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Beyond Diplomatic Niceties - OpEd

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The Washington Times

Beyond Diplomatic Niceties
By Joseph R. Pitts/Donald M. Payne
Published July 9, 2004

This week, His Majesty, King Mohammed of Morocco is in Washington to tout the newly signed U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement and to bask in his nation's newly christened status as a "major non-NATO ally."

While we do not oppose free trade or establishing stronger allies, we would do well to look past the diplomatic niceties that surround such trips. His Majesty's country illegally occupies a swath of land in West Africa known as Western Sahara. His government has promised the people of Western Sahara, the Sahrawi, a vote to determine their own future. More than a decade later, that vote has yet to occur.

Powerful friends in Europe and here in Washington have helped His Majesty's government postpone this vote and consolidate control over the country. The Moroccan government says its colonial rule over Western Sahara ensures its "territorial integrity" and preserves stability in the region. But this idea is simply divorced from reality on the ground.
During trips to the country, we have learned the Sahrawis are peaceful, pro-Western and pro-democracy. In short, despite living under an illegitimate colonial power, they have established a deep-rooted culture of democracy, capable of supporting a viable state. They have their own elected leaders, many of them women. They have provided education and equal rights to all their citizens-men and women.

The only stability a sovereign, democratic Western Sahara disrupts is a status quo defined by tyranny. The King will deny this. Official Washington will ignore it. But it is the truth.

From 1884 until 1975, Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. Upon Spain's withdrawal, Morocco invaded. The Sahrawis have fought a lonely battle for liberation ever since, many suffering in the refugee camps that dot Algerian sand dunes. The U.N. International Court of Justice ruled Morocco's claim to Western Sahara was illegitimate. Morocco ignored the ruling.

In 1991, Morocco accepted the U.N.-brokered cease-fire promising the Sahrawis a referendum for national self-determination. Morroccan officials moved tens of thousands of their own citizens to Western Sahara, attempting to stack the vote in its favor. In 1997, the United Nations asked former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to help implement the referendum. Morocco continued to balk.

The U.N.'s voter identification commission, using agreed-upon criteria, set out to identify the eligible voters. After years of interviews with each, the U.N. in January 2000 published the provisional list of voters, rejecting the majority of Moroccan applicants. Morocco-fearing it would lose the upper hand-reneged on its commitment to the referendum.

To break the impasse, Mr. Baker submitted a compromise plan to the Security Council in July 2003. The plan included a referendum for the Sahrawis and gave Moroccans who settled in Western Sahara through 1999 the right to vote, making them the majority of the electorate. Convinced a peaceful solution was possible, the leading Sahrawi political group-the POLISARIO Front-reluctantly accepted the terms of Mr. Baker's plan. Its gesture was never reciprocated. Morocco, supported by France, rejected the Baker Plan from the outset.

As this battle rages, Sahrawis suffer. The Moroccan government continues to imprison Sahrawi activists, exploit the natural resources of Western Sahara, and prohibit foreign journalists from transmitting the truth to the outside world, as evidenced by the recent expulsion of several Danish reporters.

The U.N. has spent more than $600 million to maintain this dreadful status quo. Successive U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat, have walked a fine line on this issue. Morocco is a longstanding ally. However, alliance with powerful nations should not provide the cover to ignore international commitments and deny the basic human right of self-determination to a peaceful, democratic people.

When the president meets with King Mohammed this week, he should not ignore His Majesty's opposition to democracy in the Western Sahara. The spread of freedom is central to our mission as a nation. This is ever more important as the administration works to spread democracy in Islamic nations.

Unlike many others in the Middle East and North Africa, the Sahrawis have chosen a peaceful path to democracy. We owe the democratic people of Western Sahara no less than the support we have given others in their fight for independence-the right to have a say in their own future.

When Congress considers the U.S.-Morocco free trade agreement, it should seriously consider how it will aid His Majesty's attempt to exploit an area to which he has no legitimate claim. Ignoring Western Sahara will put a vote for Sahrawis further out of reach.

The time has come to abandon empty promises and hollow rhetoric in favor of a free, fair, and transparent referendum for the Sahrawis. This is the only way to build a peaceful, democratic future for Western Sahara and the entire region.
Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican, is vice-chairman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Human Rights. Rep. Donald M. Payne, New Jersey Democrat, is ranking member of House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa.

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