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Wall Street Journal gives Western Sahara to Morocco

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting story today on African migrants attempting to get into Spanish enclaves in Morocco. However, it makes a major factual error:

Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz said during a visit to Ceuta in February that 80,000 migrants were waiting in Morocco or along its border with Mauritania for a chance to reach the enclaves.

The problem, of course, is that Morocco has no border with Mauritania. Rather, in between the two countries is Western Sahara, currently illegally occupied by Morocco and inundated with Moroccan settlers, but not recognized by any country as Moroccan territory.

Mistakes happen of course – and it is possible the journalist is reporting without qualification the Spanish minister’s words, which itself would be interesting.

What is more surprising is the lack of outraged reaction from international law professors, experts, NGOs, and other peace-loving types (according to my quick Google search).

If someone suggested in the Journal that the West Bank was within Israel’s borders, it would lead to an immediate outcry, and and a rain of derision from learned people. (Consider Gov. Chris Christie’s “occupied territories” comment.)

Similarly, one could imagine the international law outrage if the Congress authorized U.S. aid to Israel to go support its presence in the West Bank. Yet in the 2014 Omnibus Spending Bill, this is exactly what happened with Western Sahara. The action was apparently met with an international law yawn (where is Human Rights Watch when you need them?). This further evidence that, European claims to the contrary but only in the case of Israel, there is no international law prohibition on economic support or engagement for occupied or disputed territories.)

There is a lesson here. The world’s dogged obsession with the Israeli-Arab conflict actually comes at the expense of attending to occupations around the world. Attention, energy, knowledge are all limited. As I wrote in the LA Times recently:

Indeed, the vigor with which the international community has maintained, and increased, its objections over Israel’s presence in the West Bank may divert attention from other conquests. Putin knows this. Remarkably, Russia retained its status as a member of the “quartet” — with the U.S., EU and U.N. — seeking to broker Israeli territorial withdrawals even after it invaded Georgia.

If one truly cared about international law, as opposed to its application to Israel, one would not quixotically suggest that the international community “also” deal with these other problems, but understand that the Israeli-Arab conflict has sucked much of the energy and attention from far any other such situation.

Already, Secretary of State Kerry’s focus on Israel has diverted focus from Crimea, which the world is begging to treat as a write-off. Russia has already announced an economic and customs zone on the peninsula. European firms will, in a year or so, flock there. Will anyone track their activities, boycott them, or count the number of Russian “settlers” coming in? The resources for such efforts may already have been spent elsewhere.

Perhaps the real way to “end impunity” is to end the focus on Israel.

Eugene Kontorovich is a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and an expert on constitutional and international law. He also writes and lectures frequently about the Arab-Israel conflict.



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