Sunday, November 20, 2005

Peace and POWs: Obscuring the Western Sahara Issue with A Flock of Red Herrings

"I will have liked to die in Tindouf!"
-Corporal Abdeslam Roubal, former Moroccan POW held by the Polisario for 19 years in Tindouf
This past week, the US congress held a hearing on the Western Sahara conflict, its first in over five years. Witnesses ranged from a deputy at the State Department, to the former head of the UN’s Sahara mission, to a noted British observer of the conflict, to a right-wing critic of the botched UN referendum cum peace process.

Another witnesses was a former Moroccan POW, whose presence was an obvious concession to the pro-Moroccan representatives on the convening International Relations Subcommittee on Africa. For example, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, co-chairman of the congressional Morocco caucus. Diaz-Balart's prepared statement simply reminded the Committee of Morocco’s close relations with the US and the Polisario’s ties with the “tyrants” like Mu‘amar Qadhdhafi and Fidel Castro. No surprise, Diaz-Balart is a republican from Florida. I’m just surprised he didn’t mention the Polisario’s cozy relations with Hugo Chavez.

Rather than focus on how to find a solution, which the hearing’s title implied, "Getting to 'Yes'," referencing an influential book on conflict resolution, Diaz-Balart felt it better to spend his time trying to de-legitimize one of the parties to the conflict -- the Polisario. How this kind of partisanship will advance peace is in the region is beyond me. It only obscures the central issue and makes it harder for policymakers and policy-influencers to make clear choices.

This shouldn’t be surprising though. Morocco’s strategy on the Hill is to undermine the hard won bipartisan support Polisario Front – the Western Saharan liberation movement – has gained over the years: partially due to the fact that their cause speaks for itself, but also due in large parts to the charisma and tireless legwork of Front’s Washington-based representative. To counter this, Morocco has spent millions on direct advertising, funded its own “think-tank” of fomer US diplomats (the Moroccan-American Committee for Policy), and hired at least five of the most powerful lobbying firms on K Street, including the Livingston Group.

One of the persons reportedly coordinating Morocco’s attacks on Polisario is the infamous Lauri J. Fitz-Pegado, the woman who helped concoct the whole Iraqi-soldiers-killing-Kuwaiti-babies story in 1990. Apparently, she was behind a September delegation of Polisario defectors who came to the US to lobby against the Polisario’s student exchange programs with Cuba. Their main claim is that Algerian and the Polisario force Saharan children from the refugee camps under Polisario control in Algeria to study in Cuba, where they receive “political indoctrination” and little else. A Saharan father-daughter team, reportedly foribly separated for years while the latter was in Cuba against her will, toured the Hill and, of course, went to Miami. Having met many Saharan students who have returned from 10 or more years in Cuba, I can say that their only complaint is that life in the refugee camps is far less interesting than their days and nights in Havana. And at least they come back with a skill they can use, something they can't get in the camps.

Another thing worth pointing out is that most of the former Polisario members who defect to Morocco will be compensated greatly if they choose to “speak out” against their former comrades, even if it means lying. Otherwise, they face the grim job prospects faced by all other Moroccans – except that the only thing they can put on their resume is “former separatist.” Any journalist with half a brain could easily find out that Morocco’s propaganda campaigns are as choreographed for right-wing consumption as they are highly deceptive. That should tell you something about the kind of journalists they have at Miami Herald.

However, the most ridiculous claim that Morocco has put forward is that the 100,000 or so refugees under Polisario supervision near Tindouf, Algeria, are prisoners against their own will. This has even been suggested in Washington, and it is starting to come up more and more often in the press. There's even a "civil society" movement in Morocco to "free" the refugees. It is probably important for the Moroccans to believe that the majority of the refugees that have lived for 30 years in exile would actually rather live under Moroccan occupation. But then why did over 90 percent tell the UNHCR in 1997 that they would rather vote for self-determination under Polisario-supervision than under Moroccan-supervision?

A Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabret went to Tindouf and reported the truth of the matter: the camps are relatively peaceful and places of free association, expression and assembly. For that, a Moroccan court tried him in abstentia and stripped him of his right to practice journalism.

In the now 30 year old history of the Western Sahara conflict, few issues have worked in Rabat's favor as much as the Polisario's egregious detention of hundreds of Moroccan POWs past the 1991 cease-fire. The Polisario finally released the last 400 of these POWs this summer under the aegis of US Senator Richard Lugar, who agreed to oversee their release as a sign of the US government’s commitment to the Polisario-Moroccan peace process and Moroccan-Algerian reconciliation. As a reciprocal sign of Rabat’s “goodwill,” repression of Saharans living under Moroccan control in the occupied Western Sahara was ramped up, which now includes the public death-by-beating of a young Saharan demonstrator earlier this month.

As is often noted, the Polisario captured over 2,000 Moroccan POWs during the long war over the territory, 1975-1991. Some captured as early as 1976, they were held in conditions far less than adequate for POWs. Reputable human rights organizations have echoed claims by former prisoners that they were subject to torture, forced labor and extra-judicial execution. In 2003, the French NGO France Liberties released a damning report on the POWs that accused Algeria and the Polisario of some of the worst acts of brutality imaginable. The report, however, was so riddled with a priori falsehoods, that it was hard to take seriously as a respectable human rights report.

For a time, Morocco was the biggest obstacle to the release of the POWs. In the early-1990s, the Polisario released dozens of the most elderly and infirm prisoners, yet Rabat refused to accept them. Indeed, Morocco had long denied their existence of the POWs to its own population. That group of POWs had to be forcefully repatriated to Morocco by an Argentine and US diplomat in the mid-1990s.

Earlier this year, the Polisario came under significant pressure to release the POWs when former Senator John McCain held a press conference expressing his outrage at the continued detention of the Moroccan POWs by the Polisario. As a high profile senator and former POW, McCain helped bring an end to this sad state of affairs. For his service to the Moroccan regime, McCain – along with Diaz-Balart – was conferred a special title as a “commander” by the ‘Alawi monarchy on November 9. Though one wonders if anyone bothered to tell him that Morocco has never come clean on its own Saharan POWs, or the 500 Saharan civilians still considered “disappeared” by Morocco.

One also wonders if McCain will follow up with the Moroccan government on the treatment of most of the POWs since returning to Morocco. A select few lobby Washington – e.g., those who received training at US military bases in the 1970s and 1980s and therefore speak flawless English. The rest are kept under tight control by the state and there are complaints of neglect.

As recently reported by a Moroccan magazine, Tel Quel, one former POW said he’d rather have died in Tindouf:
Tel Quel October 9, 2005
Armée. “J’aurai aimé mourir à Tindouf !”

Un septième militaire marocain libéré par le POLISARIO vient de décéder dans l’indifférence à l’hôpital militaire de Rabat, victime d’un cancer. "Sa femme s’est remariée, sa famille l’a ignoré et surtout l’état marocain qu’il n’a pas arrêté d’interpeller pour lui venir en aide faisait la sourde oreille", nous rapporte un membre de l’association des martyrs et disparus du Sahara. Le caporal Abdeslam Roubal, qui a été relâché en 2000 après 19 ans d’incarcération, jusqu’à son dernier souffle répétait sur son lit de mort: "J’aurai préféré finir mes jours sous une tente à Tindouf."
The problem with standing up for principle, Senator McCain, is that it is rather unprincipled not to defend that principle in all cases, at all times.


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