Photo: Left: Photo: YOUSSEF BOUDLAL/Scanpix. Right: Photo: AFP PHOTO / MAP/Scanpix
Western Sahara:
Africa’s Last Colony
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Harriet Rudd (21.03.2012)
Twenty years ago, in 1992, a referendum of independence was to have taken place in order to allow the Sahrawian people to determine their own future. This strip of land in Africa’s north-westernmost corner has been partly occupied by Morocco since 1975. The UN and other international bodies have irrefutably acknowledged Western Sahara’s right to self-determination, and the Sahrawian demand for an independence referendum has strong support in international law. Despite this fact, the international community is doing little to further the Sahrawian right to self-determination.

At the end of April this year, the UN Security Council will review the mandate of MINURSO – or the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara – the UN peacekeeping force in Western Sahara. Several human rights organisations and activists are calling for the Security Council to include human rights monitoring in MINURSO’s mandate. There is overwhelming evidence that the Saharawi people are being subjected to widespread human rights violations, but despite this fact, the Security Council will not expant the mandate.

MINURSO was established in 1991. The mission was given the task of monitoring the ceasefire-agreement between Morocco and the Sahrawian liberation movement, Polisario, and to organise a referendum of independence in Western Sahara.

The population were to be given the opportunity to determine – at the ballot boxes – if the disputed territory of Western Sahara should have its independence or become a part of Morocco. The referendum was scheduled to take place in the first half of 1992. To this day, however, more than two decades later, nothing has happened, and MINURSO’s mandate has been renewed, without any significant changes, 39 times. 

A Sahrawi woman shows the V sign at her home in the village of Tifariti, in Polisario-controlled Western Sahara, part of the liberated area of Western Sahara. Photo: Scanpix
The beginning of the Arab Spring
The American author and political activist, Noam Chomsky, has claimed that the Arab Spring did not, in fact, begin in Tunisia, but slightly further west, in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. In October 2010, activists established a protest camp in Gdim Izik, some kilometres from of the Western Saharan capital, Laayoune. The activists were protesting against economic and social injustices, and the marginalisation of the Sahrawian people. The camp rallied between 10,000 and 20,000 people.

While similar camps, erected over the following months in Egypt’s Tahir Square and in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, attracted world wide attention, the camp in Gdim Izik, went largely unnoticed - not least because Moroccan authorities refused the press access to the area.

On the morning of 8 November, despite on-going negotiations between the protesters and the authorities, Moroccan security forces attacked and destroyed the camp. Many people were injured, and many more arrested. Moroccan authorities claimed that the protesters were being exploited by terrorists, and other forces allied to Morocco’s arch enemy, Algeria. They also maintained that people were being held back in the camp against their will, and that Sahrawian activists were using the camp in which to plan acts of violence.

The dismantling of the camp led to unrest in the capital, Laayoune. A total for 13 persons were killed at Gdim Izak, and the subsequent violence in Laayoun. 11 of the people killed were members of the security forces. 

Serious human rights violations
Since 2000, all independent human rights organisations in the occupied territory have had to close down official activities. The organisations have either been closed down by order of a Moroccan court, or refused a required registration.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have, for years, criticised Morocco for denying the Sahrawi people freedom of speech and assembly, and for using excessive force against Sahrawian protesters and harassing activists who preach independence. They have also documented that Sahrawian activists face politically motivated charges, risk torture if imprisoned, and are often denied a fair trial. Many have their cases heard by a military court.

In a report published in 2011, the American Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, writes that while over the last two decades the number of human rights violations, have decreased in Morocco, they “continue to happen on a daily basis in the occupied territory, and the conditions continue to deteriorate”.

The Security forces strike back
The Sahrawian uprising at the end of 2011, resulted in a wave of human rights abuses in the occupied territory.

“In the aftermath of 8 November, the security forces conducted widespread raids on private Sahrawian homes, and Sahrawians were subjected to arbitrary arrests, says Sidi Mahammed Daddach, a prominent Sahrawian human rights activist.

Furthermore, in additon to the violence used during the dismantling of the camp, the security forces also used excessive force during the protests in Laayoune, he continues. He is especially critical to the fact that some members of the security forces wore civilian clothing, making it impossible, at a later date, to hold them accountable for their actions.

Several international organisations have collected testimonies documenting that people who were arrested in connection with the unrest were beaten, forced to drink urin, and subjected to sexual abuse. The police also refused to give information to relatives looking for family members they thought had been arrested. Many of the detained were forced to sign fraudulent confessions, or put their thumb print on documents they did not know the content of.

Information of vital importance
Daddach, who was released in 2001, after having spent 24 years in prison – 14 of them under sentence of death - strongly underlines the importance of keeping the outside world informed about developments in Western Sahara.

“We demand that Moroccan authorities allow journalists to report freely from the area, and that the international community establishes a committee to monitor the human rights situation in the occupied territory,” says Daddach.

He also calls for European parliamentarian delegations to visit the region in order to experience and report on the conditions Sahrawians are living under. Daddach appeals especially to foreign delegations to try and visit Morocco during the trials of 23 well-known Sahrawi activists scheduled to appear in front of a military tribunal in the Moroccan capital, Rabat. All such missions are, however, dependent on Moroccan consent, and permission may not be forthcoming, particularly in times of high tension.

No help from the Security Council
Despite overwhelming documentation that serious human rights violations are being committed in Western Sahara, the UN Security Council will, at the end of April, refuse to include human rights monitoring in MINURSO’s mandate.

This is, perhaps, not surprising as two of the Council’s five permanent members – the US and France - are among Morocco’s chief allies. Spain, another staunch supporter of Morocco, is currently also on the Council, and as of 1 January 2012, Morocco also became a member of the Council.

“The Security Council will never expand MINURSO’s mandate,” says Francesco Bastagli, a former UN special representative and head of mission in Western Sahara.

He therefore suggests looking into alternative strategies, independent of the Security Council, in order to achieve human rights monitoring within the UN system.

“One could establish an office in Western Sahara under the UN’s Commissioner for Human Rights, or follow the example of what was done for the Palestinian people. Long ago, a joint UN inter-agency effort assessed their needs in such areas as health and education and subsequently launched an assistance programme that also addresses human rights issues,” Bastagli says.

Bastagli, has, after leaving his UN post become a strong supporter of the Sahrawi people, and also voices criticism of the UN’s performance on issues related to Western Sahara.

While democracy and human rights activists in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East are warmly applauded by the West, the Sahrawian uprising is ignored. As the Sahrawian people put it: “Western Sahara has many friends, Morocco has powerful friends.”

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