Aminatou Haidar is an outstanding nonviolent activist and human rights defender from Western Sahara. Spain, the former colonial power, abandoned the disputed territory in 1975, and Morocco immediately annexed it. Over 30 years of peaceful campaigning for the independence of her homeland have earned Haidar the byname “Sahrawi Gandhi”. Her dignity and resolve make her one of the most respected leaders among the Sahrawis.
The indigenous people of Western Sahara, the Sahrawis, have repeatedly been promised the right to self-determination by the UN, Spain and Morocco. But more than 40 years have passed without a referendum being held, with the international community indifferent or even complicit in the occupation.
Aminatou Haidar started her activism as a teenager and is one of the founders of the Sahrawi human rights movement. She has organised demonstrations, documented cases of torture and carried out several hunger strikes to raise awareness about the violations suffered by her people. Haidar is the co-founder and President of the human rights organisation Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA). She plays a crucial role in drawing international attention to the unresolved Western Sahara issue, which for long has been neglected by the UN, the EU and the media.
Since the first days of its occupation, Moroccan authorities have suppressed Sahrawis demanding the right to self-determination and respect of fundamental human rights. Like many other Sahrawi activists, Aminatou Haidar has been beaten, tortured and detained without charges or trial. She spent four years in a secret prison, isolated from the outside world.
Despite death threats and harassment, directed at herself and her two children, Aminatou Haidar tirelessly campaigns for a political solution to one of the world’s longest frozen conflicts and tries to instil the merits of non-violent action in the next generation of Sahrawis.
Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Foundation, commented:
The Sahrawi people have been suffering under Moroccan occupation for more than 40 years and any opposition is brutally punished. Aminatou Haidar’s courage and determination to organise nonviolent resistance and speak up internationally is an inspiration for everyone who believes in justice.
Aminatou Haidar was born in El-Ayoun on 24 July 1967, when Western Sahara was under Spanish colonial rule. Only two years earlier, the UN General Assembly had adopted its first resolution on Western Sahara requesting Spain to decolonise the disputed territory. In the following years, the UN General Assembly Spain to organise a referendum on self-determination, under UN supervision. In the meantime, the neighbouring countries Morocco and Mauritania claimed the territory.
Haidar grew up in turbulent times. In 1973, the Sahrawi liberation movement Polisario began its fight for independence for Western Sahara and launched its first military attacks on Spanish troops. A UN investigation commission visited Western Sahara around the same time and found among the people living in the disputed territory.
In 1975, when Haidar was eight years old, the that the disputed territory had belonged to neither Morocco nor Mauritania before Spanish colonisation. But shortly after, Morocco and Mauritania invaded Western Sahara and around half of the population was forced to flee. Many of the refugees ended up in camps in Algeria, where they are still living. Polisario fought the invading armies in a conflict that was to last for 16 years. Spain formally withdrew from Western Sahara in 1976 and Polisario subsequently declared The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Mauritania signed a peace treaty with Polisario in 1979 and withdrew its claims on Western Sahara. Morocco eventually secured control of most of the territory, including all the major cities and natural resources.
“Moroccan authorities opened my eyes to reality”At the age of 17, amid the armed conflict between Polisario and the Moroccan troops, young Haidar started to participate in peaceful protests against the occupation. A turning point for her came in 1987, the year Morocco completed the construction of a 2,700 km long sand wall which runs through Western Sahara and separates the territory under Moroccan control from that of Polisario.
In November of that year, Haidar was among 400 protesters arbitrarily detained following a peaceful demonstration. Along with around 70 others, she was thrown into a secret prison for four years without anyone knowing her whereabouts. Haidar was thus subject to enforced disappearance, which qualifies as a crime against humanity under international law.
She suffered torture and maltreatment at the hands of her jailers. In prison, Haidar carried out her first hunger strike together with other Sahrawi activists, protesting the harsh conditions. The years in jail changed her life. “Moroccan authorities opened my eyes to reality”, she says.
Imprisoned – again
Aminatou Haidar was released in 1991 into a rapidly changing political situation: The armed conflict came to an end with a UN-brokered truce in September, and a mood of optimism spread among the Sahrawi population. The was established with the mandate to organise and ensure a free and fair referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would decide between independence or integration with Morocco. But a large number of Moroccan settlers had already been moved into the disputed territory, and all attempts to hold a referendum failed over the question who would be eligible to vote.
After she left prison, Haidar campaigned for the release of other Sahrawi political prisoners. She also documented human rights violations to raise awareness about the abuses committed by the occupying power and to hold perpetrators accountable. It took the outside world very long to take notice of the reality in Western Sahara. “For two decades, nobody knew anything about what was happening in Western Sahara”, says Haidar. “There was no internet, no telephone line to communicate with people abroad. International observers didn’t know anything and couldn’t get into the territory.” International awareness started to grow slowly under the impact of the campaigning by Haidar and fellow human rights defenders in Western Sahara.
In June 2005, police beat and severely injured Haidar during a peaceful demonstration. She was arrested and sentenced to seven months imprisonment. expressed “serious concerns about the fairness of the trial”. In jail, Haidar carried out two hunger strikes protesting mistreatment and arbitrary detention.
Due to pressure from the U.S, Haidar could travel to Spain upon her release from jail, to receive the 2006 Juan María Bandrés Award. She seized the opportunity and set out on an advocacy tour through Europe, the US and South Africa. Haidar received The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2008 and has been invited to several speaking tours in the US since.
“My fight is not an individual fight; it is a fight for the collective rights of my people”
Ignoring threats and overcoming hardship, Haidar continued her nonviolent activism. In November 2009, she received the Civil Courage Award in the US. Haidar was denied re-entry to Western Sahara upon her return as she refused to describe herself as a Moroccan citizen in the entry documents. Moroccan authorities confiscated her passport and deported her to the Spanish Canary Islands. Spain, in turn, refused to send her back to Western Sahara as she didn’t carry a valid passport. Stranded at the airport in Lanzarote, Haidar went on a hunger strike. Over the days and weeks, her health deteriorated, and media from all over the world took notice. “My fight is not an individual fight; it is a fight for the collective rights of my people,” she told journalists. All of a sudden, the issue of Western Sahara grabbed the headlines, and world leaders tried to solve the situation. Among the many people who spoke out in solidarity with Haidar, were the , Nobel Prize Laureates and celebrities. Haidar was in a life-threatening condition when Morocco finally gave in to the pressure and granted Haidar re-entry into Western Sahara after 32 days of hunger strike.
Defending human rights against all odds
Aminatou Haidar operates in a most challenging context. “There is no possibility to demonstrate, there is no freedom of expression, and any expressions in favour of self-determination lead to arbitrary detention and mistreatments, including torture inside the police stations,” she says. Her words are backed up by international non-governmental organisations.
Sahrawi activists are frequently sentenced in unfair trials, according to. “Morocco controls information in the territory with an iron fist, ruthlessly punishing the practice of local journalism and blocking foreign media access,” . “Torture, (…) intimidation and lengthy prison sentences are daily fare for Sahrawi journalists,” according to the organisation. states that “Permission to hold public gatherings is often denied and demonstrations dispersed by force. Participants, including human rights defenders, have been beaten, arrested or otherwise intimidated.”
Haidar’s determined campaigning for respect for human rights has taken different forms over the years. In 2006, she co-founded the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA), which documents human rights violations and provides legal support for Sahrawis who want to file complaints. It also trains youth in different ways of peaceful resistance. Haidar has been President of CODESA since 2008.
“The Security Council will regret not to have listened to the messages from human rights defenders”
Over the past years, Haidar has spent more and more time engaging with younger Sahrawis, some of whom are losing faith in the nonviolent struggle for independence. “The truth is that the UN hasn’t done anything concrete so far”, she says. “Young Sahrawis are desperate, disappointed about the lack of will within the UN Security Council to solve the issue of Western Sahara,” she warns. After more than 40 years of Moroccan occupation, frustration is growing among youth. “They are convinced that the Polisario Front must take up arms and that it should start a war to solve the problem,” Haidar says about the dissatisfied young people. “When that happens, the Security Council will regret not to have listened to the messages from human rights defenders”, she adds. Haidar’s message to the young generation is clear-cut: There is no advantage in taking up arms.
The struggle continues
Fighting for justice comes at a heavy price for Aminatou Haidar. In November 2012 she was on her way home from a meeting with the Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on Western Sahara, Mr Christopher Ross, in El Ayoun. Two and a half years later, on April 2015, with rocks as she hosted a meeting with UN representatives.
Travel bans and asset freezes are other methods the Moroccan authorities use to suppress her voice. Haidar is suffering from health problems that relate to the years of imprisonment and the torture she was subjected to. Nevertheless, she continues to advocate for independence and respect for human rights steadfastly. Over the past years, Haidar has visited Europe and the US several times to meet parliamentarians and world leaders to direct their attention to the unresolved Western Sahara issue. In the long term, self-determination is the only way forward, according to Haidar.
“I always have hope for the future. I’m sure that justice will come one day, but I don’t think that we will have a solution anytime soon. Until the international community, especially the UN Security Council, don’t show the will to solve the problem, we are losing our time.”