Morocco’s King Mohammed VI arrives in Washington this Thursday, and since he has made clear his interest in deepening the U.S.-Moroccan relationship, he will likely be received by President Obama. He will emphasize issues on which the United States and Morocco agree, but he should also be prepared to deal with issues on which his country and policies are squarely at odds with American values and interests. Namely, these are ongoing human rights abuses and the status of the Western Sahara, both of which are currently contributing to instability in the region.
It is far from certain, however, whether Mr. Obama will even raise these issues during their meeting. If the meeting with the king concludes without the president raising them, his failure to do so will be taken as U.S. approval of Morocco’s policies.
Freedom House, in the watchdog group’s most recent annual report, ranked Western Sahara with the “Worst of the Worst.” In terms of political, civil rights and humanitarian abuse, this puts the kingdom in the same category as North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, China for its mistreatment of occupied Tibetan people, and Syria for its ongoing abuse of its own people.
Morocco talks about reform, but continues to jail dissidents. Most recently, for example, the king’s security forces arrested Ali Anouzla, one of Morocco’s foremost journalists and a critic of the king.
Morocco’s continuing occupation of the Western Sahara and mistreatment of those living there — in spite of international and United Nations‘ insistence that the people of the region be given a right to vote on their status — is of even greater significance. When Spain left what had been known in colonial times as the Spanish Sahara in 1975, Morocco seized it and has occupied it ever since. The U.N. recognizes Western Sahara as a “non-self-governing territory,” and many simply call it the “last colony of Africa.” The African Union has refused to allow the annexation of Western Sahara to be a hurdle to Sahawaris’ participation in African affairs, and has made Western Sahara a full member of the union.
Western Sahara’s status has not been fully forgotten by the international community, though. Christopher Ross, a former U.S. ambassador to Algeria and Syria, is now serving as the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy and has been engaged in active “shuttle diplomacy” in an effort to help resolve this long-standing dispute. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker preceded Mr. Ross in this effort, but neither have made much progress — and won’t — until and unless the president makes clear that the United States wants it resolved.
Mr. Obama should make it clear to the king that he agrees with the U.N. that the status of the Western Sahara should be decided by referendum. The U.N. established a peacekeeping mission in 1991 to support just such a referendum, aptly called the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, but the referendum has yet to take place.
Most such U.N. missions include a human rights monitoring component, but this one does not. The United States sought to challenge this anomaly last spring at the United Nations, but backed down when Morocco objected. Instead of agreeing to let the people of the region determine their own future, the king has offered what he calls “autonomy” to the Western Sahara. The irony of offering “autonomy” to a group of people living in an area seized and held by military force is hard to miss. America’s Founders would likely not have accepted such an offer of “autonomy” within the British Empire in 1776, and the Western Saharan people don’t want such an arrangement today. They want their country back.
In his 2009 speech in Cairo, Mr. Obama warned that we should not “ignore sources of tension, [rather] we must finally confront together,” and went on to outline four issues, including democracy, that must remain at the heart of the dialogue between the United States and countries in the Middle East. He eloquently argued that government actions must reflect the will of its people, noting how people yearn for freedom of expression, rule of law and transparent governance. He argued that these are not only American but international values, and that governments that protect these rights are “more stable, successful and secure.”
If he meant what he said back then, Mr. Obama should ask that the Moroccan king support the U.N.-led process and agree to a deadline — preferably in early 2014 — to bring this occupation to an end. He should also insist that the king order the release of all political prisoners, immediately.
We should welcome the king’s visit. Morocco is a friend and ally of the United States, but that friendship should not come at the price of a requirement that we ignore our values or remain silent in the face of even a friendly nation’s violations of human rights. In a mature relationship between allies, the king must expect the president of the United States to raise these questions, and the president should do so.
Mr. Obama has spoken out in favor of democracy and human rights, but now he has a real chance to demonstrate that he means what he says.
Frank Ruddy is a former U.S. ambassador and head of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.