A campaign to support the Saharawi people
On December 19 last year, a 32-day standoff that had been playing out on the island of Lanzarote between the Moroccan government and hunger-striking Nobel Peace Prize nominee Aminatou Haidar reached its dramatic denouement. A day that had begun with Haidar’s hospitalisation ended with the 42-year-old mother of two being flown home to her family without having made any concessions to the Moroccans.
Her homecoming was, in her own words, “a victory for international law, for human rights, for international justice”. It was also highly significant in that this was the first time in the 34-year history of the conflict that the international community had effectively intervened in Western Sahara to persuade Morocco to adhere to its obligations under international law.
By capturing both the popular imagination and the attention of the media, Haidar’s hunger strike gained massive public support and succeeded in propelling the issue of Western Sahara onto the political agenda. Yet despite these achievements – or perhaps because of them – Morocco seems intent on continuing with its violent suppression of Sahrawis who call for self-determination.
Last week, seven of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders were brought before a prosecutor in a military court in Rabat accused of treason. If they are found guilty, they could face the death penalty.
Aminatou Haidar’s hunger strike, staged in protest at her deportation for refusing to acknowledge Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, precipitated intense political and diplomatic activity in Spain, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union. Her deportation was condemned by governments, civil society groups and human rights organisations around the world and resulted in the direct intervention of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN. The Moroccans, who had stated that Haidar would only be allowed home if she recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara and apologised to King Mohammed VI, were forced into a very public climb down that no amount of carefully-worded diplomatic statements could disguise.
On her return to Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, Haidar rubbed salt into the wound: “I will never apologise to the king”, she told waiting journalists. “I am waiting for him to apologise to the Sahrawi people for their suffering and their torture”.
Since her return, the situation in Laayoune has remained tense. A number of Haidar’s supporters have been beaten and arrested. Reuters reported that Haidar, who has herself previously endured more than four years of imprisonment and torture, has been placed under virtual house arrest and that journalists are banned from visiting her.
Although Haidar’s new media profile might afford her a degree of respite from state harassment, other opponents of Moroccan occupation do not have the same protection. This is show by the treason charges levelled against the seven prominent human rights activists. They were arrested in October after returning from a visit to the refugee camps in the Algerian desert where 165,000 Sahrawis have been forced to live for more than three decades.
Human rights groups have expressed particular concern over the physical and mental condition of one of the seven, Degja Lashgar, who has been held in solitary confinement since for three months.
Over the years, numerous bodies, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have raised concerns about violations of human rights in Western Sahara. These have been brazenly ignored by the Moroccans.
Last November, King Mohammed VI gave a speech in which he branded as ”traitors” anyone who questioned Moroccan sovereignty over its “Saharan provinces”. Now he has announced a new committee to draw up an “autonomy plan” for Western Sahara. Rather than signalling a new more open approach to the dispute, it seems the decision to allow Haidar to return home has made Morocco even more determined to prevent the long-awaited referendum on self-determination in the territory.
However, the Haidar debacle shows that Morocco will shift its position if subjected to sufficient international political pressure. There are signs that the international community is taking the situation in Western Sahara more seriously. At the end of 2009, the UN identified the conflict in Western Sahara as one of the “urgent issues” to resolve in 2010.
Since 1975, the UN has passed more than 100 resolutions reaffirming Western Sahara’s inalienable right to self-determination. Although it is unlikely that the UN will implement any enforcement measures, such as sanctions, there are still significant steps it can take.
In April, the mandate for the UN mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is up for renewal. There are hopes that this mandate will be extended to include a human rights monitoring role. At present, MINURSO is the only UN peacekeeping mission without such a function.
There are indications that Barack Obama’s administration would like to find a solution to the conflict in Western Sahara that conforms to international law and, as shown by the key role played by the Spanish and French governments in resolving the hunger strike, Morocco’s ties with the European Union are crucial.
The EU has strong links with Morocco through its European Neighbourhood Policy. It recently agreed to grant Morocco “advanced status” relations, reducing trade restrictions and increasing political and economic co-operation. However, the condition of advanced status requires a demonstrable commitment to human rights.
Throughout that her hunger strike, Aminatou Haidar stressed that it was not about the right of one individual to return to her home but about the collective right of all Sahrawis to live freely in their own land. Although she is back with her family, the situation for the Saharawis living under occupation in Western Sahara or as refugees in the desert has not changed. For a few brief weeks, Aminatou Haidar forced the world’s gaze on to one of its longest-running and least-remembered conflicts. We must not look away now.
(Copyright Tribune Magazine - 2010)
3 simple actions to Save the Saharawi Ghandi Your support can make a difference at a crucial time in the campaign to save the life of Aminatou Haidar known as the ‘Saharawi Ghandi’. Aminatou is a prominent human rights activist and former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. She is known for her non violent resistance to the illegal occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco. On Sunday she entered her 21st day of hunger strike after being expelled from her home in Western Sahara. Negotiations are still taking place between Spain and Morocco, with involvement from the UN and the African Union, but so far this it has not been successful – YOU CAN EXERT THE PRESSURE NEEDED TO INFLUNCE THEM Aminatou should not have to sacrifice her own life to demonstrate to the world the extent of the Moroccan oppression against the people of Western Sahara. Doctors have said she has only days to live. PLEASE HELP HER! TAKE 3 SIMPLE ACTIONS: 1. Click here to take the Amnesty International Action to the Moroccan authorities http://www.smalgangen.org/index.php?cat=142&art=986 2. Make sure key decision makers in Spain the EU and UN take action · Copy the following into the subject heading of an email: AMINATOU HAIDAR IS DYING. PLEASE ACT NOW SO SHE CAN RETURN TO HER FAMILY · Add your own message · BCC it to the following addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org,InfoDesk@ohchr.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org 3. Take direct action – join us on the 10th December at midday outside Downing Street to ask for our government to act. If you are in the UK please organise your own demonstration. A letter to your head of state from Aminatou can be arranged. Please ask Stefan. More Info The Human rights situation in Morocco is dire with torture, rape, disappearance, false imprisonment, unfair trials commonplace and [i]have suffered a real regression in the last few weeks.[ii] Aminatou, alongside many of the Saharawi people have suffered before, In 1987, aged 20, she "disappeared" and was tortured by the Moroccan secret police for four years for advocating independence. In 2005 she was jailed for seven months after being beaten by a Moroccan policeman during a demonstration protesting against the Moroccan occupation. I was kidnapped and detained in prison for 4 years. I was blindfolded continuously throughout this time, and spent 9 months in solitary confinement…sometimes we would be forced to face the wall with our hands tied and spend the whole night standing on one foot. If we fell, we were tortured...the threat of rape meant we were afraid to sleep…my family, including my young children had no idea of my whereabouts."[iii] In a cruel twist on Friday, her supporters including her 2 children were jubilant as the Spanish authorities told Aminatou she could return home only to be distraught when the Moroccan authorities refused to allow the plane meant to be taking her home to leave. Her deportation has been condemned by human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.[iv] Morocco has been repeatedly asked to allow her to return home including by The Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union (AU), Jean Ping, UN commissioner for Refugees António Guterres[v]but is refusing to do so and is prepared to let her die. Her campaign has attracted high profile support including actors Javier Bardem, Juliet Stevenson and Terry Jones, film directors Pedro Almodovar and Ken Loach, musicians Manu Chao and Brian Eno and Nobel Literature Laureate, Jose Salamango Media coverage This has made international headlines with front page news in Spanish newspapers. For a small selection of coverage in English see Afrik.com: Western Sahara: Joy turns to anger http://en.afrik.com/article16596.html British MPs support Haidar http://en.afrik.com/article16570.html The Guardian : Hunger Striker http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/02/aminatou-haidar-hunger-strike-morocco Nobel nominee hunger strike fears http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/29/nobel-nominee-hunger-strike-fears BBC: Concert backs 'Gandhi of Sahara' http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8385407.stm The Observer: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/06/morocco-spain-hunger-striker-deal Associated Press http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5i9pIW9W8jeuVVfcE6650XZmE8zGgD9C8LCN00 Statements of Concern UN commissioner for Refugees http://www.unhcr.org/4b18f6909.html Statement from the African Union: http://allafrica.com/stories/200912060001.html Statement from the South African Government http://www.dfa.gov.za/docs/2009/wsaha1204.html Statement from Amnesty International http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE29/012/2009/en/9168fdcd-6f76-4f8f-949a-e3346239b061/mde290122009en.html Statement from Human Rights Watch Morocco: Reverse Expulsion of Sahrawi Activist http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/11/19/morocco-reverse-expulsion-sahrawi-activist Human Rights Watch article on escalating Moroccan repression http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/11/16/morocco-endangered-model