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Morocco's admission to the African Union: a Pyrrhus victory for Rabat

Morocco’s admission to the African Union after decades of absence was received as a victory, but what does it mean for the Western Sahara?

King Mohammed VI of Morocco attends the closing ceremony of the 28th African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, on Jan. 31, 2017. Picture by Xinhua SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Historic: Morocco is admitted to the Union”; “Morocco’s victorious return to the African Union”. These are some of many headlines following Morocco’s admission to the African Union (AU). Moroccans were quick to show their joy and satisfaction with Minister of Foreign Affairs, Salaheddine Mezouar and his team of diplomats, by celebrating and chanting Morocco’s national anthem in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa. But, with the enthusiasm over, is Morocco’s admission to the AU really a victory?

A glass half full, or half empty?

Morocco’s joining of the AU can be seen through two different perspectives, but it is, after all, nothing but a natural move. Some even say that Morocco’s absence from the Pan-African family since 1984 has been an anomaly.

It would be presumptuous to believe that things will go smoothly for Rabat and its allies from now on.

In order to join the AU, Rabat had to fulfill the conditions of admission, in particular the recognition of the intangibility of national borders inherited from colonialism. Most importantly, as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Salem Ould Salek underlined, not only did “Morocco not impose conditions, but its presence ‘in the same room’ would allow the SADR to pressure Moroccans into fulfilling their obligations, thus allowing a referendum in accordance with a 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice.”

It would be presumptuous to believe that things will go smoothly for Rabat and its allies from now on. Indeed, there are clear signs indicating that Morocco will be closely watched and bound to abide by AU’s rules.

In fact, Morocco did not get the support of the continental powers, namely Nigeria, Algeria, and South Africa (as well as other nations such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and Uganda). In South Africa, Morocco’s admission has even been a real disappointment. The African National congress (ANC) issued a communiqué stating that “it regrets the decision of the AU to readmit Morocco to the organisation”.

Similarly, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe said that “the vote to readmit Morocco to the AU shows a lack of ideology by some African leaders […] who have not had the same revolutionary experience as all of us, and who are too reliant on their erstwhile colonisers.”

Moreover, Morocco was hoping to see the Senegalese Abdoulaye Bathily, elected as Chairperson of the AU. A historical ally and strong advocate for Morocco’s integration, Senegal, through Abdoulaye Bathily would have continued its lobbying with the AU and the United Nations, for a lasting solution in favour of Rabat over the Western Sahara conflict. But instead, it was the Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat that was elected, a more consensual candidate who is in favour of self-determination for the Sahrawis.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer

Morocco will undeniably be able to work from within the AU to rally more support to its cause, but it will be closely watched and scrutinised by Sahrawis and other AU members, always reminding Rabat of its obligations as a member State of the AU.

Additionally, in a clear sign of its eagerness to find a lasting solution to the Western Sahara conflict, immediately after Morocco's admission, the AU called for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to “assume its responsibilities and restore the ‘full operation’ of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which is essential for the supervision of the ceasefire and the organisation of a self-determination referendum.”

In the same communiqué, the AU also called for the UNSC to “find solutions to the issues of human rights and illegal exploration and exploitation of natural resources on its territory, following the decision taken by the European Union (EU) on 21 December, 2016 on the agreements signed in 2012 between the EU and Morocco on the mutual liberalisation of trade in agricultural products and fisheries.”

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled in December 2016 that the agreement between the European Union and the Kingdom of Morocco “must be interpreted, in accordance with the relevant rules of international law applicable to relations between the European Union and the Kingdom of Morocco, as meaning that it does not apply to the territory of Western Sahara”, underlining henceforth that neither Morocco nor the European Union (EU) have the right to exploit the resources of Western Sahara.

Morocco’s admission within the AU should be seen as nothing exceptional, but rather as a natural move

This court ruling recalls the UN Resolution 1803 (XVII) which stipulates that “States and international organisations shall strictly and conscientiously respect the sovereignty of peoples and nations over their natural wealth and resources in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles contained in the resolution”. In this respect, in his April 2014 report, the former UN Secretary General, Ban ki-Moon stressed that it was timely to call upon all relevant actors to “recognise the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these [Western Sahara] territories are paramount, in accordance with the UN Chapter XI, Article 73 of the Charter.” 

A Pyrrhus victory

Morocco’s illegal occupation of the Western Sahara is in violation of international law. Back in 1963 the Western Sahara was included in a list of territories, identified by the UN, which sought self-determination. The notion of self-determination was already enshrined in the UN Charter and is supported by UN resolution 1514 which stipulates that “all people have the right to self-determination”. This was further supported by the ICJ in a ruling on October 16th 1975 when it declared that the Western Sahara was not a territory without a master (terra nullius) at the time of its colonisation by Spain. The ICJ judgement, therefore, declared that Morocco had no valid claim on the Sahara based on any historic title, and that, even if it did, contemporary international law accorded priority to the Sahrawi right to self-determination. Incidentally, the Moroccan Prince, Moulay Hicham, explained during an interview given to the French daily Le Monde in April 2014, that any negotiation over the Western Sahara must be conducted under international law.

Sitting in the same premises as the SADR in Addis Ababa is nonetheless an implicit recognition of the latter by Rabat.

If Moroccans and their allies have loudly celebrated their admission to the AU, Morocco sitting in the same premises as the SADR in Addis Ababa is nonetheless an implicit recognition of the latter by Rabat. Confirming therefore what the ICJ, the UN and the CJEU have already said, namely that Rabat has no authority over the occupied Western Sahara territory.

Morocco’s admission within the AU should be seen as nothing exceptional, but rather as a natural move for this Northern African Nation which left the Organisation of the African Union (OAU) in 1984 in protest of SADR admission into the then African organisation. Although Rabat will not give up its dream of ‘Greater Morocco’, surely the AU member States eager for justice and dignity will not hesitate to remind it of its obligations vis à vis not only the occupied Western Sahara territory but also its African peers. Meanwhile, everyone is free to see their glass as they wish: half full or half empty!

About the author

Abdelkader Abderrahmane is a geopolitical researcher and international consultant on African peace and security issues. He is also part of the Brehon Advisory Ltd adviser board and previously held a senior research position with the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


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