Why Morocco must not be allowed to join the African Union

The country's occupation of Western Sahara is one of international diplomacy’s greatest failures.

“What does Morocco mean to an Englishman?” George Orwell asked in one of his finer essays. “Camels, castles, palm-trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass trays and bandits.” That was 1939. But whatever Morocco means to an Englishman today it probably isn’t "occupation, refugees, and landmines".

Morocco is a standard tourist destination and is held up as a model for Arab and African development alike. It may, therefore, come as something of a shock to hear that Morocco is the only African country excluded from membership of the African Union (Madagascar, Mali, and Guinea-Bissau have all been "suspended" since 2009 and 2012 respectively).

This is not something that sits well with King Mohammed VI or his new Government, and on Wednesday a diplomatic team in Rabat started Morocco’s latest push for membership. Kindly voices from the AU have also started to exercise their larynxes on the matter, such as prominent Tanzanian MP, Edward Lowassa Ngayai, who backed bringing Morocco into the AU fold last month.

Morocco was elbowed out of the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 after the organization finally recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the exiled government of Western Sahara, which Morocco invaded and occupied in 1976 and has held by force ever since.

Western Sahara represents one of international diplomacy’s greatest failures. When the Spanish left in 1975, Sahara was to be the last country on the continent to go through decolonisation; it would forever mark the end of the sanguinary history of empire in Africa. Instead it is Africa’s last colony.

The occupation has left hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi disenfranchised, and somewhere between 90,000 and 200,000 have fled as refugees, most of whom currently live in the Tindouf refugee camp in Southern Algeria, and in similar camps in Mauritania. The Moroccan army has established a segregation wall over 2000km long and surrounded by landmines, going through Western Sahara. Sahara’s resources are plundered, and its people continue to suffer.

The United Nations response to the occupation has been nothing short of a disgrace. Though the UN recognises the occupation is illegal, it has utterly failed to do anything about it. The UN has maintained a peacekeeping mission meant to hold a referendum on autonomy in Sahara (MINURSO) since 1991, but it has no mandate to monitor human rights abuses, a skeleton staff, and thanks to France’s Security Council veto has failed to produce a referendum for 21 years.

In spite of all this, it was in Western Sahara’s Gdeim Izik camp that the political protest movements in North Africa began, two months before the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. The Western Sahara protests received little recognition, let alone backing, in national newspapers, nor did anyone call for the end of the authoritarian regime that was its target. Moroccan security forces dismantled the 6000 tent camp, and the movement, by force.

The African Union is undoubtedly a corrupt and weak institution, and includes countries with even worse human rights records than Morocco. But the one break in over 35 years of international inertia on the occupation of Western Sahara has been the AU’s stand for independence, and refusal to admit the membership of Morocco.

If regional institutions are capable of having any impact at all on global justice (a question to which the answer may well be no), then it can only be by making membership for countries on the peripheries of regional blocks conditional on ending their abuses of human rights, something which has arguably been achieved to some extent with the European Union.

A Chatham House report once compared an AU human rights court to “whistling in the wind”, but its policy on Western Sahara and Moroccan membership is one success in a list so short that it could be inscribed on one of Orwell’s brass trays. If it abandons that stance now, the AU will have to say it is happy living with a colonial Africa.

A Sahrawi refugee walks in a Western Sahara refugee camp. Photograph: Getty Images
Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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