The land self-determination forgot

While the US supports Ukrainian sovereignty and self-determination, its close ally Morocco undermines international law in a concerted effort to subvert recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

A Sahrawi group in A. Lanzada Beach, Spain. Image credit Juanma Figueiro via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Both the United States and Morocco are campaigning to garner international support around their visions for self-determination and international law. Both countries use a variety of diplomatic tools to consolidate support for their positions. The US supports Morocco in its campaign and vice versa. The only difference is that self-determination and international law are to be respected in Ukraine, while in the Western Sahara, they are to be subverted.

Since Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the US has invoked a set of key values including self-determination, territorial integrity, sovereignty, non-aggression, and respect for international law. In the last few weeks, two incidents highlighted the idea that the US is centering its foreign policy on the defense of these values.

First, this vocabulary of self-determination and international law came up in Washington’s condemnation of South Africa for allegedly arming Russia. A US State Department spokesperson referred to the war as not only “brutal,” but “illegal” as well. Secondly, just last week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visited the US to meet with President Joe Biden. Statements from this visit situate the Spain-US strategic relationship in terms of shared values: defending democracy, countering aggression, and supporting sovereignty.

As the US campaigns diplomatically to secure support for its position in Ukraine, Morocco, with the assistance of the US, continues its decades-long effort to realize its claims on the Western Sahara. Since the end of Spanish colonial rule, Morocco and the partially-recognized Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) have contested the disputed territory.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 1975 that a referendum should be held to determine the rightful sovereign over the territory, but in over three decades since, that referendum has not taken place. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic remains a partially recognized state. And the United Nations, for its part, recognizes the region as non-self-governing. As part of the Abraham Accords deals to normalize relations with Israel, the US recognized Morocco’s claims to the Western Sahara in 2020.

Morocco understands that delegitimizing the alternative claims to the territory increases the relative legitimacy of the Moroccan claims. To this end, Morocco pursues a foreign policy of convincing states that have recognized the SADR to derecognize it. Of the 84 countries who have ever recognized the SADR, 56 have derecognized it at least once. Derecognition bolsters Moroccan claims to the Western Sahara and undermines the execution of the referendum. Morocco secured these derecognitions by coordinating diplomatic outreach campaigns, primarily using economic tools and targeting the domestic political situations of recognizer states.

Morocco economically incentivizes derecognition. In 2000, India derecognized the SADR over fears that Morocco would withhold its substantial phosphate exports. Jamaica derecognized the SADR in 2016, the same year Morocco began agricultural technical assistance to the country. In their derecognition announcements, countries make ubiquitous references to increased trade cooperation with Morocco, increased agricultural assistance, and increased health and education aid. Other countries’ reactions further evidence Morocco’s willingness to trade economic support for derecognition. Take, for example, Madagascar. In January 2023, Madagascar publicly requested that Morocco make investments in the country’s fertilizer industry. It then signed onto a resolution, calling for the SADR to be expelled from the African Union.

The domestic political strategies Morocco employs are highly context-dependent. But all of them rely on transforming a country’s recognition of the SADR into a domestic political issue. This is true in several countries but is epitomized in Bolivia, where Morocco effectively traded recognition for derecognition. Following the disputed election in 2019, Morocco was early to recognize the government of Jeanine Áñez Chávez. Bolivia specifically referenced this fact when they announced, weeks later, their derecognition of SADR. When the opposition won the next election, they reversed that decision. This further indicates the extent to which the Western Sahara has become a partisan issue.

The values at hand in Ukraine and the Western Sahara are fundamentally the same: self-determination, sovereignty, and respect for international law. The central cognitive dissonance is this: despite the US invoking universal values, its defense of those values is not universal. The US admonishes South Africa for supporting an illegal war and uplifts Spain for contributing to the defense of democracy. Yet, it happily supports Morocco’s subversion of international law and its refusal to hold a referendum.

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