Sahrawi refugees welcome the new UN envoy for the disputed territory of Western Sahara to the Aousserd camp for Sahrawi refugees on the outskirts of Tindouf, Oct. 18, 2017.
Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty Images

Sahara activists play defense as Trump inches toward Morocco

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Sahrawi independence advocates have lost ground this year as the Donald Trump administration gradually grows more receptive toward Morocco’s point of view over disputed Western Sahara.

Long outmatched by Morocco’s multimillion-dollar lobbying juggernaut in Washington, the Polisario Front, which seeks independence from Rabat’s rule, relies on its Algerian patron and the nonprofit firm Independent Diplomat to sway US policy. With Morocco picking up lobbyists close to Trump himself, the Polisario Front has faced some painful setbacks this year.

While official US policy backing a political solution to the decadeslong conflict remains unchanged, this year’s US-backed resolution to renew the UN peacekeeping mission (MINURSO) in the disputed territory echoed Moroccan complaints against the Polisario Front. Meanwhile, the State Department has proposed slashing the US contribution to MINURSO while suggesting that the peacekeeping mission warrants a force reduction.

Independent Diplomat’s efforts remain primarily focused on securing international support for Sahrawi independence, at the United Nations and elsewhere. Public disclosure forms indicate that lobbyists twice met with Leslie Ordeman, a political adviser to the US mission at the UN, ahead of the annual vote to renew MINURSO’s mandate.

The Polisario Front’s political arm, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), spent $24,000 on the firm this year, up from $10,000 the year before. Algeria meanwhile spent $400,000 last year on its contract with lobbying firm Foley Hoag.

Despite their best efforts, the US-backed resolution contained language accusing the Polisario Front of “destabilizing actions” for setting up administrative functions in areas that Morocco considers to be part of a buffer zone at Western Sahara’s border with Mauritania. The Polisario Front rejects Rabat’s claims that its offices are located in the buffer zone and maintains that it withdrew its military presence from the area last year.

“That surprised and worried us because that did look like Morocco was getting a lot of sympathy from this administration,” Isa Mirza, a lobbyist for Foley Hoag, told Al-Monitor. “The United States was doing their due diligence to make sure the resolution was more neutral, but the [pro-Morocco] French were pushing for more.”

While the resolution renewed MINURSO’s mandate only by six months instead of the customary full year, Sahrawi independence advocates construe this as a positive development as it could force the Moroccans back to the negotiating table. UN envoy Horst Kohler is pressing for a fifth round of talks between the two sides.

“The six-month time frame shows that they were trying to strike a balance and ensure that both parties come to the table in a shorter amount of time than usual,” said Mirza.

Meanwhile, the State Department seeks to slash the US contribution to MINURSO from $16 million this fiscal year to $8 million for fiscal year 2019 as part of across-the-board cuts while the Trump administration attempts to renegotiate its share of contributions to UN peacekeeping missions. The agency’s budget request also singles out MINURSO by calling for “slight efficiencies in civilian staffing as well as a slight reduction in the force.” Adding insult to injury, this year’s State Department human rights report for the first time refers to Polisario Front flags as “separatist.”

Faced with an increasingly critical UN Security Council and potential reductions to MINURSO, Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali traveled to South Africa in June in order to shore up support ahead of the African Union’s summit in Mauritania. Independent Diplomat also met with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Africa panel last October on behalf of the SADR. Two members of the panel, Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also sit on the Senate subcommittee overseeing foreign aid spending.

The Senate has long been friendlier to the Sahrawi cause than its House counterpart. Notably, last year’s Senate foreign aid bill contained language rebuffing Rabat by requiring the State Department to consult with MINURSO before financing development initiatives in the disputed territory. The language, however, did not survive when Congress passed its final spending bill for 2018.

Foley Hoag pushed hard for the language. Lobbying disclosure forms indicate that the firm contacted the offices of Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the respective chairman and ranking member of the Senate foreign aid panel, last year as well as Sahrawi independence advocate Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

While the Senate language did not survive, the final bill also watered down House language opposed by the Polisario Front, which accuses Rabat of trying to lowball the number of Sahrawi refugees residing in Algerian camps. The United States has provided more than $19 million to the World Food Program for Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria since 2013.

The final provision calls on the secretary of state to “strengthen monitoring of the delivery” of World Food Program aid to Algeria’s Sahrawi refugee camps, but it removes a provision calling on the UN to “establish registration systems where they do not exist.” House lawmakers reintroduced the registration provision in their foreign aid bill released in June.

Despite the recent setbacks, the appointment of John Bolton as Trump’s new national security adviser in April has given the Polisario Front some reason to remain hopeful. Bolton worked with former Secretary of State and UN envoy for Western Sahara James Baker to craft a framework for the long-stalled referendum in the 1990s, which Rabat ultimately rejected.

Influencers

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) mission to the US

Representative: Mouloud Said

In post: 1989-2012; since Jan. 2016

Lobbying by SADR

Independent Diplomat
Nonprofit advisory firm


SADR Allies
Government of Algeria

Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights


  • Role:
    The nonprofit memorial to America’s assassinated attorney general has emerged as a leading critic of alleged human-rights violations by Morocco against independence activists.
  • Website  

Defense Forum Foundation


  • Founder:
    Suzanne Scholte, advocate for Sahrawi self-determination
  • Role:
    The conservative national-security organization has organized congressional trips to Western Sahara refugee camps since 1993.
  • Website  
Government of Morocco

Link to our Morocco Lobbying Page below


Travel


U.S. Assistance


U.S. Arms Sales


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