WHITE HOUSE — U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed King Mohammed VI of Morocco to the White House Friday for talks on reforms in his country, and regional issues including cooperation against extremism in North Africa. The issue of Western Sahara also was on the agenda.
Only photographers were briefly permitted into the Oval Office, where Obama and King Mohammed smiled and shook hands for the cameras.
A joint written statement said they discussed "the opportunity to map out a new and ambitious plan for the strategic partnership" and advancing shared priorities of a secure, stable, and prosperous Maghreb, Africa, and Middle East.
On democratic reforms in Morocco, the statement said they discussed the "promise of Morocco's 2011 constitution and ways the United States can help strengthen Morocco's democratic institutions, civil society and inclusive governance."
Obama, according to the statement, welcomed the king's commitment to end the practice of military trials of civilians and both reaffirmed their commitment to the U.N. human rights system.
They also discussed the threat of violent extremism in the region, and pledged to deepen civilian and military cooperation in counterterrorism and non-proliferation.
On Western Sahara, they affirmed their shared commitment to improving the lives of the people of the Western Sahara and agreed to work together to continue to protect and promote human rights in the territory.
Obama pledged to continue to support efforts to find a peaceful, sustainable, mutually agreed-upon solution to the Western Sahara question.
"Our position has remained consistent for many years," said press secretary Jay Carney. "The U.S. has made clear that Morocco's autonomy plan is serious, realistic and credible and that it represents a potential approach that could satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity."
Human rights organizations have urged Obama to do more to encourage respect for human rights in Morocco and Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony Morocco forcibly annexed in 1975.
Morocco has continued to seek international recognition of its annexation of Western Sahara, where a U.N. referendum on independence called for under a 1988 cease-fire has been put off for decades.
Eric Goldstein, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, says Morocco likes to present itself as a model for stability in a region of upheaval, but needs to replace rhetoric with action.
"There is a lot of talk of reform in Morocco, a lot of commissions and speeches and studies," he said. "But on the ground, the human rights situation remains mixed, there are political prisoners, there are demonstrations that are violently dispersed by the police, there are harassment of activists who work for Sahrawi self-determination and other issues. We think that Morocco could do a lot more if it is serious about reform."
A separate White House release called Morocco one of America's closest counterterrorism partners in the Middle East and North Africa region and praised it for implementing a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.
The White House also praised Morocco's contributions to international peacekeeping operations in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire, and the NATO KFOR mission in Kosovo.