Recently, I traveled to Algiers, Algeria to attend the 6th International Conference on the Peoples’ Right to Resistance: The Case of the Sahrawi People. The conference was organized by the Algerian National Committee of Solidarity with the Sahrawi People (CNASPS) and the Embassy of the Sahrawi Arabic Democratic Republic in Algeria, and included a program designed to highlight ongoing issues related to the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.
We have been working specifically on human rights issues resulting from the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara for nearly a decade. In 2008, Kerry Kennedy presented Aminatou Haidar with our annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for her steadfast advocacy for the rights of the Sahrawi people. Ms. Haidar has remained one of the most active human rights defenders in Western Sahara despite her arrest, four-year confinement, and torture by Moroccan forces. But while her story is harrowing, it is unfortunately indicative of the kinds of abuses experienced by human rights defenders in Western Sahara. The 2015 UN Secretary-General’s Report on Western Sahara highlighted the “disproportionate use of force” against protestors and noted reports of “arbitrary arrest, torture, ill treatment and prosecution.” The 2017 version of the Report noted a “persistent lack of any investigation into allegations of such violations,” which largely reflects the culture of impunity relayed by civil society on the ground.
Ms. Haidar was present at the conference, as were representatives from a number of different organizations and countries, including many from the occupied territory of Western Sahara. The conference featured speakers who discussed ongoing efforts by the United Nations to find an acceptable political solution to the conflict that is consistent with Sahrawi peoples’ right to self-determination; the international legal framework governing natural resources that has led to the European Court of Justice invalidating trade agreements between the European Union and Morocco because they cover Western Sahara; and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the refugee camps in Algeria, where tens of thousands of people have lived for decades in dire conditions in the desert, waiting to return home.
I spoke about the ongoing human rights abuses perpetrated by Morocco in the occupied territory of Western Sahara. This includes violations of the right to freedom of assembly and expression when Moroccan security forces violently disperse peaceful protests; violations to the right to be free from arbitrary detention when protesters, journalists, and human rights defenders are jailed on manufactured charges; and violations of the right to freedom of movement when Morocco prevents Sahrawi activists from traveling abroad, or prevents international journalists and other observers from entering Western Sahara. The human rights abuses in Western Sahara often stem from a more fundamental violation: the refusal of Morocco to afford the people of Western Sahara the right to self-determination, as required by numerous United Nations General Assembly and Security Council resolutions.
Yet despite the decades-long stalemate, the ground is shifting in several places. After a 33-year absence, Morocco rejoined the African Union (AU) in 2017. Morocco originally left the AU after the organization allowed Western Sahara to become a member and recognized the legitimacy of the Western Saharan government over the territory occupied by Morocco. Western Sahara remains a member of the AU, with the two States now existing on equal footing within the international organization. The UN Secretary-General has appointed former German President Horst Köhler as his personal envoy on the issue, tasked with restarting negotiations between the parties and finding a political solution. Mr. Köhler has been holding bilateral talks with the various stakeholders, and is seeking to bring the parties together for the first direct negotiations in years. And Morocco’s hold on the natural resources of Western Sahara may be slipping. Earlier this year, a cargo ship loaded with phosphate mined from Western Sahara was held in South Africa after the government of Western Sahara sued, claiming that the phosphate was not Morocco’s to sell. The court in South Africa sided with Western Sahara, and the phosphate will now be sold at auction, with the proceeds going to the government of Western Sahara.
It remains to be seen whether these developments will align in such a way as to bring about a breakthrough in the stalemate, or will yield any improvement in the respect for the human rights of those living in occupied Western Sahara. But for those who are involved in various aspects of the conflict, the opportunity provided by this recent Conference to share information, discuss strategy, and identify useful actions is essential.