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Western Sahara row grows

08 November 2013, 09:30

Rabat - The diplomatic ruckus between Morocco and Algeria over human rights in Western Sahara has revived the historic animosity between North Africa's arch rivals, as regional changes challenge a decades-old status quo.

Analysts say key factors explaining the rising tensions between the neighbouring countries, whose differences are rooted in the Western Sahara conflict, include chronic instability in the Sahel region, and a possible leadership change in Algeria next year.

"There are reasons of geostrategic and commercial change in North Africa, not to mention generational change, which suggests progress has to happen on Western Sahara," Jon Marks, Maghreb expert with the Chatham House think-tank, told AFP.

"But at the moment, when it comes to the political responses of Morocco and Algeria, both regimes ... revert to those old default positions and ideas that were forged in the 1970s."

Just days afer Rabat briefly recalled its ambassador to Algiers and amid a slew of barbed exchanges, King Mohammed VI on Wednesday blasted Algeria over its criticism of Morocco's human rights record in the disputed territory.

Morocco would not be lectured to, "particularly by those who systematically trample on human rights," he said in an annual televised speech to commemorate the so-called Green March of 1975, when his father Hassan II sent tens of thousands of settlers to lay claim to the desert region.

His comments followed a speech by Algeria's ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Nigeria last week, in which he hit out at the "massive and systematic human rights violations that take place inside the occupied territories to suppress the peaceful struggle" of the Sahrawi people for independence.

Is there a crisis of confidence?

He said international monitoring of the human rights situation was needed "now more than ever".

Algeria itself has historically supported the pro-independence Polisario Front, which rejects Morocco's proposal of broad autonomy for the region.

The Algerian leader was referring to US efforts at the UN Security Council earlier this year to give the UN peacekeeping force for the Western Sahara unprecedented human rights monitoring powers, a bid that failed in the face of intense Moroccan lobbying.

Morocco's monarch made veiled criticism of the US move in his speech on Wednesday, which came less than a week before a visit to Rabat by US Secretary of State John Kerry on a tour that will also take him to Algiers.

"Is there a crisis of confidence between Morocco and certain decision-makers in its strategic partners on the human rights issue?" he asked.

Diplomatic sources say a recent US State Department report detailing the kingdom's harsh repression of pro-independence activists in Western Sahara has compounded Rabat's fears that the US proposal will reappear when the UN peacekeeping force's mandate next comes up for renewal in 2014.

Morocco felt it lost a valuable ally when Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, according to the same sources.

Struggle for influence among African states

In the regional context, the growing tensions between Morocco and Algeria reflect a struggle for influence among fellow African nations.

Morocco has been kept out of pan-African politics for 30 years by its decision to leave the Organisation of African Unity, the African Union's precursor, after the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic became a member.

There are clear signs that it is now seeking to revive its African influence.

King Mohammed flew to Bamako in September for the inauguration of the new President of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, while the surge in militancy across the Saharan region has provided Rabat with the pretext for hosting a security conference for the Sahel and Maghreb countries next week.

But Algeria's attendance remains uncertain, pointing to a key problem in tackling the region's security woes, which made headlines last weekend with the execution of two French journalists in northern Mali.

"There needs to be a more joined up international response to the whole Sahel crisis, which will necessarily involve the two strategic coherent players in the region, Morocco and Algeria," said Chatham House's Jon Marks.

"And for that to happen, you need to get a handle on the Western Sahara."



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