At a time when tensions between the Polisario and Morocco in their fight over Africa’s last colony of Western Sahara are at the highest point since the 1991 cease fire, Wikileaks documents have enhanced the cause of the Polisario by revealing that they are the good guys in this fight. One of the difficulties the Polisario has had to overcome is a well financed Moroccan lobby of millions of dollars spent annually to obscure the facts in this conflict. Ten lobby firms are currently registered to do King Mohamed VI’s bidding (www.fara.gov ) and spread outright lies and distortions about the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, where 165,000 Sahrawis live having fled when Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975; the motivation of Algeria in giving them refuge; and the nature of the Sahrawi Republic itself, a democratic, pro-West exile government recognized by over eighty nations as the legitimate government of Western Sahara.
The Polisario, formed by the Sahrawis in 1973 as a liberation movement against their Spanish colonizers, is now dedicated to one goal: ensuring the Sahrawis get their vote on self determination, first called for by the United Nations in 1966, promised by Spain, reaffirmed by the International Court of Justice in 1975, and promised by the United Nations in 1991 as part of the cease fire between Morocco and the Polisario. Among the outlandish claims by the Kingdom of Morocco and those on the King’s payroll are that the Polisario are holding the Sahrawi refugees against their will in these camps, involved in illegal activities from human trafficking to terrorism, restricting access to the camps, and that the camps are a breeding ground for al-Qaida.
The fact is the Polisario long for visitors to the refugee camps and there are regular visitors from Spain as well as a constant UN presence. I have personally organized delegations of Americans to visit and this Christmas thousands of Spanish citizens will travel there to celebrate this holy Christian day with their Muslim friends.
Not only do the Polisario welcome visitors, but their embrace of Western ideals including religious freedom and women’s equality, their intolerance of extremism, severe punishment of traffickers and anyone associated with terrorism, has caused Islamic extremists to label the Sahrawi as “too close to the West and not pious enough.” (Wikileak ID 240095 http://www.elpais.com/articulo/internacional/Cable/Polisario/censura/webs/islamistas/elpepuint/20101203elpepuint_38/Tes)
U.S. Ambassador–at-Large for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin affirmed there are no links between al-Qaida and the Western Sahara in a press conference last month. http://fpc.state.gov/151048.htm
Morocco has also tried to cast suspicion on the motivations of Algeria. Algeria saved thousands of Sahrawi women and children when the Moroccan air force dropped napalm and phosphorus on them as they fled their homeland from the invading Moroccan army by allowing them to enter Algeria. Today, Algeria allows the Sahrawis to govern and oversee their refugee camps located in northwest Algeria without interference. When former Secretary of State James Baker served as UN Special Envoy on Western Sahara he attempted to spur a settlement by offering Algeria part of Western Sahara, believing they would sell out their friends for a land route to the Atlantic. The Algerians were offended that such an offer would even be made. What Wikileaks has revealed is the consistency of Algeria’s position and that their support of the Polisario is based on principle. Algeria has no interest in stealing their land as Morocco has done, but only wants the people of Western Sahara to have the opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to self-determination as Algeria President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has strongly argued to U.S. officials.
(Wikileak 159651 http://www.elpais.com/articulo/internacional/Cable/Argelia/dice/presionara/saharauis/elpepuint/20101203elpepuint_21/Tes
Self-determination for Western Sahara represents the greatest opportunity to have established a pro-West Muslim Arab democracy, something the United States is expending great blood and treasure to accomplish in Iraq and Afghanistan. For decades the Polisario has appealed to the United States to uphold self-determination believing that the United States shares their same values and can help them realize this goal. This is why their cause has attracted such support from the late Senator Edward Kennedy and Senators Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy to James Inhofe and James DeMint from Congressmen Donald Payne to Frank Wolf and Joseph Pitts. I have only found two types of people who support Morocco’s position: individuals who are ignorant of the facts or who are getting money or another favor from the King.
The greatest strength for the Sahrawi cause is truth, and the more truth that comes out, whether through Wikileaks or those who take the time to examine the facts, the greater the cause of the Polisario. The King’s propagandists would have you believe that hundreds of Sahrawis have “escaped” the refugee camps to live under the benevolent Mohamed VI in occupied Western Sahara but what happened last month is a more accurate picture. The Moroccan security forces decimated the tent city of Gadaym Izik set up by an estimated twenty thousand Sahrawis living in Moroccan occupied Western Sahara who were peacefully protesting their treatment as third class citizens in their own homeland. While the Polisario longs for and welcomes observers to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, Morocco banned any observers, expelled journalists and even turned back European parliamentarians who tried to visit the area to assess Morocco’s latest bloody assault on men, women and children.
The violence against the Sahrawis has been well documented by human rights groups from Amnesty International to Freedom House, which regularly lists Moroccan Occupied Western Sahara as one of the world’s worst regimes.
At this critical time, the United States must demand Morocco allow access to occupied Western Sahara and insist the long promised referendum be held. A vote on self-determination is all that the Polisario seeks: let the Sahrawis have their vote and choose to be free or part of Morocco. If the King’s paid propagandists claims are true, they should be the last to fear the free expression of the Sahrawi people.
Dr. Suzanne Scholte is the President of the Defense Forum Foundation and the 2010 recipient of the Walter Judd Freedom Award and the 2008 Seoul Peace Prize for her work promoting freedom, democracy and human rights.