So Much for Human Rights: On Morocco’s Occupation of Western Sahara

Jeremy Harding in the LRB blog:

Two things we can learn about Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara from the US embassy in Rabat, courtesy of WikiLeaks: 1) it’s a source of personal revenue for Moroccan army officers but 2) everything’s fine really.

Western Sahara used to be a Spanish possession, which Madrid was due to hand over to the indigenous population in 1975. King Hassan II of Morocco took advantage of the chaos in Spain at the time of Franco’s death and annexed the territory. The UN deplored the move; the Polisario Front embarked on a liberation war, which resulted in stalemate and a ceasefire in 1989. By this time Morocco controlled most of the territory and was pouring in settlers to outnumber indigenous Sahrawis.

Under UN auspices, both parties – the kingdom of Morocco and Polisario – agreed to a referendum on independence. Twenty years later, the vote is a lost hope: the Moroccans have driven it into the ground with Byzantine objections, year on year. The UN mission has been sidelined; the settler colonial project continues; there are hundreds of thousands of refugees in Algeria and a population inside the territory that’s punished when it calls for independence.

These are trifling matters for Ambassador Thomas T. Riley, filing from Rabat in 2008. What counts is America’s ‘robust military relationship’ with Morocco, confirmed by ‘the purchase of sophisticated weapons from the US to include 24 F-16s this year’. The regime, Riley announces,

has also increased its activities under a partnership arrangement with the Utah National Guard, which regularly deploys to Morocco to conduct joint training and humanitarian relief operations.

Even so, he’s disturbed by corruption in the Moroccan army (total numbers 218,000; between ‘50 and 70 per cent… preoccupied with operations in the Western Sahara region’). Riley cites Lieutenant Geneneral Abdelaziz Bennani, commander of the Southern Section – i.e. the annexed territory. Apparently, Bennani has used his position to

skim money from military contracts and influence business decisions. A widely believed rumour has it that he owns large parts of the fisheries in Western Sahara… There are even reports of students at Morocco’s military academy paying money… to obtain positions in lucrative military postings.

Top of the list: Western Sahara.