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KEENE: A homeland for deserving Western Saharans

Promises made over 40 years must be honored

- - Sunday, October 20, 2013

Last month, a Spanish forensics team called in to examine the remains of six adults and two children found in a mass grave in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara raised anew charges that in seizing the area in the 1970s, the Moroccans had captured or arrested and killed hundreds of Western Saharan civilians.

The remains were identified by forensic experts from the University of the Basque Country and the Aranzadi Society of Science. They turned out to be those of a family detained by the Moroccan military in 1976 and never heard from again. Their buried bodies were discovered by a shepherd near the place where they were taken into custody. They had all been shot.

The forensics report has led many to demand that investigations of other sites be reopened to search for others who went missing during the Moroccan assault on the region and its people.

Once a Spanish colony, the Western Saharan was turned loose in the early '70s and occupied by Morocco, which has held it ever since. The Western Saharans, or Sahrawi, fought a guerrilla war against their occupiers for nearly 20 years, but agreed to a cease-fire in 1991 in exchange for a referendum promised by the United Nations that has yet to take place.

Since then, Morocco has spent millions on lobbyists in this country to make certain that the United States doesn't weigh in on the side of the Western Saharans, who live either under Moroccan occupation or in U.N.-run refugee camps in Western Algeria.

The Western Saharans under the leadership of Mohamed Abdelaziz have operated for decades under the assumption that the United States, the international community and the International Court of Justice will return their lands to them. In actuality, the court has found for them, and no one has ever suggested that Morocco has anything approaching a legal or historic claim to the Western Sahara, but no one seems willing to make Morocco return the lands.

Since the shooting war ended, the United Nations has demanded again and again that the residents of the disputed region be allowed to vote on their own future. Morocco's response has been to transplant hundreds of thousands of Moroccan citizens into the area and demand that should a plebiscite be run, they be allowed to vote.

Finally, the U.N. called the Moroccans' bluff. In 1997, the world body named former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker as its special envoy to the region to sit down with the parties to negotiate an end to the struggle. Mr. Baker worked out a plan that granted the Western Saharans the plebiscite they wanted, but granted many of the Moroccans who had been moved into the disputed territory the right to participate in the plebiscite.

The Western Saharans reluctantly acquiesced for fear of abandonment by the United States and because the Bush administration was putting pressure on them through Algeria to go along with the plan, whether they liked it or not. The whole thing fell apart, however, when the Moroccans refused to allow even the sort of plebiscite they had always said they wanted.

Since then, Morocco and her well-compensated supporters in this country have come up with argument after argument as to why granting the Western Saharans the freedom and autonomy they seek would be a bad idea. Two Moroccan kings have argued, first that a change in the status quo could destabilize Morocco and the region and now, that the Western Saharans are somehow in league with al Qaeda.

Under Mr. Abdelaziz's leadership, the more than 100,000 Sahrawis living in the Algerian refugee camps have been preparing for the day when they think the world community will demand that Morocco give them the independence they crave. What they have managed to accomplish living in these camps has been called "extraordinary" by Mr. Baker. Almost unique among Muslims, the Sahrawi have developed a functioning democratic government that guarantees women's rights and categorically rejects terrorism as a legitimate means of accomplishing their goals. More than 95 percent of the refugees are literate, with many having been sent abroad to colleges and universities to prepare them for the day when they will be independent.

They are prepared and have indeed proven themselves capable of self-government, but the fact that they seek justice rather than war has allowed the United Nations and the United States to ignore their plight for nearly 40 years.

Forty years would seem to be long enough, and it is to be hoped that these new revelations will persuade policymakers that those who live by the rules and seek a peaceful resolution of their grievances deserve more than lip service.

David A. Keene is opinion editor for The Washington Times.