Morocco provokes crisis by blocking Western Sahara from AU meeting

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Two months after its return to African Union, Morocco has demanded exclusion of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from ministerial meeting

Morocco's King Mohammed VI does not plan to have diplomatic relations with the Western Sahara (AFP)
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Tuesday 28 March 2017 15:31 UTC
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Morocco sparked a diplomatic crisis on Friday by demanding the exclusion of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from a meeting of the African Union and a UN commission, citing that it is not a UN member state.

The meeting of the AU and the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) was supposed to prepare for the arrival of African ministers of economy on 27 and 28 March.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or Western Sahara, is part of the AU but not part of the ECA and Morocco refuses to recognise SADR as a sovereign country.

The commission and the African Union announced on Saturday that as a consequence of Morocco's move they had to postpone the ministerial meeting because the “conditions for the meeting have not being met”. 

The representatives of the 54 African countries as well as partner countries and organisations who were there had not even begun looking at the issues.

“This crisis establishes a huge precedent. Morocco blew up the meeting,” a disappointed diplomat told Middle East Eye.

Neither behind-the-scenes negotiations, nor the threat of seeing several delegations leave, nor the exceptional arrival of the secretary-general of the ECA succeeded in making Rabat back down.

The Sahrawi independence movement and Morocco have been fighting over the Western Sahara since 1975, when the former colonial powers withdrew from the region without organising a referendum for the Sahrawi people, leaving the issue unresolved to this day.

Legal loophole

“We find ourselves in a complete stalemate because if the SADR had been excluded from proceedings, numerous delegations such as Nigeria, South Africa, or Algeria, heavyweights in the African Union, would have boycotted the meeting,” the diplomat added.

It is not the first time that Morocco has demanded that the SADR be excluded from multilateral proceedings. But previously, Morocco’s demands had been because the country was not part of the AU. However, Morocco rejoined the AU in January after leaving in protest in 1984 over the AU's declarations on Western Sahara.

“This crisis is unsolvable because the SADR, though a member of the AU, is not a member of the ECA. Therefore the latter has no mandate to exclude it. We find ourselves facing a legal loophole,” the diplomat continued.

An Algerian judge close to the Sahrawi dossier, contacted by MEE, said: “The only thing the ECA can do to withdraw is to claim discord within the AU. For the rest, the argument raised by Morocco is not convincing. Indeed, sitting in the multilateral meeting with the SADR does not in any way oblige its recognition by the ECA or the UN. Algeria sits right next to Israel during UN meetings even though it will never recognise it.”

This crisis is unsolvable because the SADR, though a member of the AU, is not a member of the ECA

- Diplomat

According to the judge, the African Union Commission, an agent of the constitution of the organisation, has the power to “denounce Morocco by saying that it violates its international commitments since Rabat ratified the AU constitution without reservations. But the AU constitution has an obligation for states to respect and defend the independence of other member states. And to a certain extent, to prevent a member state such as the SADR from participating in multilateral proceedings is a limit to its independence.”

First signal to Addis Ababa

According to an African diplomat, Morocco “knows exactly what it is doing”.

“It couldn’t find a better place than Dakar because it knows that Senegal would support it. The objective was not to achieve the exclusion of the SADR today, but to mark the occasion. It is a way of saying: ‘We did not come back to the AU to let ourselves be pushed around’. In January, they arrived with big smiles. Then, they started to show their teeth.”

A signal was already sent on 20 March to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where the AU is headquartered. Rabat boycotted the meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Council on the situation regarding the Western Sahara.

While the head of the Sahrawi diplomatic corp called it the first “failed” test, a Moroccan diplomatic source quoted by the information website Le Desk judged the meeting to be “unproductive and one-sided”.

At the time of Morocco’s return to the AU, the Algerian editorial writer Abed Charef had warned MEE that two options were possible: “Everyone is preparing for the next jousts. For Morocco, it will be either waging a diplomatic war to reconquer lost land, which could lead the African Union into new and never-ending battles, or to step into an area which allows openings, by using African Union resolutions as a starting point for a new policy. ”

The Dakar meeting has shown that Rabat has chosen the first approach.

This article was originally published on Middle East Eye’s French website.