Aminatou Haidar: Stop the Moroccan abuse and let Sahrawi civil society flourish
Civil society activists in Western Sahara endure harassment, beatings and imprisonment as Moroccan authorities systematically crack down on their freedom of assembly and association, 2019 Right Livelihood Laureate Aminatou Haidar told the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday. She said Sahrawi civil society must be protected from such attacks.
Haidar, who has campaigned peacefully for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco for decades, warned of “severe restrictions” faced by Sahrawi activists during the 47th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“In Western Sahara, violations of the right to create associations have been part of a pattern of repression targeting any Sahrawis in favour of independence,” she told the Council.
“Protests against the Moroccan rule are systematically prohibited, activists are beaten, imprisoned and sentenced without due process. NGOs suffer arbitrary and politically motivated restrictions.”
She said that she and members of ISACOM, an organisation she had co-founded in 2020 and has been president of, have faced intimidation and restrictions to their movement in recent months as Moroccan authorities tried to silence them and stop their activities.
Haidar specifically highlighted fellow activists Sultana Khaya and Mina Baali who had been brutally attacked by Moroccan agents in May. Khaya has also been under house arrest for seven months now.
“Perpetrators of these crimes must be held accountable, and Sahrawi civil society must not only be protected but allowed to flourish,” Haidar said.
Haidar delivered her statement just hours after Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, called on Morocco to stop targeting journalists and human rights defenders working on the issues related to Western Sahara on Thursday.
“I urge the Government of Morocco to cease targeting human rights defenders and journalists for their work, and to create an environment in which they can carry out such work without fear of retaliation,” Lawlor said.
She specifically highlighted the cases of ISACOM members, raising alarm over Khaya and her sister Luara Khaya, who have been sexually and physically assaulted by Moroccan agents.
Lawlor also condemned attacks and the use of torture against other ISACOM members, including human rights defenders Baali, Salha Boutinguiza, Lahcen Dalil, Hassanna Abba, Hmad Hammad, Babuizid Muhammed Saaed Labhi, Salek Baber and Khalid Boufrayoua.
The people of Western Sahara, a territory often called “Africa’s last colony,” have endured decades of conflict and repression by Morocco. Spain, the former colonial power, left the disputed territory of Western Sahara in 1975. However, instead of a referendum on self-determination as promised by the United Nations, the region was annexed by Morocco.
During the past four decades, the territory has remained under dispute with no referendum in sight, as the international community looked on with indifference or even abetted the occupation.
In her statement, Haidar told the Human Rights Council that it was high time for the UN to finally let Sahrawis decide over the future of their territory.
“Western Sahara has been at the mercy of a brutal occupying power since 1975,” Haidar said.
“It is time for the UN to assume its responsibility for its decolonisation. I call on the Council to urge Morocco to end the systematic human rights violations and ensure that the Sahrawi people are enabled to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination.”
Haidar addressed the Council during a discussion with Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. In a recent report, he warned that access to justice was essential to guarantee people’s right to assembly and association.
“When access to justice is not guaranteed, people cannot fully exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association,” Voule wrote.
Haidar is a nonviolent activist and human rights defender from Western Sahara. Over 30 years of peaceful campaigning for the independence of her homeland have earned her the recognition of being known as the “Sahrawi Gandhi.” Haidar’s dignity and resolve make her one of the most respected leaders in the region.
She received the Right Livelihood Award “for her steadfast nonviolent action, despite imprisonment and torture, in pursuit of justice and self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.”