Our Voices

For Western Sahara, freedom has been an empty promise

Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted recommendations of its Universal Periodic Review on Morocco. A major highlight of the process was Morocco’s abuse of human rights in Western Sahara — a country on the northwest coast of Africa that it has illegally occupied since 1975. The international community has consistently reaffirmed its commitment to democracy, freedom, and human rights, not just as Western ideals, but universal norms. Indeed, the end of the Second World War ushered in a wave of decolonization that swept across the world and ended European occupation of 44 African colonies. It marked a watershed for global human rights and democratic freedoms. As several former colonies and territories celebrated this dramatic progression toward political emancipation, freedom has remained a mirage for the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara.

Recently, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over alleged war crimes in Ukraine. As the U.S. and its allies continue to denounce Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine—we must also recognize the Western Sahara conflict which has festered for decades and claimed more than 14,000 lives. Putin’s annexation of Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine was met with outrage and condemnation by the West (two thirds of UN Member States voted in favor of the UN Resolution against Russia), and the U.S. immediately imposed new sanctions on Russia. It is now time for these States to demonstrate in clear terms that Morocco’s continued appropriation of Western Sahara is no less illegal.

Morocco’s colonization of Western Sahara has been condoned for far too long. In August 2012, a high-level delegation from RFK Human Rights visited Western Sahara as part of an international human rights delegation. Hundreds of victims shared in minute detail that Moroccan security forces harassed, beat, illegally arrested, tortured, issued death threats and more. Many told the delegation they had lost family members to Moroccan slaughter. All this was in retaliation for peacefully advocating for self-determination – a right that is recognized by the UN Charter, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t mattered much that Morocco is a party to these treaties. Not only has the Kingdom disregarded the recognition and protection granted to the right to self-determination by these treaties, it has refused to abide by a 1975 decision of the International Court of Justice which rejected its claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara, and in 1984 it left the African Union in protest after the body recognized Western Sahara as a member state. In January 2017, Morocco rejoined the AU amid push back from some member states over its illegal activities in Western Sahara. It is significant to note here that the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights recognizes the right to self-determination and, in doing so, particularly takes into account the continent’s harrowing experience of colonization, Apartheid, military occupations and other forms of external aggression. A recent ruling by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights denouncing Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara—and noting that all states have an obligation to assist the Sahrawi people in their struggle for self-determination—is a welcome development.

But it is too early for the Sahrawis to celebrate as the world continues to let Morocco get away with this illegal land grab. In December 2020, Morocco’s barefaced impunity received a pat on the back from the Trump administration when the U.S. government formally recognized Morocco’s control of Western Sahara in a quid pro quo deal for Morocco to normalize relations with Israel. The Biden Administration has not reversed this decision and the implications are far-reaching: the Western Sahara conflict is on the verge of escalation as Morocco’s occupation and human rights abuses in the territory persist, worsening the plight of the Sahrawi people who have been forced to endure nearly four decades of oppression. What’s worse, at the end of last year, 178 countries voted in favor of Morocco’s admission into the Human Rights Council despite growing evidence of its brutal disregard for international law and human rights in Western Sahara. This development, coming on the heels of Russia’s suspension from the Council, further illustrates concerns over western politicization and double standards for international human rights.

As Robert Kennedy noted when he spoke in South Africa in 1966, at the heart of freedom and democracy “is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, all groups, and states, exist for that person’s benefit.” For every Sahrawi child born today in “Africa’s last colony,” Morocco’s annexation of their homeland violates the very essence of their individual freedom.

The world’s continued complicity in the face of Morocco’s flagrant disregard of its international human rights obligations raises a moral question for us and sends a dangerous signal that some conflicts and, even so, some lives matter more than others. We cannot allow Morocco to cherry-pick which democratic rights and norms to recognize or trample at will. It is a reward for impunity and an incentive for others who are reading the handwriting on the wall: might is right.

There is no better time to demonstrate why the U.S. President is the leader of the free world. President Joe Biden must now right the wrongs of the past by taking a stand for truth, freedom and justice. A good place to start is the reversal of the Trump Administration’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. It is a duty we owe ourselves and to courageous Sahrawi human rights defenders like Aminatou Haidar who was disappeared in 1987 by Moroccan authorities, brutally tortured and held without trial until 1991. A recipient of the 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, Haidar’s continued persecution, courageous fight for freedom, and the hopes of her Sahrawi people must not be in vain.

For more information, reach out to Ekeoma Ugo Ezeh at [email protected].