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Statement of Chairman Lantos at Hearing, “U.S. Policy Challenges in North Africa”

Jun 6, 2007
Press Release

Verbatim, as delivered

For a generation, a frustrating stalemate has stymied peace between Morocco and the Sahrawi population of Western Sahara. For a generation, the people of Morocco and the Western Sahara have lived with the specter of violence hovering over the desert. And for a generation, peace has been summarily rejected by the rebel Polisario Front in favor of arid refugee camps and guerilla ambushes.

 

But the next generation of Western Saharans will enjoy a peaceful life without having to eye one another suspiciously in busy markets and town squares. The next generation will grow up mercifully free of an armed conflict that stains their daily existence and limits their future. This will all happen if the Polisario is wise enough to accept the reasonable and realistic offer currently on the table.

The Moroccans have proposed far-reaching autonomy for the people of the Western Sahara region. They would elect their own leaders, run their own affairs, levy taxes and establish budgets, maintain their own police forces, and control the education of their children. Only external security and foreign affairs will be controlled by the central Moroccan government.

Many have greeted the Moroccan proposal as a promising new day. 173 members of the House of Representatives – with many members of this committee including myself joining the list – sent a letter to the President urging him to back the Moroccan plan. And a letter to be released today by a bipartisan group of prominent foreign-policy thinkers, led by our former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, will praise the Moroccan initiative.

The United States has a major stake in the stability of North Africa. Al-Qaeda and other terror groups are expanding rapidly their presence in the region. It is imperative that we settle the Western Saharan issue as part of the effort to assure that the region does not become a major terrorism breeding ground.         

As the Moroccan government and the Polisario come to the table later this month for the first time in an entire generation, I call on both sides to negotiate the details in good faith. I urge the leadership of the Polisario to realize that they will never again get such a good deal for the population they purport to represent.

This includes more than 100,000 refugees languishing in Algeria without adequate supplies or any real prospects for the future. The Polisario must encourage vigorous and free discussion of the Moroccan proposal among the Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. I also expect that Morocco will do nothing to stifle debate among the people of Western Sahara.

While the Polisario matter is pressing and timely, other important issues in North Africa deserve our attention today.

Muammar Qadhafi of Libya, a leader I have visited half a dozen times in the last three years, wisely turned his country on a more reasonable path in its external relations a few years ago. The Qadhafi of this century is a more sensible reincarnation of the terrorist revolutionary of the past.

I was the first high-ranking U.S. public official to visit Libya after Qadhafi announced his intention to abandon Libya’s nuclear weapons program. I have also helped foster a student exchange program between our two nations. I am very proud of America’s success in convincing Qadhafi to become a decent citizen of the global community.

Our relations with Libya today are in a much better place than they were just five years ago. Our engagement with Qadhafi and the prosperity it has brought Libya serves as a model to countries currently sponsoring terror or compiling weapons of mass destruction. They should know that they, too, can come in from the cold.

Despite the progress, our relationship appears to have come to a standstill. I will be interested to hear from our distinguished witness today what plans the State Department has to address the absence of both a fully-accredited Libyan ambassador here and a fully-accredited American one in Tripoli – one year after the establishment of full diplomatic ties. We need to allow Libyans to get visas to the U.S. without having to travel to Tunisia, and we need to broaden the Libyan study abroad program here beyond the small number of students currently participating.

There are a few other discordant notes. Libya has moved slowly to resolve the bombing cases of Pan Am Flight 103 and the LaBelle discotheque, even though it has agreed to pay compensation to victims’ families in both cases. The country sentenced to death five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian medical intern accused of infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV even after it became clear that such a plot was absurd and the charges were drummed up.

While our progress with Qadhafi over the past three years has been outstanding, his rhetoric sometimes strikes a shrill note that is reminiscent of the past. So I would only submit that if Qadhafi is going to embrace the West fully – and if we are to accept him fully – both his actions and his words must consistently reflect this new attitude.

I hope to address today other developments surrounding our fervent efforts to cultivate democracy and freedom in North Africa: Tunisia’s spotty human-rights record; the prospects for moderation and toleration in Algeria, where the ruling party is slipping and Al Qaeda has made a disturbing home; and overall regional cooperation in our efforts against terrorism.

Mauritania, a member of the Arab League, held its first free and fair Presidential election in 47 years this past March and should stand as a beacon in that regard to both Africa and to the Arab world. It is also a beacon of moderation as the only Arab state with fully normalized relations with the state of Israel, other than Egypt and Jordan.

The United States will continue to help these nations chart courses of progress so that rather than slipping into reverse, they move forward toward creating peace and stability that will deepen in the generations that lie ahead.