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Mediterranean Quarterly 13.4 (2002) 88-115

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Ethical Issues in U.S. Policy on the Western Sahara Conflict

F. Ugboaja Ohaegbulam

Conflict with broad regional and international repercussions has raged since 1975 between Morocco and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saquiet el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario) about who has sovereignty over the Western Sahara. U.S. policy on the conflict remained consistent under the five successive administrations of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. It probably will not change under Clinton's successor, George W. Bush.

From the beginning of the conflict to the present deadlocked United Nations-prescribed referendum in the territory, U.S. policy has been one of solid political, diplomatic, economic, and military support for Morocco. It was provided support in Morocco's initial attempt to secure control of the former Spanish colony and has not changed its position in spite of Morocco's destabilizing and precedent-setting behavior for African states and the world.

For the United States this policy raises ethical questions regarding both the nation's traditional values and principles and its global leadership. It has adopted some seemingly contradictory stances. For example, the United States was providing Rabat with arms and military training to wage war in a territory where Morocco's claim to sovereignty was still not formally recognized by Washington, while on the other hand, it voted in the UN Security Council to authorize a plebiscite in the Western Sahara, in which the people were to decide either to be a sovereign state or to become incorporated into the Kingdom of Morocco. Further, it cooperated with Morocco to obstruct the [End Page 88] process of the referendum. In addition, U.S. policy has produced repercussions for the international community in terms of the protection of human rights, political stability, and economic development in northwestern Africa.

Origins and Development of the Conflict

In the 1960s the UN pressured Spain to hasten the decolonization of the Western Sahara by means of a referendum that would enable the inhabitants to exercise freely their right to national self-determination. This was in keeping with both Article 73 of the UN Charter and UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (15) adopted in December 1960. The latter, among others, states that all peoples have the right to self-determination and that by virtue of that right they may freely determine their political rights and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development. In 1967 Spain set up in the territory a yemaa—a colonial legislative assembly—the majority of whose members held political views sympathetic to Spain's. In 1973 a group of Western Sahara nationalists organized the Polisario, which initiated guerrilla activities against the Spanish administration. In 1974 Spain agreed in principle to a 1973 request by the yemaa to allow self-determination in the territory and proceeded to conduct a census of the territory to facilitate a 1974 referendum.

In the meantime, the Kingdom of Morocco and Mauritania rejected the idea of any expression of self-determination in the Spanish colony and asserted instead their "historical" claims to sovereignty over the territory. To deal with these claims, the UN sent a fact-finding mission in May 1975 to Western Sahara that found an overwhelming consensus in favor of independence and opposing integration with any neighboring country. Also, at the instance of the two African claimants who were seeking to prevent the referendum, the UN sought and obtained an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice at the Hague on two questions. 1 [End Page 89]

In October 1975 the court advised that while there had been certain legal ties between some groups in the disputed territory and Morocco and between others and Mauritania, those ties did not constitute legal sovereignty. Regarding Morocco's claim, the court decreed that "neither the internal nor the international acts relied upon by Morocco indicate the existence at the relevant period of either the existence or the international recognition of legal ties of territorial sovereignty between Western...


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