum should not longer play a role; yet the liberation front has not yet said whether or not it will attend the unscheduled next round of negotiations.

In the interview, Van Walsum seems unsure as to whether his tenure in Western Sahara is over, noting the deep displeasure of Polisario and Algeria. More interestingly, he also noted some tensions in the UN Secretariat

Perhaps the most interesting observation to come from Van Walsum's new intereview is his belief that the UN Security Council should have used Chapter VII powers (ie, coercion) to stop Morocco's 1975 invasion of what was then the Spanish Sahara. Indeed, he notes that the Security Council treats the Chapter VI (ie, non-coercive) nature of its intervention in Western Sahara since 1988 as 'holy'. In other words, it's not just Morocco and Polisario who have 'red lines' in this conflict, but also Paris and Washington.

In the NRC interview, he further clarified his position, which is clearly empathetic towards Western Sahara's right to independence: 'The moral dilemma is that Polisario is more on the right side than Morocco. But because the Security Council will never force Morocco into a referendum on independence, they actually choose for the status quo'. He then criticizes Polisario for choosing exile over autonomy.

Though he could have just as easily redirected his frustration at France and the United States, who are not only blocking a solution in accordance with international law, they are also providing diplomatic cover to Morocco's forceful expansion of territory. Are not they as guilty, if not more, of prolonging the refugees misery as Polisario?

Indeed, at the end of the article, he endorses the idea of the Security Council asking the parties to 'experiment' with autonomy. Such an approach, which clearly favors Morocco, would require the Security Council to use Chapter VII powers to make sure his autonomy experiment doesn't end up like West Papua or Eritrea.

So this is the world we live in: In the same interview, a lead UN negotiator simultaneously acknowledges Western Sahara's right to independence and the illegality of Morocco's annexationist move. Only to conclude by suggesting that the Security Council -- in the name of realism! -- should force Western Sahara to accept, for a brief trial period, an illegal occupation.

Well, such audacity is clearly Van Walsum's swan song. Before the UN Secretariat unceremoniously snatches the Western Sahara dossier from Van Walsum, our little-known Dutch diplomat is letting the world know that he's nobody's fool -- neither Morocco's, nor Polisario's, nor the United Nations'.

It was a good 3 years, as long as you weren't a Sahrawi.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Alle's comments on 'Resolution 1813: Casus Belli? Apparently Not'

[Alle] ... the meaning of the year-long extension is also that this was the last push within the UN for autonomy before the Bush admin moves out of office and that the US & France combined couldn't (or wouldn't) get any further than an oblique reference to realism and some non-binding praise for Morocco's plan, while self-determination is kept with zero change of wording. In that sense, it's a pretty comfortable place in which to dig in for Polisario and Algeria, compared to the alternatives. (Although of course much worse than c. 2004.)

The point is that the US cannot now push the process further under this presidency, on the UN/intl law track. This forces Morocco to take the initiative itself, before the elections, if they don't want to gamble on the next president being prepared to go further than Bush did.

The PJD recently called for the government to start implementing the autonomy initiative unilaterally; that is an interesting proposition, and perhaps the gov is also prepared to do something along those lines. Not sure it's a smart thing to do overall, though, since autonomy would then appear in all its messy reality, rather than remaining a 'daring' future prospect -- presumably it would also somewhat empower Sahrawis in the territories to organize/protest (= a free concession), or, if not, come off as a sham. So my bet is Morocco holds its ground and does nothing -- total stalemate until the end of the year.

After that: P[olisario] & A[lgeria] have taken a bad beating, but Morocco's strategy has now -- absent some dramatic development -- run its course. And despite extremely favorable circumstances, and all this pushing, the gov won nothing except an escape route from the Baker plan. Autonomy was the major card up its sleeve, to be used just once for public effect. Now it is spent, and still, international legitimacy is not even on the horizon. So what now?

Thanks for the feedback. I think I was arguing the same claim (year long extension partially relates to US politics) though you've done a better job of clarifying and adding context (e.g., PJD).

The problem with any Moroccan unilateralism is that there's no incentive for Rabat to implement autonomy unless France and the US are willing to make the dramatic move of recognizing Moroccan sovereignty. That is, from the Moroccan point of view, autonomy is a compromise, a step backwards, and not an inevitability. Indeed, the Moroccan regime sees autonomy as a liability given the growth of Berberism in the Rif and Draa regions. And it is no secret that some parties support autonomy in Western Sahara because they hope it will become a crack in the Makhzen system through which real political reform can be driven.

So for Morocco to 'magnanimously' implement autonomy, there has to be some major reward for such 'compromise'. Would the Bush administration make such a move and recognize Moroccan sovereignty vis-à-vis an autonomous Western Sahara (I'm sure Sarko would)? Would anyone in the US care if the White House did?

The major argument against supporting Moroccan unilateralism, for the White House, is that the UN establishment would not be too happy and Polisario would be left with no choice but to go back to war.

Unilateral autonomy: that there is the real Casus Belli.

There's obviously precedent for this, what with the Bush administration’s endorsement of Israeli unilateralism in Gaza and the West Bank wall, which is not a compromise but a solution pre-determined by realpolitik in the 1970s. The same could be said of Western Sahara.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

...Stop the Press! Polisario will not work with Van Walsum

I spoke too soon! In my last post I heavily criticised Polisario for not taking a tougher stance against Van Walsum's US-backed attack on self-determination ("And while the ship of self-determination is sinking, Algeria and Polisario re-arrange the deck chairs.)

Today Polisario announced that it will no longer work with Van Walsum, the UN envoy to Western Sahara. Following an emergency jama'a, the front had this to say:
The bureau of the National Secretariat deemed the personal approach preached by Mr. Peter van Walsum, illegal, unjust and completely aligned to the thesis of the Moroccan colonial occupation whose objective is to confiscate the Saharawi people's inalienable rights to self-determination and independence. The bureau vigorously condemns, on behalf of POLISARIO Front, this approach and considers that Mr. Walsum has lost the confidence of the Saharawi people and thus can no more play a role in the ongoing process to decolonise Western Sahara. [... T]he Bureau solemnly reaffirms that POLISARIO Front will not accept today nor tomorrow to enter in a process that aims at negating the Saharawi people's inalienable and imprescriptible rights to self-determination and independence.

Are dems fightin' words?

In light of this development, we might have to rethink why the Security Council gave MINURSO a 12-month extension rather than the normal six. Perhaps not only because of the change in the US administration come November, but also because there will be a job ad on the NY Craigslist tomorrow for a new Personal Envoy.

And now we're all waiting for the other shoe to drop -- ie, what will Rabat do?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Resolution 1813: Casus Belli? Apparently Not.

‘Negotiations, without the credible threat of force, are useless’
--Paraphrasing some dead white guy

Peter Van Walsum, personal envoy of the UN Secretary-General to the festering, nearly 33-year-old conflict in Western Sahara, dropped the diplomatic equivalent of a nuclear bomb on international legality this week. The problem is, no one seemed to notice.

In the lead-up to the Security Council’s now ritual extension of the Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) at the end of April, Van Walsum, whose credibility is supposed to rest on his impartiality, said that ‘an independent Western Sahara was not a realistic proposition’.

Though Van Walsum’s sentiment was clearly at odds with the UN charter and the neutrality of the offices of the Secretariat, his realpolitik logic was quite impeccable. Not because Western Sahara does not have a right to independence or because it would constitute an unviable state; no, Van Walsum had another reason in mind. He simply noted there is ‘no pressure on Morocco to abandon its claim of sovereignty over the territory’.

This has always been the rub when it comes to Western Sahara. As a former colony of Spain and a UN-recognised non-self-governing territory, the native people of Western Sahara ought to be afforded a vote on independence. Yet Western Sahara, since 1975, has been occupied by Morocco, a staunch -- one might say highly pliable, exceedingly acquiescent or pathetically submissive -- ally of France and the United States. And since France and the US hold the keys to MINURSO and any coercive UN diplomacy, Morocco has gotten its way in Western Sahara, plundering and colonizing Africa’s last colony in what is the most aggressive, unchecked expansion of territory since Israel took Gaza and the West Bank in 1967.

Following Van Walsum’s dropping of the R-bomb (for realism), France and the United States charged full speed ahead with an effort to shove a pro-Morocco resolution down the Security Council’s throat. The crux of the matter was whether or not the term realism (i.e., deference to global U.S.-European hegemony before the law) should apply to the final status option of independence. With help from South Africa, a vital ally of Western Sahara holding the Council Presidency, this assault was somewhat repulsed and the term realism was affixed to the negotiations process rather than obliterating the option of independence. And as always, France would not accept increased human rights monitoring added to the Mission’s mandate, lest Morocco’s abuses become part of the official Security Council records in the Secretary-General’s reports.

Finding ‘Comfort’

As always, Polisario spun defeat into victory -- pointing towards the carnage, remarking how beautiful the smouldering husk of what is left of self-determination.

The Western Saharan independence movement (if it still deserves that title) said it ‘is happy that in the resolution that it just adopted, the Security Council has decided, once again, to comfort and consecrate the international legality regarding the question of Western Sahara, and thus, the righteousness and fairness of the Saharawi cause’. Algeria, likewise, applauded the work of their ally South Africa in defending the right of 200,000 Sahrawis to cast a ballot.

Meanwhile, the US adopted its most stridently pro-Moroccan language in the course of the Western Sahara conflict. Since 1975, for the most part, the US has avoided explicitly recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Instead, the US always fashioned itself a more moderate intermediary than France, whose historical baggage with Morocco and Algeria had predetermined its pro-Rabat position on Western Sahara.

In the past, the US would offer tepid, ambiguous support for self-determination (i.e., without qualification) and, more wholeheartedly, negotiations between Morocco, Polisario and Algeria. Now, it seems that the US has given up pretending that it would ever throw the Morocco’s pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime to the wolves of democracy. As the deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN told reporters after the vote, ‘The best way to move forward, in our view, the realistic way to move forward, is to pursue a negotiated solution resulting in true autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty for the Polisario’.

This was reaffirmed by the State Department in a press briefing on 1 May. Where in previous months, the US had simply adorned Morocco’s timid autonomy proposal with platitudes like ‘serious’ and ‘credible’, the Bush administration was now awarding its favourite proxy-torturer with a fait accompli in Western Sahara.

When asked about Resolution 1813, ‘An independent Sahrawi state is not a realistic option. In our view, some form of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only realistic way forward to resolve this longstanding conflict. We urge the parties to focus future discussions on a mutually-acceptable autonomy regime that is consistent with the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara’. And what if the aspirations of the Sahrawis are for independence? Well, one can only aspire for so much in the face of ‘realism’.

We will have to wait and see, but this move by the US probably also terminated the Bush administration’s brief fling with Algeria, consecrated shortly after 9/11 but irreparably undone in 2004. In 2003, the US had asked Algeria to use its influence on Polisario to accept the second Baker Plan. When Algeria delivered, the Bush administration turned around and supported Morocco’s rejection of the Baker Plan in 2004.

And while the ship of self-determination is sinking, Algeria and Polisario re-arrange the deck chairs.

Endgame or end of the endgame?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Resolution 1813 is that it extended MINURSO’s mandate for an entire year. In more recent renewals of the Mission, the Council had opted for four to six month intervals, enough time for the diplomatic process to cycle through once or twice (especially the shuttle diplomacy of the late Baker period, 2000-4, and the early Van Walsum period, 2005-7).

With the parties further apart than ever, and with Rabat more assured of its position than at any other time, why would the Council choose a long extension rather than a short one? Is it because Van Walsum (or, as people said in 2005 when he was nominated, Van Who-sum?) needs a year to work his realism magic?

Unlikely. Morocco will demand, in the name of realism, that Polisario first abandon the right to independence. Polisario, on the other hand, will demand that Morocco, in the name of realism, first accept the right to self-determination.

Which only goes to show that one person’s realism, is another person’s fantasy.

The reason the Security Council gave itself such latitude probably has to do with the elections in the US. Under current conditions, Polisario and Algeria will probably keep their hands folded and hope for another Clinton presidency, or better yet Obama.

Indeed, the current phase of the conflict is not unlike just five years ago, when the table were turned on Morocco. Algeria and Polisario had accepted the Second Baker Plan and Morocco had rejected it. Instead of creating more momentum in the peace process, it came to a dead halt, and Morocco stalled until Baker got the message in April 2004.

Now it’s the same way, except Morocco will be the one gloating and Polisario and Algeria will be the ones doing the stalling until more favourable conditions present themselves. And the only major change on the horizon isn’t until November. Thus MINURSO gets a yearlong lease on life.

What is also clear is that all talk of endgames should cease. If ever there was a moment for Polisario to withdrawal from the peace process and mobilize its forces, the time has passed. Morocco has apparently learned to keep overt repression of Sahrawis to a minimum -- just below the obtuse level of most international media. Everyone -- the Security Council, Morocco, Algeria and Polisario -- will tolerate an endless peace process. The status quo is, for better and worst, the least bad option for all -- except the Sahrawis.