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Western Sahara: Senate looks to block funding for US consulate

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Thursday, 21 October 2021 12:19

Moroccan and U.S flags are seen outside the provisional consulate of the U.S in Dakhla, Morocco-administered Western Sahara, Jan. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Noureddine Abakchou)

This week, US Senate Democrats introduced an annual spending bill that would block funding for the State Department to open a consulate in the Western Sahara: a promise the Donald Trump administration made to Morocco last year.

The language is included in a raft of Appropriations Committee bills for the fiscal year ending 30 September 2022 that Democrats unilaterally introduced on Monday 18 October, without Republican support. The committee is chaired by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, a vocal critic of Trump’s decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory in exchange for Rabat normalising ties with Israel.

“None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act or prior Acts making appropriations for the Department of State, foreign operations, and related programs may be used to support the construction or operation in the Western Sahara of a United States consulate,” the bill states.

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced plans for a consulate late last year in a bid to solidify Trump’s controversial decision to abandon past US support for an independence referendum by the Western Sahara’s native Sahrawi people. The State Department’s then-top North Africa official, David Schenker, followed up with a visit to Laayoune and Dakhla in early January.

“Pleased to announce the beginning of the process to establish a US consulate in Western Sahara, and the inauguration of a virtual presence post effective immediately!” Pompeo tweeted on 24 December. “We look forward to promoting economic and social development, and to engag[ing] the people of this region.”

Paging Biden

Since Biden took office on 20 January, Leahy has been at the forefront of efforts to get him to reverse course.

The senator teamed up with Sahrawi independence champion James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, on a 17 February letter to the president signed by 27 senators urging Biden to reverse Trump’s “misguided decision.” Just last week, Leahy and Inhofe joined eight other colleagues in a letter urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to denounce alleged human rights abuses against Sahrawi activists and ensure that their right to self-determination is maintained in the renewal of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) at the end of the month.

“We are concerned that the Moroccan government has been emboldened in their abuse of Sahrawi activists since the United States’ misguided recognition of Morocco’s claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara in December 2020,” the senators wrote. “This is unacceptable. Our nation’s actions should never be a license to engage in human rights violations.”

The Biden administration has not repudiated Trump’s policy change, but has at times offered mixed messages. Following reports that Blinken had told Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita that Trump’s policy would stay in place for now, state department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in June that he took “issue with the characterisation that there’s been a continuity” with the Trump administration, even while acknowledging that there was no change to announce.

Indeed, US agencies have stopped referencing the Western Sahara as a separate entity, including in the State Department’s annual human rights report released at the end of March.

Meanwhile, the White House removed an August presidential tweet from the Internet after its map of Covid-19 vaccine distribution showing Western Sahara as distinct from Morocco caused a stir in regional media.

Return of the lobbying wars

The last-minute policy surprise is in keeping with past practice by Senate appropriators who have long sought to counterbalance pro-Moroccan moves by their colleagues in the House of Representatives.

  • House Appropriators, including Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, the brother of former Morocco lobbyist Lincoln Diaz-Balart, notably changed US policy back in 2014 to include the Western Sahara as a recipient of foreign aid for Morocco, a de facto recognition of Moroccan sovereignty.
  • This summer, the House passed its own State Department funding bill without any restriction on consulate funding, setting up a showdown with the Senate if Leahy’s ban makes it through the upper chamber.

The renewed congressional fight over the Western Sahara is expected to rekindle a multi-million-dollar lobbying battle between Morocco and Sahrawi independence supporter Algeria, which dried up during the Covid-19 epidemic and the end of the Trump administration.

Morocco parted ways with its $75,000-a-month Republican lobbying firm JPC Strategies at the end of January after spending $3.8m at the height of its lobbying in 2016. However, The Africa Report has been told by informed sources that with a new government now in place following last month’s elections, Rabat has begun casting around for new representation in Washington.

The big focus became trying to get [the Trump policy] reversed. That was a real curveball […] since Biden didn’t reverse Trump’s recognition, we shouldn’t take anything for granted.”

Meanwhile, law firm Foley Hoag formally terminated its $35,000-a-month lobbying contract with the embassy of Algeria on 31 March, ending a 14-year relationship. The firm told the Department of Justice that it had not done any lobbying or received any payments from Algiers since March 2020.

The pro-independence lobby remains active, however.

The two Foley Hoag lobbyists on the account, former State Department official Gare Smith and former congressional staffer Isa Mirza, have since gotten behind a new activist group, the Campaign to End the Moroccan Occupation of the Western Sahara, which was launched last month by a coalition of longtime Sahrawi supporters with the aim of reversing Trump’s policy and restoring a path to independence.

“Our campaign is unique in that it crosses partisan boundaries within the USA and brings together a collection of activists, scholars, and celebrities who are convinced not only that the Sahrawis must gain freedom, but that there will be no peace in northwestern Africa until and unless there is self-determination for the people of the Western Sahara,” Bill Fletcher, Jr., the campaign co-chair and former TransAfrica Forum president, said when launching the campaign on 9 September.

With Trump’s surprise announcement at the end of last year, much of the focus is now squarely on Washington, says co-chair Suzanne Scholte, a Republican human rights activist who chairs the non-profit US-Western Sahara Foundation.

“The big focus became trying to get [the Trump policy] reversed. That was a real curveball,” Scholte tells The Africa Report. “[…] since Biden didn’t reverse Trump’s recognition, we shouldn’t take anything for granted.”

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