Human Rights and Intifada in the Western Sahara

June 20, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The 2006 European Union Fisheries Agreement with Morocco, a gross violation of international law, has permitted European boats to fish in the waters of the Western Sahara, a country that has lived under a violent and brutal Moroccan occupation for 33 years, which has been repeatedly denounced by several international organisations, from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch. With France, a staunch supporter of Morocco┬┤s interests with respect to the Western Sahara conflict, about to begin a 6 month presidency of the EU in July, the Saharawis have recently had to launch a new campaign to preclude attempts to grant an advanced status to Morocco. Perhaps the EU should consider the human rights situation in Moroccan-occupied Sahara before signing any more agreements.

The Western Sahara conflict originated in 1975 when Morocco sent in a 350,000 strong invasion of the territory, bombing the fleeing Saharawis with napalm. Shortly before, Spain, under UN pressure to decolonise the territory, had been discussing independence for the Western Sahara with the Polisario, the liberation front of the Saharawi people, which had been amassing resistance against the Spanish occupation since the late 1960s. Yet in order to avoid war with Morocco, the Spanish government unilaterally passed its colony over to Morocco and Mauritania despite the opposing wishes of the UN.

By 1979, Mauritania retreated but Morocco managed to push back Polisario fighters by constructing a large defensive barrier, known as the “berm”, that bisects the Western Sahara. The longest active military wall in the world, the berm consists of 2,700km of defensive walls, is patrolled by 130,000 Moroccan soldiers, and is reinforced by extensive minefields. It separates the Saharawis living in the Occupied Territories from their families living in exile in refugee camps in the Algerian desert. Malainin, a Saharawi human rights activist, made the three-day journey through heavily mined, open desert to cross the wall in August 2000, fleeing from the Moroccan authorities.

The resistance

Malainin first became involved in active resistance in the early 1990s, distributing information about the Polisario throughout the Occupied Territories, which led to his imprisonment and torture by Moroccan authorities. But he was released after two months due to international pressure, and began working underground to rally people towards protest. On 22nd September 1999 he participated in the organisation of a sit-in in the capital of the Western Sahara, El Aaiun. The aim was to raise sustenance claims and educate people about different forms of peaceful protest. It was attended by thousands, many of whom participated in public discussion groups on various aspects of the Moroccan authorities’ systematic discrimination against Saharawis.

Human rights abuses

Yet late on the night of 22nd September 1999 the Moroccan police arrived at the sit-in in order to, in Malainin’s words, “oppress the city”. “They attacked us. It was terrible’they beat us then they took the victims and abandoned them in the middle of nowhere outside the city.” Five days later, on 27th September 1999, the Saharawis regrouped ready for a protest march that was to mark the beginning of the first intifada. Yet Moroccan authorities had a plan to disperse the peaceful Saharawi protesters. “The Moroccan authorities were organising civilians, giving them money but also truncheons, sticks and knives and asking them to attack the demonstrators…the Moroccans wanted to start a ‘civil war” anyone wearing traditional Saharawi clothing was beaten.”

In this hostile situation Malainin continued to work undercover gathering information on human rights abuses. But it wasn’t easy. It was too risky for him to visit relatives, and he couldn’t stay anywhere for more than two nights. He knew the police were after him, and that if he was caught, he could be sentenced for anywhere between 15 and 20 years. Knowing that he was of no use locked up, he made the decision to cross the wall, arriving safely in the refugee camps in August 2000. He now works from the refugee camps to denounce the gross human rights violations in the Occupied Territories and to raise international awareness about the last African colony.

At the age of 17, Omar (pictured), an independence activist from the generation of the second (2005) intifada, also made the decision to cross the Wall following repeated detentions in which he suffered “all the types of torture that one can possibly imagine”. During the crossing he stepped on a landmine, which cost him his leg. Yet he is still a fervent supporter of the intifada; “it is the only route to peace’ the more the Moroccans raise the repression, the more we will demonstrate”.

Yet it is not just young men who are heavily involved in Saharawi resistance in the Occupied Territories. Many women of all ages are especially active, and indeed the most famous Saharawi human rights activist is 2008 Nobel Prize nominee Aminatou Haidar. A former ‘disappeared’ activist, during her first stint in the “black prison” of El Aaiun as a prisoner of conscience, she was submitted to daily physical torture, and “blindfolded for 3 years and 7 months”. Another human rights defender, Sultana Khaya, an icon for young people in the camps, recently lost an eye when her face was heavily beaten and burnt by a Moroccan policeman during a peaceful demonstration.
The future

So what will be the fate of the Saharawi people? Malainin is optimistic. He argues that 34 years is nothing in the history of a nation, especially if you compare it to that of their former coloniser Spain, which spent eight centuries under Arab occupation. Besides, the Saharawi nationalist movement is growing day by day, and “Morocco, as a regime’cannot live for more than 15 – 20 years’not only because of its economic and ethnic problems, but because as a regime it’s archaic’it belongs to the feudal era.” Considering that there is not much hope of the EU fighting for justice for the Western Sahara, one can only hope that Malainin is right.

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This post was written by Joanna Allan

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