Prof. Stephen Zunes : « Freedom for Palestine and Western Sahara is critically important »

Professor Stephen Zunes. D.R.

Mohsen Abdelmoumen : Aminatou Haidar, whom I have already interviewed, is going through very difficult times as she has been denied a residence permit by the Spanish government and is at risk of being sent to prison in Morocco, where torture is practised. She denounces a political plot between the Spanish and Moroccan governments. In your opinion, how can we effectively support the struggle of this great lady?

Professor Stephen Zunes: The Spanish government has been getting considerable pressure from the Moroccans, including threats to allow waves of migrants to cross into Spain. However, Aminatou Haidar is a well-known figure. She has been a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, the Civil Courage Award, and others, and has been nominated multiple times for the Nobel Peace Prize. During her 2009 hunger strike following her illegal expulsion from occupied Western Sahara, she received support from leading figures in politics, literature, and film—particularly from Spain. She challenges Western stereotypes of Arabs and Islam by being a well-respected female leader of a nationalist struggle and being committed to nonviolence. As a result, organized public pressure in her support should help gain sympathetic coverage in the media and thereby pressure Spanish political leaders.

You said in an interview that you had visited 87 countries and had never seen a police regime as harsh as that in Morocco. Can you explain this to our readers?

The ratio of occupation forces, including secret police, relative to the indigenous population is among the highest in the world. Freedom House, a U.S.-based human rights monitoring group, rates occupied Western Sahara has have the second worst record in the world regarding political freedom, surpassed only by Syria. Any expression of dissent from Moroccan rule, even simply waving a Western Saharan flag, results in immediate violent attack and arrest.

King Hassan II once consulted the International Criminal Court about the Western Sahara and the Court declared that Morocco had no sovereignty over the Western Sahara, which historically has never belonged to Morocco. Why do you think Morocco insists on claiming that the Western Sahara, which was occupied by Spain, belongs to it?

It is the only rationale they can muster. Invoking dubious claims of historical ties to coveted lands has been used by aggressor nations to justify territorial conquests for many years. The World Court made it clear that while there were some pledges of fealty by some tribal leaders to the Moroccan sultan in the 19th century, this did not constitute sovereignty nor did it negate the right of self-determination. Since the Moroccan monarchy’s neocolonial relationship with Western powers has not been popular with most Moroccans, they have tried to enhance their credibility by depicting the conquest of Western Sahara as a nationalist endeavor, supposedly liberating whom they depict as fellow Moroccans from Spanish colonial rule.

Don’t you think that the companies plundering the resources of Western Sahara in complicity with Morocco are just as guilty as Morocco of the shameful occupation of Western Sahara?

Exploiting the natural resources of a country under foreign occupation and denied the right of self-determination without the indigenous inhabitants enjoying the economic benefits is illegal under international law. Corporations which cooperate with the Moroccan government in mining, fishing, and other operations are therefore engaged in criminal activities. This has been the determination of courts in Europe, South Africa, and elsewhere.

Why, in your opinion, the media and politicians are turning a blind eye to the catastrophic human rights situation in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara?

There has been a longstanding tendency for Western media, despite having the freedom to dissent, to nevertheless take the lead from their governments. Human rights abuses by adversarial governments, for example, will get much more attention than human rights abuses by allied governments. One result is very few people in Western nations know about Western Sahara. If they did, there would be pressure to stop supporting the occupation. Even among Arab states and other countries in the Global South, the Moroccan narrative seems to dominate. This can change, however. Timor-Leste was largely forgotten until global civil society campaigns finally brought it to the world’s attention.

In your opinion, why is Morocco refusing the referendum on self-determination for the Saharawi people?

They know they would lose. This would reveal to the Moroccan people that the huge human and material sacrifices they have made over the years for the invasion and occupation, based on the idea that the Sahrawis welcomed their incorporation into Morocco, was a lie.

Can you explain the historic role played by Henry Kissinger in the Western Sahara issue?

Kissinger did not want an independent Western Sahara, fearing it would be too leftwing and might ally with Algeria and other nationalist governments that were nonaligned or pro-Soviet. When Morocco was threatening to invade Western Sahara as Spain was preparing to withdraw in the fall of 1975, Kissinger dispatched the deputy CIA director, General Vernon Walters, as his special envoy to Madrid. A friend of King Hassan since the general’s days as an intelligence agent in Vichy-controlled North Africa, Kissinger had Walters try to convince the Spanish government of the need to acquiesce to Moroccan territorial demands. Kissinger apparently tied Spain’s cooperation on Western Sahara with the renewal of the lease for U.S. air and naval bases on generous terms and with Spain’s request for $1.5 billion in new U.S. weapons.

According to the UN, Western Sahara and Palestine are the world’s last colonies, and we can see what is happening in Gaza with the genocide that is taking place there at the moment. Why are these two peoples under occupation and deprived of their legitimate right to live in peace and freedom on their own land? Isn’t it time that these peoples finally freed themselves from the colonial yoke?

The Palestinians and Sahrawis are being denied their rights under international law because the United States and other Western nations have blocked the United Nations from enforcing international law. Israel and Morocco are seen as serving Western strategic interests, so there is a willingness to allow them to continue violating international legal norms. Freedom for Palestine and Western Sahara is critically important, not just out of respect for the rights of the peoples themselves, but because failure to allow that to happen would be a very bad precedent that could encourage other aggressor nations in the future.

Algeria and its leaders are the daily target of virulent attacks by the Moroccan press on the orders of the royal palace because of its stance in favour of the just cause of the people of Western Sahara. Don’t you think that the issue of the Western Sahara is one of decolonization of a territory occupied by Morocco, as stipulated by the UN, and that it should be settled at a negotiating table between the Polisario and Morocco? So why is Morocco lashing out at Algeria?

The only way that Morocco can justify its conquest of Western Sahara is to deny agency to the Sahrawis themselves by presenting the Polisario and other supporters of self-determination as simply being the creation of the Algeria. This is similar to how the United States during the Cold War tried to depict leftwing nationalist movements in the Global South of being creations of the Soviet Union. By portraying the conflict in geopolitical terms as a rivalry between two nation-states, it makes it easier to ignore the Sahrawis themselves and their desires. Algeria does not speak for the people of Western Sahara. The Polisario, as their chose representatives, is recognized by most of the international community as their sole legitimate representatives.

Morocco has brought Israel back into the region and the Israeli Defense Minister has threatened Algeria from Moroccan territory. Why do Israel and Western governments support Morocco?

Western nations support Morocco because it has been an ally in suppressing leftist, nationalist, and Islamist challenges to Western hegemony. Israel supports Morocco because they are among the few Arab countries to have formally recognized Israel and to have been quietly working to normalize relations with Israel for many years.

Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen

Who is the Professor Stephen Zunes?

Dr. Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he served as founding director of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes has served as a senior policy analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, and a contributing editor of Tikkun.

He is the author of hundreds of articles for scholarly and general readership on Middle Eastern politics, U.S. foreign policy, international terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, strategic nonviolent action, and human rights. He is the principal editor of Nonviolent Social Movements (Blackwell Publishers, 1999), the author of the highly acclaimed Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003) and co-author (with Jacob Mundy) of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, second revised expanded edition, 2022).

Professor Zunes has been a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship on Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies at Dartmouth College, a Human Rights Fellowship at the Center for Law and Global Justice at the University of San Francisco, and a Joseph J. Malone Fellowship in Arab and Islamic Studies, as well as research grants through the Institute for Global Security Studies, the United States Institute of Peace, and the International Resource Center. In the early 1990s, Dr. Zunes served as founding director of the Institute for a New Middle East Policy in Seattle. He was the recipient of the 2015 Dean’s Scholar Award from USF’s College of Arts and Sciences and, in 2002, he won recognition from the Peace and Justice Studies Association as their first Peace Scholar of the Year.

He has made frequent visits to the Middle East and other conflict regions, where he has met with top government officials, academics, journalists, and opposition leaders.

He is a contributor to the Huffington Post, Open Democracy, Common Dreams, Truthout, Foreign Policy in Focus, and The Progressive websites, and the National Catholic Reporter. His op-ed columns have appeared in major daily newspapers on four continents. In addition, he has spoken at over 150 colleges and universities and scores of community groups in the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa, and Australia, and is a frequent guest on National Public Radio, Pacifica Radio, PBS, BBC, MSNBC, CNN, Voice of America, Al-Jazeera, China Radio International, and other media outlets for analysis on breaking world events. He has also served as a consultant and board member for a number of peace and human rights organizations in both the United States and overseas.


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