Addis Ababa — On 30 October, Morocco recalled its ambassador to Algeria for consultation. This decision followed the call by Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Abuja, Nigeria, during a conference organised in support of the Sahrawi cause, for the United Nations (UN) to monitor human rights violations in Western Sahara.
Algiers responded by saying that it regretted Rabat's decision, but would nonetheless keep its diplomats in Morocco. For Algiers, this was 'an unjustified decision, amounting to an unfortunate escalation based on spurious motives, and detrimental to the sovereignty of Algeria'.
Morocco's decision was preceded by a massive demonstration in front of the Algerian embassy in Rabat in which Moroccan protestors held boards saying 'Stop. Touche pas à mon roi' (Stop. Do not touch my king) and 'No to terrorism'. The official Moroccan Press Agency (MAP) had also reported the opposition monarchist Istiqlal party's calls for a war against Algeria to regain 'the Moroccan provinces of Tindouf and Bechar'.
The Istiqlal members had made a similar statement earlier this year. Following Istiqlal's most recent call, Algeria's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramtane Lamamra, issued a statement underlining the 'irresponsibility and inadmissibility' of such a declaration. On 1 November 2013 - the Algerian national day celebrating the start of its liberation struggle - a Moroccan, allegedly a member of the Jeunnesses Royalistes (Royal Youth) group broke into the Algerian consulate in Casablanca, Morocco, and removed the Algerian flag from its post in front of a cheering and angry crowd.
These events took place against the backdrop of accusations by Morocco and its close allies, such as France, that Algiers is backing the Polisario Front and consequently blocking a solution to the Western Sahara conflict. They also claim that the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) stalemate and the closed border between the two states can be blamed on the impasse over the Western Sahara conflict. Since its foundation in February 1989, the AMU has been criticised for its incapacity to achieve tangible goals despite convening a summit every four years.
However, these accusations are not supported by the facts. Firstly, the Algerian position has always been consistent throughout the Western Sahara conflict. Should a free and fair referendum be held, Algeria would support whatever choice the Sahrawis make, even one that meant Western Sahara's full integration with Morocco. Significantly, the Polisario Front, on the advice of Algiers, had accepted the Baker II Plan for a referendum in 2003, but it was turned down by Rabat. Moreover, as the American academic and co-author of Western Sahara: War Nationalism & Conflict Irresolution Jacob Mundy emphasises, Algiers is not responsible for this conflict. 'Algeria's stake in the Western Sahara conflict has been one of the most contested yet little understood aspects of this [nearly four-decades] old dispute between Morocco and the Sahrawi nationalists.'
It is also important to recall that Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara - the last colonised territory in Africa - is in violation of international law. The notion of self-determination is enshrined in the UN Charter and supported by UN Resolution 1514, which stipulates that 'all people have the right to self-determination'. Morocco's violation of international law is further clarified by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling of October 1975, which found that Western Sahara had not been a territory without a master (terra nullius) at the time of its colonisation by Spain.
Secondly, Bouteflika only reiterated the positions of the United States (US) and non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights, which have been calling for human rights monitoring in Western Sahara for some time now. In April this year, the US drafted a resolution that included a proposition to install UN observers to monitor human rights violations in the occupied Western Sahara. However, the US dropped this proposition in the face of the furious response from Morocco and France. This situation is starting to worry Morocco, as the Makhzen (the Palace) realises that it may well be losing ground on this thorny issue, especially concerning the question of human rights abuses.
In this regard, Morocco had last year declared Christopher Ross, the UN Secretary General's envoy to Western Sahara, persona non grata following his declaration on Morocco's abuses in Western Sahara. It cost UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon considerable effort to convince King Mohamed VI to accept Ross' return. While human rights monitoring, investigation and reporting have become an integral part of UN peacekeeping operations in recent years, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) does not include human rights observers.
Finally, it appears as though Rabat is also becoming increasingly nervous since the appointment of Lamamra, the former AU Peace and Security Commissioner, as Algeria's Minister of Foreign Affairs this September. Lamamra is a highly skilled and experienced diplomat whose grasp of the Western Sahara issue worries Rabat.
Concerning the blockage of the AMU and the sealing of the borders between Algeria and Morocco, two important points ought to be remembered. Firstly, despite different bilateral treaties, Rabat regularly tries to lay claim to Algerian territory, which is internationally recognised. Secondly, the border between these two states was open from 1988 until 1994, only to be closed following the bombing of a hotel in Marrakech, when Rabat (wrongly) accused Algiers of being behind the bombing. As for the AMU, the Western Sahara conflict broke out in 1975, while the AMU was only founded in 1989.
These two examples clearly indicate that the Western Sahara conflict is not a barrier for their bilateral relations but rather is being (mis)used by Rabat and its allies. Consider that out of the 37 AMU conventions, Morocco has only ratified 8 of the 25 for Mauritania, 27 for Libya, 28 for Tunisia and 29 for Algeria.
Morocco's decision to recall its ambassador and its stated 'regret' over the removal of the Algerian flag - emanating from the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and not the Palace - will not improve relations with its neighbour or boost its economy. After managing to rally support for its cause in the past few years, Morocco realises now that the tide may well be turning, with more pressure coming from the international community and many African states. Thus far, not a single state in the world recognises its sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Moreover, this diplomatic incident occurred only a few weeks after Ross' shuttle diplomacy in the region and the release of his report on human rights violations, and a few days before US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to the region which he eventually had to postponed due to the Geneva conference on Iran and its nuclear capabilities he attended. Kerry is in favour of including human rights monitoring in MINURSO's mandate.
It is now high time that the African Union becomes involved in this conflict and uses all its diplomatic weight to put pressure on the US, France and the UN to engage in serious talks on this issue. Finally, and as the elders of North Africa used to say, the Maghreb is an eagle whose body is Algeria and the wings are Morocco and Tunisia. Without the body, the wings are useless. And when Algeria catches cold, Tunisia coughs and the entire Maghreb is in pain. In this period when regional integration is extremely important for the affected countries as well as the African continent, it is paramount to work hand in hand for the future of all of the region's people.
Abdelkader Abderrahmane is Senior Researcher in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division of the ISS in Addis Ababa.