Human rights in the occupied Western Sahara

When the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara was again renewed on 30 April, discussions – for the first time in years – centred on the problem of human rights abuses by the Moroccan government.

On 30 April, the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) – which has been tasked since 1991 with maintaining a ceasefire and monitoring Africa’s longest territorial dispute between Morocco and the Sahrawi Polisario Front – was yet again renewed. The UN body was initially set up to facilitate a referendum for self-determination promised to the Sahrawi people. However, the referendum, planned for 1992, has failed to materialise amid disputes over who among the Moroccan settlers would be entitled to vote.

This year, the question of the violation of human rights was at the core of discussions. The United States’ initial draft resolution attempted to include a proposition to install UN observers to monitor human rights violations and abuses in the occupied Western Sahara. However, in response to fierce resistance from the governments of Morocco and France at the UN Security Council (UNSC), Washington dropped its demand.

Instead, a compromise was found consisting of more semantics related to human rights which, according to a UN diplomat, is a step forward in this conflict. Yet, this compromise decision may also send the wrong signal to the Sahrawi population, especially the youth, who could become even more impatient and therefore radicalised.

Human rights organisations such as the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK), Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have on numerous occasions condemned Rabat’s violation of human rights in Western Sahara, as well as Washington and Paris’ support for Morocco. These organisations have cited several examples of grave human rights violations against the Sahrawi people, including summary execution, enforced disappearance, torture, and arbitrary arrest. For instance, the RFK prize laureate Aminatou Haidar reported that Mohamed Khalil Ayache, a young Sahrawi, was tortured for a week and then died after refusing to chant ‘long life to the king’ and ‘the Sahara is Moroccan’.

This February, the Rabat Military Court sentenced nine Sahrawi civilians to life in prison and 14 others to prison terms of between 20 and 30 years for plotting and carrying out violence against the police when they dismantled a protest tent camp in November 2010 that Sahrawis had set up in Gdeim Izik, Western Sahara. The military court based its verdict almost solely on the confessions attributed to the defendants by the police and refused to investigate the defendants’ claims that the police had extracted those confessions under torture.

It is extremely difficult for foreigners to enter Western Sahara. Moroccan authorities regularly refuse entry to scores of foreign journalists, political activists and human rights workers. This March, Morocco expelled four members of the European Parliament when they arrived in Casablanca on their way to Western Sahara to investigate human rights conditions, arguing they were pro-Western Sahara.

In recent years, human rights monitoring, investigating and reporting have become an integral part of UN peacekeeping operations around the world. However, unlike other UN peacekeeping forces, MINURSO does not have human rights observers as Rabat and Paris categorically refuse such an option. Even the future UN peacekeeping presence in Mali, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUMISMA), as envisioned by France, would encompass a strong human rights mandate. Because of the absence of human rights monitors, during riots and clashes like those that occurred in 2010 in Gdeim Izik, Western Sahara, MINURSO staff could not submit any reports on the human rights abuses they had witnessed. This leaves the door open to all kinds of abuses by Rabat.

The question of human rights abuses in Western Sahara has always been highly sensitive for Morocco and France and their latest reaction in New York is not surprising. For example, in 2008, a small group of deputies from the French Communist Party had tried to set up an ad hoc study group in France on human rights abuses in Western Sahara. However, following lobbying by the then Moroccan ambassador to France, Fathallah Sijilmassi, the group had to drop its project. During his recent visit on 3 and 4 April in Morocco, French President François Hollande reiterated his country’s close historical ties to Rabat, calling the latter a ‘country of stability and serenity’ and underlining a ‘rare, not to say exceptional, friendship between the two countries’. Regarding Western Sahara, Hollande renewed his country’s support for Morocco’s position. As Philippe Bolopion, the director of HRW at the UN rightly puts it, it is ‘business as usual’ between the two countries.

It is important to remember that Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara – the last colonised territory in Africa – is in direct violation of international law. In 1963 the UN included Western Sahara in a list of territories that sought self-determination. The notion of self-determination was already enshrined in the UN Charter and is supported by UN Resolution 1514, which stipulates that ‘all people have the right to self-determination’. This was further supported by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a ruling on 16 October 1975 when it declared that Western Sahara was not ‘land belonging to no-one’ (terra nullius) at the time of its colonisation by Spain. The ICJ judgement, therefore, declared that Morocco had no valid claim on Western Sahara based on any historic title, and that, even if it had, contemporary international law accorded priority to the Sahrawi right to self-determination.

In addition to Paris and Washington’s unconditional support – since its independence in 1956, Morocco has been a close geostrategic ally of both countries (see ISS Today, 26 January 2012) – the politics of illegal occupation and human rights violations conducted by Morocco since Spain’s   withdrawal 38 years ago has also been made possible by Rabat’s extremely efficient political lobbying and bribes – as reported by the former US Ambassador Frank Ruddy. Yet, there may be some signs of nervousness in Rabat lately. For some time now Rabat has been playing the ‘regional security’ card, attempting to link the Malian crisis to the Western Sahara conflict in order to gather further support from the international community, arguing that they should support Morocco as a key regional player. The US’ attempt to include human rights observers in MINURSO puts more pressure on Rabat as Morocco’s human rights abuses in Western Sahara are increasingly coming under international scrutiny. Rabat is fully aware that it could lose international support as a result.

It is argued that since the conflict broke out in 1975, Morocco has lost 3.5 points in its national economic growth and that Moroccans’ standard of living could have been three to four times higher. At a time when the Moroccan Kingdom suffers from a budget deficit and insists on the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) being strengthened, which would boost the economy of the entire region, Rabat may have to take another look at its policy regarding Western Sahara.

Given the current political dynamics of the region, and bearing in mind the numerous reports of human rights violations in the occupied Western Sahara, Morocco’s current ruler, Mohamed VI, would do well to consider that even the harshest forms of repression are very difficult to sustain. As the Tunisian poet Abu Al-Qassam Al-Shabbi warned nearly a century ago, ‘when people decide to live, it is for destiny to respond, darkness has to dissipate, and chains to break’.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, ISS Addis Ababa

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