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The continuing competition for influence
© Paulo Nunes dos Santos

Readers of the foregoing article, originally published by the ‘Journal of Modern African Studies’ in 1994, were treated to a discussion of the respective positions and activities of Morocco and the Polisario Front in their attempts (or the lack of same) to convey their respective points of view on the Western Sahara conflict to audiences in the United States and Europe. Specifically, the efforts of the two parties to the dispute to communicate their views to segments of élite public opinion in the US came in for special attention, with the conclusion drawn that it was the Kingdom of Morocco and not the Polisario Front which was prevailing in the American forum and that media attention paid to Western Sahara had diminished to the vanishing point.

Seventeen years on, the Western Sahara ‘propaganda war’ is ready for re-examination. A survey of more recent activity on the part of three actors/set of actors - Morocco, the Polisario Front and various nongovernmental organisations (NGO’s) - reveals important continuities with the 1994 situation, yet which encompasses not only different groups, issues, and personalities, but also takes account (as any analysis of the sort must) of the explosion of information and of opportunities to spread information made possible by the advent of the Internet, something which was nearly invisible in the early 1990s. But those individuals and NGO’s who attempt to pierce what amounts to a wall of silence on the Saharan question usually still encounter a situation in which not only does Morocco enjoy inordinate influence, but also an environment (not at all created by Rabat or its backers but certainly utilised by them) that make their alternative story difficult to disseminate.


Since the 1990s, Morocco’s effort to publicise its side of the Western Sahara issue to educated public opinion in the West has never flagged. In about 1998, the Kingdom enlisted the services of the high-powered and well-connected Cassidy Group of Washington lobbyists, whose other clients included the US tobacco industry as well as the brutal dictatorship of Téodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea.

© Paulo Nunes dos SantosThe firm was reportedly paid upwards of US$100,000 per month for what one observer called a ‘charm offensive’ that, rather than dwelling on Western Sahara and the severe Moroccan repression therein, stressed the long history of US-Morocco friendship and the country’s perceived utility as an American ally. The Morocco project, apparently overseen by Gerald Cassidy, the company’s founder and a prominent member of the Democratic Party, was described in a legal document filed with the US Department of Justice as ‘advancing the appreciation of Morocco’s culture and historic ties with the United States and its role in the development and stability of North Africa,’ although Western Sahara was undoubtedly high on the list of Cassidy’s priorities, all the more so in light of the intensive lobbying of the US Congress by Polisario’s Washington representative, Mr Mouloud Said.

Morocco also has had considerable success attracting former US diplomats to its side. Set against the fact that State Department diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks organisation show that serving US diplomats unswervingly support Morocco’s 2005 plan for Western Saharan ‘autonomy’ under the overall and permanent authority of Rabat - a stance which, in fairness, reflects a support for the autonomy plan made at the highest levels of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations - it should not be entirely surprising that at least two former US ambassadors to Morocco continue to lobby for the country’s position on Western Sahara, in the process making extravagant allegations against the Polisario Front with little or no evidence. For example, Frederick Vreeland, US Ambassador to Morocco in 1992 and 1993, wrote an op-ed article in the ‘New York Times’ on 3 March 2007 (p. A-15), not only backing Rabat’s autonomy plan but also linking (without evidence) Polisario to the Algerian-based terror group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Then, about two weeks later (22 March, p. A-27), the ‘Times’ was obliged to print an amplification to Ambassador Vreeland’s biographical data, pointing out that he was ‘the chairman of an solar-energy company that has had contracts with the Moroccan government’, damaging his credibility. Another former ambassador to Morocco, Edward M. Gabriel, went even further in his fabrications against the Polisario Front in the spring of 2011, alleging - with not the slightest evidence - that Polisario’s armed forces were in Libya assisting the country’s ruler, Colonel Muammar el-Qadaffi, in his military campaign against the rebellion against his 42-year dictatorship. Completely ignored in Gabriel’s accusation were several excellent reasons why Polisario would almost certainly not militarily assist Qadaffi, including the irreversible damage to Polisario’s reputation if such support were ever publicly revealed, and not least the decidedly uneven relationship between Polisario and the erratic Libyan leader ever since the early 1980s.

The case of Robert M. Holley, not a former ambassador but still a diplomat whose 21-year state department career included postings in Morocco, involves a more extensive and lengthy lobbying effort on behalf of the kingdom. Holley, the director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP), which he founded after leaving the US government in 2002, and which is a registered agent of the Moroccan regime. MACP has issued at least two strongly pro-Moroccan and anti-Polisario papers in recent years. The first, ‘Cuba and the Polisario Front’, published in August 2005, describes the Polisario Front as a ‘Marxist’ organisation and calls both Cuba and Polisario ‘renegade forces’ bent on the destabilisation of North Africa. Polisario’s Moroccan-backed opponents thus seem to find no inconsistency between calling the front Marxist in character and at the same time accusing it of ties with the militant Islamist terrorists of AQIM.

In September 2009, a second document was released by MACP, this time in collaboration with the International Law Institute, a group which had hitherto concerned itself almost wholly with international trade and commercial law issues. Entitled ‘Group Rights and International Law: A Case Study on the Sahrawi Refugees in Algeria’, the report criticised the world community for turning a blind eye to the ‘warehousing’ of Western Saharan refugees in the Tindouf region of southwestern Algeria since the mid-1970’s, overlooking not only the reasons why the Sahrawis fled to the area (Morocco’s armed invasion of Western Sahara starting in late 1975), but also why these selfsame refugees for the most part do not feel they can return to the territory (Morocco’s repressive behavior there and its refusal to allow a referendum on self-determination).

The pattern exhibited by Robert Holley, Edward Gabriel and Frederick Vreeland, consequently, is to level one-sided allegations which in some cases have a superficial plausibility - as is the case in the long-acknowledged links between Cuba and the Polisario Front in the educational and health care fields - while ignoring Moroccan repression inside Western Sahara, disregarding wider international legal questions, and unconvincingly trying to link the Sahrawis with an array of unsavory actors.

In Europe, Morocco’s efforts have involved different personalities deployed to similar ends. In Belgium, Claude Moniquet, President of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC), published a report in May 2010 that not only repeated allegations that Polisario was somehow associated with AQIM, but that the Sahrawi group was also engaged in criminal activities, including the smuggling of cigarettes and other goods across the Sahel region, something that countless individuals in the area have indulged in for centuries. It also drew a bizarre parallel between the Polisario Front and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), despite the fact that Polisario, unlike the IRA, has never engaged in attacks on civilians. In Spain, David Alvarado, a correspondent for the European branch of CNN, does not go quite as far as Mr Moniquet, but does allege that individuals associated with Polisario are sympathetic to Islamist extremism out of frustration with the intractable character of the Saharan conflict. His efforts, though, are probably less effective than in the US or France, due to Spain’s continuing status as the one European country where the visibility of the Western Sahara issue is the highest and the number of organisations favoring self-determination, as well as those groups dedicated to humanitarian relief for the Sahrawi refugees, are by far the greatest.


Assisted by the Internet and fortified by an increased worldwide sensitivity to human rights, yet still not able to compete with Morocco’s much greater resources or those of its supportive groups and personalities, NGO’s nevertheless scored notable (if limited) successes from the late 1990’s to 2011.

We have already seen how Morocco’s outreach/lobbying endeavors have focused on the United States Congress. How has Rabat fared there? Rather well: resolutions in the House of Representatives and the Senate expressing generalised approbation for Morocco usually are adopted by lopsided majorities, and in spite of all the visits to the Tindouf-area Sahrawi refugee camps which Polisario has arranged, only two current members of the House, Joseph Pitts (Republican, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania) and Donald Payne (Democrat, Newark, New Jersey) have shown a sustained and sympathetic interest in Western Sahara at variance with the Moroccan viewpoint. Visit the Robert F. Kennedy Center for more information.

Polisario itself is still locked into the same pattern I mentioned in 1994: only one representative each in Washington and New York, with the latter individual of necessity devoting nearly all his time to the Western Sahara question at the UN. Polisario’s presence in the US thus remained minimal and practically devoid of meaningful outreach in the US generally.

As far as nongovernmental organisations were concerned, it was with regard to the search for, or the exploitation of, Western Sahara’s natural resources such as fisheries, phosphates, and possible petroleum deposits that these groups achieved some of their most important victories, or at least garnered additional publicity for the Saharan problem (such as Western Sahara Resource Watch). And in some cases, they actually stopped or discouraged multinational corporations from cooperating with the Moroccan government on oil exploration matters, for example, although NGO’s have had less success when it comes to the determination of the European Union (EU) to include Western Saharan waters on a par with those of Morocco proper relative to fishing rights by vessels of EU member states. But even here, NGO’s in North America and Europe (including the multi-nation Fish Elsewhere) had succeeded by 2011 in getting an airing of the Western Sahara question when fisheries agreements between Morocco and the EU were either being negotiated or were up for renewal. Watch the Fish from Sahara video for more information.

But it was the search for oil reserves in the territory’s waters that got the international campaign against Morocco’s activities into high gear. In late 2001, Morocco’s petroleum agency (known by its French acronym, Onarep) contracted with several companies to explore for oil deposits in Western Saharan waters, including the Houston, Texas-based firm of Kerr-McGee, the Franco-Belgian company then known as TotalFinaElf, and TGS-Nopec, a Norwegian firm which landed a sub-contract from Kerr-McGee to perform seismic surveys in the affected area. The campaign against this was bolstered by a formal UN legal opinion by Hans Corell on 12 February 2002, who stated that the extraction of natural resources from Western Sahara could not take place without the approval of the native Sahrawis, and several NGO’s immediately went on the offensive, seeking to force as many companies as possible to pull out of their agreements with Onarep.

This campaign, spearheaded by Western Sahara Resource Watch had its first major victory in early 2003, when TGS-Nopec, reportedly under pressure from the Oslo government, stopped all its activities in Western Sahara. A company official, Arne Helland, even acknowledged that this firm’s presence in Western Sahara was the result of an ‘unwise decision’.

Later in 2003, the NGO’s efforts bore further fruit. Both the Dutch firm Fugro-Svitzer and the UK’s Robertson Research International pulled out of Western Sahara, and in a major development in November 2004, the Total Group (as TotalFinaElf had renamed itself) announced that it would end its exploration activities in the disputed territory, although it insisted (falsely, in the eyes of the resource groups) that the international effort against Morocco had nothing to do with its decision and that it had simply not found any commercially viable oil deposits in the Onarep concession zone. By now, only Kerr-McGee remained as an active participant in the oil exploration endeavor, but its time in that arena seemed limited, not only due to the continuous pressure from the human rights community, but also by the fact that a free trade agreement between the US and Morocco explicitly encompassed only Rabat’s recognised frontiers, thus excluding Western Sahara. By 2010, attention had shifted to the export of phosphates from the territory, as natural resources campaigners sought to discourage Canada’s Potash Corporation from continuing to do business with Morocco, so far to little discernible effect. All told, the natural resource issue has been the one area where Western Sahara-oriented NGO’s (including those in the US) have encountered the greatest amount of good fortune, and so is a welcome departure from my 1994 observation that ‘…the work of any pro-Sahrawi NGO in America has often assumed the nature of a small and dedicated group preaching to the already converted (p. 276).’

As everyone advocating self-determination for Western Sahara probably knows, France generally - and the French leadership cadre in particular - has been particularly resistant to modifying its highly supportive stance on behalf of Morocco. But even here, there are a few signs of change in the form of the Fondation Danielle Mitterrand-France Libertés; as the name of the organisation suggests, the widow of the former French president is prominent in its affairs. Starting in 2002, the group has taken a position which is increasingly helpful to the Sahrawis. In October and November of that year, two France-Libertés researchers toured the Moroccan-administered areas of the territory and published a report highly critical of human rights conditions there. In July 2003, however, the organisation raised more than a few eyebrows when it alleged that the Moroccan prisoners of war held by the Polisario Front since the start of the Saharan war in 1975 had been kept in the Tindouf region for decades in utter misery and regularly suffered severe mistreatment, including forced labour and torture. Although Polisario responded strongly and in detail to the accusations, the damage to the Front’s reputation was substantial, and the report was perhaps instrumental in convincing Polisario to repatriate all of its remaining POW’s by August 2005, which had the side effect of depriving Rabat of a potent propaganda weapon with which to discredit the Sahrawis. France-Libertés drew its share of suspicion for possible pro-Moroccan bias with respect to the POW report, but when its prior criticism of Morocco is added to the equation, it appears that the organisation is either genuinely impartial or supports self-determination unreservedly. The second possibility gained added credence by the release of a letter dated 10 June 2011 addressed by France-Libertés and two other Swiss-based human rights groups to the Turkish president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). In the letter, the three groups urge the Council of Europe not to accept the Moroccan Parliament as a ‘partner for democracy’ on the grounds that Rabat’s behaviour in Western Sahara disqualifies it from such a privilege, rhetorically posing the question, ‘Do you really think that the Moroccan state shares the same values as those of the Council of Europe?’

The emergence of France-Libertés as a major presence on the Western Saharan human rights scene, from a country where backing for self-determination has previously been rather sparse, should, when all is considered, serve as encouragement that efforts to publicise the plight of the Sahrawis need not be futile, even as it remains a decidedly uphill battle and the forces arrayed against them are still formidable.

* Copyright © 2011 by Anthony G. Pazzanita. All Rights Reserved.


* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


- The original letter containing the 2002 legal opinion by Hans Corell.

- UNISA 2008 Pretoria conference book, ‘Mutilateralism and International Law with Western Sahara as a Case Study’.

- YouTube videos of Hans Corell delivering his legal opinion in Stockholm in 2005: Part one and Part two.

- This secret video shows a Moroccan phosphate mine in the Occupied Territory.