- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic by the Sahrawi people, the indigenous people of Western Sahara. Sadly, though, much of the celebration by the Sahrawis of this historic occasion will occur in refugee camps where most of them live outside Tindouf, Algeria, because their country of Western Sahara remains Africa's only unliberated country.
Today, also marks a historic opportunity for democratic nations to call upon Morocco to peacefully withdraw from the Western Sahara, a country that it illegally invaded in 1975, thereby freeing this last colony in Africa.
In 1976, the Sahrawis established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a pro-Western Muslim democracy whose constitution is patterned after our own with three branches of government and the belief that "sovereignty belongs to the people." Among other provisions of the constitution are a limited term for the executive, equal rights for women, private property rights, a free market economy, protection of human rights and freedom of religion.
The Sahrawis have fought for over 26 years for one simple goal a referendum on their self-determination, first promised to them by Spain in 1974, reaffirmed by the International Court of Justice in 1975, which prompted the Moroccan invasion, and then promised once again by the United Nations in 1991.
Over the last quarter-century, the Sahrawis have seen their children and elderly die assaulted with napalm bombs dropped by the Moroccan air force when they fled, unarmed, across the Sahara desert. They have seen their young people tortured, shot and killed for peacefully demonstrating for the referendum in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. They have seen hundreds of men and women disappear into the infamous Moroccans prisons. They have lived as homeless refugees separated for 25 years from grandparents, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters trapped in occupied Western Sahara. They have waited in vain for the United Nations to follow through with its promised referendum but seen it cave in again and again to Moroccan pressure.
Morocco should withdraw from Western Sahara. Such a dramatic move would earn Morocco instant goodwill, credibility, respect and support from the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, the European Community, and the United States basically, the entire world community that has supported the right of self-determination for the Sahrawi people. It would end the one impasse to the prosperity and success of the Arab Maghreb Union.
The peaceful withdrawal by Morocco from the Western Sahara would demonstrate to the world that King Mohamed IV truly wants to be the "king of the poor" and free him and the Moroccan government to focus on bringing economic prosperity to Morocco and relief from the terrible poverty and unrest plaguing that country. For example, rather than spending millions and millions of dollars on their occupation force of over 160,000 soldiers deployed in Western Sahara to keep the Sahrawi people from their homeland, Morocco could instead turn its attention to addressing the very serious problems it faces in its own country: a population in which 65 percent live below the poverty level, 87 percent live without electricity, 50 percent cannot read or write and a poverty level that has grown 50 percent in a decade.
Morocco also could address its serious human rights problems. It has the distinction of having the highest proportion of homeless children in the Arab world, and a recent poll found that 89 percent of its young people want to emigrate. Furthermore, the Sahrawis are not alone in being persecuted by the Moroccan government, for recently Morocco earned the distinction of ranking among the top ten nations for persecuting Christians.
In addition to enabling the country to concentrate on its own serious internal problems, Morocco's withdrawal from Western Sahara would prevent war in the region which is increasingly being discussed as the only alternative to the continued stalling of the referendum.
Morocco's action would also have the added benefit of saving the United Nations from another catastrophic "peacekeeping" failure. So far, the United Nations has spent over $600 million since 1991 on MINURSO, the United Nations peacekeeping mission which calls for a Western Sahara referendum. Yet this vote has yet to occur and the total bill to the United Nations continues to climb at $4.3 million a month. At the request of Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Secretary of States James Baker has been working with the Kingdom of Morocco and the Sahrawis to try to get the referendum back on track. However, no progress has been made.
The United Nations has failed to follow through on its promise of a free, fair and impartial referendum, because it allows Morocco to continue to delay a referendum which Morocco knows it cannot win. The Sahrawis have pledged repeatedly that they will work closely with Morocco as an economic partner and be a good neighbor, if only Morocco will let these people go home and have the chance to live free.

Suzanne Scholte is president of the Defense Forum Foundation and the chairman of the U.S.-Western Sahara Foundation.

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