A recent series of events seem to indicate that the Moroccan government has enlisted the services of a prominent foreign policy lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to help defend Morocco’s occupation in Western Sahara. While both Israel and Morocco have long been engaged in internationally recognized occupations, it now appears that they are working together to undermine the work of the congressional commission responsible for working to uphold the United States’ purported commitment to human rights.
In April of this year, Rep. Frank Wolf and Rep. Jim McGovern, the Co-Chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry regarding human rights violations in the Moroccan occupied Western Sahara. The letter expressed support for an expanded human rights monitoring and reporting mandate for the U.N. Mission of the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The letter also called on the ‘U.S. to encourage Morocco to immediately halt the harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrest and detention of pro-Independence Sahrawi; to call for the release of Sahrawi prisoners imprisoned for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and associations […].’ Sahrawis, like many Palestinians, live under an internationally recognized occupation and have long been deprived of basic rights. Although the occupations differ in many ways, both Palestinians and Sahrawis are subject to systematic discrimination, perpetual displacement, and routine human rights abuses.
According to a story in the Moroccan news outlet Lakome, days after Representative Frank Wolf and Representative Jim McGovern sent the letter to Secretary Kerry, a delegation that included high level Moroccan security and intelligence officials came to Washington to meet with AIPAC. Officials from AIPAC and the Moroccan government would not comment about the content of their meetings, but experts on the issue have little doubt as to the subject of their conversations, especially given the timing. Stephen Zunes, a widely regarded expert on the issue, told me by e-mail that news of the meeting between AIPAC and Moroccan government officials shortly after the Lantos Human Rights Commission inquiry was, “not at all surprising. Mainstream and right-wing Zionist groups have been supportive of the Moroccans for quite some time.”
Although there is a history of close ties between the Moroccan government and Israel, their joint effort in Washington to undermine the work of the Lantos Human Right Commission seems to be a new development. The recent meeting between Moroccan and AIPAC officials appears to be part of this broader lobbying campaign undertaken by the Moroccan government to improve its image and shape a narrative that the Moroccan people chose “reform over revolution” during their version of the Arab Spring. As Samia Errazouki detailed in an investigative report, the group leading the effort is called the Moroccan American Center for Policy, which spent over $1.4 million lobbying in the first half of 2012 according to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) disclosures. In her piece, Errazouki describes the Moroccan government’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill to put a spin on the situation faced by both Moroccans living under a non-democratic government and Sahrawis living under occupation in Western Sahara.
According to FARA records, the Moroccan American Center for Policy also met with Jennifer Rubin, a neo-conservative blogger who often shills for Israel in her Washington Post blog called ‘Right Turn.’ While Rubin continued to toe AIPAC’s line on Israel/Palestine in the Post, Errazouki points out that her writing became notorious for “speaking highly of the regime’s reforms […].” For example, in July of last year Rubin wrote an unabashed hagiography of Morocco’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Youssef Amrani. After giving Morocco glowing reviews on everything from constitutional reforms to human rights, she tacitly endorsed the “strategic partnership” proposed by the Ambassador.
The 2012 State Department report on human rights tells a much different story. Rather than “devolving power to local authorities” as Rubin claimed, the State Department found that the constitutional reforms “clearly safeguarded the essential powers of the king as the supreme arbiter among political forces.” The State Department’s annual report also cited “torture and other abuses by the security forces, political prisoners and detainees, infringement of freedom of speech and the press, lack of freedom of assembly, restrictions on the right to practice one’s religion, lack of independence of the judiciary, discrimination against women and girls, and trafficking in persons[…].” Hardly the democratic utopia Rubin describes to readers, and the only criticism she offers in the piece is directed toward the Moroccan government’s enemies.
Despite the well funded effort by the Moroccan government to secure support on Capitol Hill and within the mainstream media, the Lantos Human Rights Commission still issued a letter condemning human rights abuses in Western Sahara and calling for an expanded mandate for MINURSO, a measure strongly opposed by Morocco. Having already hired some of the best lobby shops in Washington with mixed results, the Moroccan government has apparently turned to AIPAC, widely known as the most effective lobby on foreign policy issues. Considering AIPAC’s record of successfully defending Israel’s 46 year occupation of Palestinian territories and securing over $30 billion in U.S. military aid regardless of the budgetary pressures, Moroccan officials were likely looking for a dependable strategy to mollify Members of Congress who have been critical of Morocco’s ongoing occupation of Western Sahara.
While attempts by AIPAC to undermine Palestinian human rights on Capitol Hill are routine, relatively uncontroversial, and normally successful, AIPAC’s apparent decision to advise other repressive governments on how to torpedo human rights inquiries arising from the Lantos Human Rights Commission may frustrate some Members of Congress. In what could be a harbinger of the divergence of U.S. and Israeli interests on everything from human rights to national security, Israel recently acted to protect the Bank of China from a U.S. led terrorism financing case in order to secure a trade visit by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to China.
As some nations look enviously at the impunity Israel enjoys in spite of its own flagrant violations of human rights, they may take Morocco’s lead and bypass traditional lobbying firms in favor of groups like AIPAC. Given Israel’s own foreign policy prerogatives, one can only hope that the work of the Lantos Human Rights Commission is not perpetually undermined by the most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington and the so-called U.S. ally it represents.