Biden’s Nominee for Peace Board Is a Prominent Supporter of Human Rights Abuses

President Joe Biden has shocked the human rights community by nominating Edward Gabriel, a longtime lobbyist for the Moroccan government, to the board of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Having an outspoken supporter of a repressive monarchy in such a position has raised alarms among supporters of the congressionally funded institute that promotes conflict resolution and prevention, diplomacy, mediation, human rights and democracy.

In one of the most egregious examples of Washington’s infamous revolving doors, Gabriel followed his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Morocco under President Bill Clinton to become a lobbyist for the Moroccan regime — essentially switching from advancing U.S. interests in the Moroccan capital of Rabat to advancing Moroccan interests in Washington, D.C.

Of particular concern has been Gabriel’s strident defense of Morocco’s occupation and illegal annexation of the country of Western Sahara. The people of that country, known as Sahrawis, have a distinct history, dialect and culture from Morocco. Formally known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), it has been recognized by more than 80 countries and is a full member state of the African Union. Despite this, Gabriel calls the 1975 Moroccan conquest of that former Spanish colony, in defiance of resolutions by the United Nations Security Council and a landmark World Court opinion, simply a case of Moroccans exercising their “duty to the nation to reclaim all that was rightfully Morocco’s.”

When then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon referred to the situation in Western Sahara as an “occupation” — a term repeatedly used by the UN General Assembly and other international bodies — Gabriel criticized his remarks as “incomprehensible” and “outrageous” and accused the respected diplomat of “incompetence.”

Gabriel categorically opposes any act of self-determination by Western Sahara, such as a referendum by the people of that country, as many international bodies have demanded, including the International Court of Justice, the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly and the African Union. The U.S. is the only major country to have recognized Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara.

Formed by Congress in 1984, the USIP has projects aimed at addressing human rights, conflict analysis and prevention, democracy and governance, global health, strategic nonviolent action, peace processes, mediation and negotiation, civil-military relations, electoral violence, violent extremism, gender, and reconciliation.

Perhaps the institution’s great concern now should be Gabriel’s defense of the Moroccan regime’s notorious human rights record. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable investigative groups have documented widespread arrests and torture of dissidents and violent suppression of peaceful protests. Freedom House, in its survey of 210 countries, has ranked Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara as having the world’s worst record on political rights in the world save for Syria and South Sudan.

Despite these documented crimes, Gabriel has praised Morocco’s human rights record. In response to well-documented a pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations, Gabriel has praised the autocratic monarchy for its “innovative leadership … especially in the promotion of human rights” and praised its supposed “commitment to peace, religious moderation and democracy.” He has opposed giving UN peacekeepers a mandate to monitor the human rights situation similar to those given virtually all UN peacekeeping missions.

When President Barack Obama’s State Department documented some of these abuses in its annual report on human rights around the world, Gabriel insisted without evidence that the report contained “erroneous information” and said it failed to account for what he called “Morocco’s substantial achievements in terms of reforms in general and Human rights in particular.” Gabriel asserted that, rather than be criticized, Moroccan King Mohammed VI should be praised for having “tirelessly endeavored throughout recent years to consolidate its achievements in human rights” in “a robust and affirmed democratic context that deserves to be applauded.”

Due to the fact that Sahrawi culture holds more progressive views toward women than Morocco generally does, Moroccan occupation forces have often targeted pro-independence women activists for sexual abuse in prison and even while under house arrest. Gabriel, however, has praised the Moroccan regime’s supposed “women’s rights protection.”

The USIP board is nominated by the president, so not surprisingly there have been board members — particularly those chosen under Republican administrations — with structural ties to the military and defense contractors like Raytheon and surprisingly militaristic views on foreign policy, as detailed in 2015 by the grassroots organization World Beyond War. Since that time, board members have continued to be criticized from the left for their views regarding human rights, international law and the use of force.

This is the first time, however, that someone has been named who had so recently been registered as a foreign agent of a such a repressive regime who made his career defending and covering up for such serious human rights abuses and violations of international legal norms. It is particularly outrageous that the president who nominated him is a Democrat who purports to support human rights and international law.

Putting someone with such a history of denials of well-documented human rights abuses on the USIP board threatens the integrity of USIP’s important programs in human rights and democratization. As a U.S. government-funded institute, there are certainly limits to how boldly USIP has been able challenge U.S. policies contrary to promoting its stated agenda in support of peace, human rights and conflict resolution. Despite this, its work has at times been applauded by progressive scholars and activists.

USIP’s conflict resolution programs that have addressed the Western Sahara conflict have stressed the importance of including all parties, including the Polisario Front — the internationally recognized representatives of the Western Sahara people and the governing party of the SADR — in the negotiations. Gabriel, however, insists that the Polisario is simply a creation of Algeria. This is incorrect, as the Polisario Front has origins as a clearly Indigenous national liberation movement at a time when Algeria was backing a rival independence group.

Should Gabriel be confirmed, important USIP programs addressing human rights, conflict resolution and international law would be in jeopardy. President Biden’s nomination of a spokesperson for a foreign autocratic government is a threat to USIP’s integrity at a time when more action in defense of human rights is sorely needed.