For her steadfast nonviolent action, despite imprisonment and torture, in pursuit of justice and self-determination for the people of Western Sahara
Aminatou Haidar is an outstanding nonviolent activist and human rights defender from Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco since 1975. 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.
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. She continues to play a crucial role in drawing international attention to the unresolved issue of Western Sahara, which for long has been neglected by the United Nations, the European Union and the media.
Like many other Sahrawi activists, Haidar has been subject to enforced disappearance, beatings, torture and arbitrary detention by Moroccan authorities without charges or trial. She had also spent 4 years in a secret prison, isolated from the outside world. However, despite death threats and harassment directed at her and her two children, Haidar has carried on her campaigns for a political solution to one of the world’s longest frozen conflicts. She also works to instil the merits of non-violent action in the next generation of Sahrawis.
Aminatou Haidar is a human rights defender from Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco. Her relentless and nonviolent activism for justice has inspired generations of Sahrawis to join the peaceful struggle for independence.
A frozen conflict
Western Sahara was under Spanish colonial rule when Aminatou Haidar was born. Only 2 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 repeatedly requested Spain to organise a referendum on self-determination under UN supervision. In the meantime, the neighbouring countries Morocco and Mauritania claimed sovereignty over the territory.
Haidar grew up in turbulent times. In 1973, the Sahrawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front (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 full support for independence among the people living in the disputed territory.
In 1975, when Haidar was 8 years old, the International Court of Justice stated that the disputed territory had belonged to neither Morocco nor Mauritania before Spanish colonisation. But shortly after, Morocco and Mauritania invaded Western Sahara, and Morocco subsequently occupied the disputed territory. Around half of the population was forced to flee. Many of the refugees ended up in camps in Algeria, where they still live. Polisario fought the invading armies in a conflict that lasted 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.
The indigenous people of Western Sahara, the Sahrawis, have repeatedly been promised the right to self-determination. But more than 40 years have passed without a referendum being held, as the international community remained indifferent and even became complicit in the occupation.
Imprisonment became a turning point
At the age of 17, amid the armed conflict between Polisario and the Moroccan troops, Haidar began 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 kilometre-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 4 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 ill-treatment 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.
Imprisoned – again
Haidar was released in 1991 and found herself in a rapidly changing political situation: the armed conflict came to an end with an UN-brokered truce in September, and a mood of optimism spread among the Sahrawi population. The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) 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. MINURSO is the only UN peacekeeping mission without a human rights monitoring mandate. That is also why it doesn't intervene when human rights violations occur. A large number of Moroccan settlers had already been moved into the disputed territory when MINURSO was established, and all attempts to hold a referendum failed over the question of 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,” Haidar has said. “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.”
However, International awareness started to grow slowly under the impact of the campaigning by Haidar and fellow human rights defenders in Western Sahara. Due to pressure from the US, Haidar could travel to Spain upon her release from prison, 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.
Hunger strike for justice and dignity
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 news outlets from all over the world took notice. All of a sudden, the issue of Western Sahara grabbed the headlines and world leaders’ attention. Among the many people who spoke out in solidarity with Haidar were the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 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
Since the first days of its occupation, Moroccan authorities have suppressed Sahrawis demanding the right to self-determination and respect of fundamental human rights. To date, the situation in the territory remains a humanitarian crisis with systematic, gross human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law being committed as a direct consequence of the prolonged illegal military occupation.
“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,” Haidar has said. Her words are backed up by international non-governmental organisations.
Sahrawi activists are frequently sentenced after unfair trials, according to Amnesty International. “Morocco controls information in the territory with an iron fist, ruthlessly punishing the practice of local journalism and blocking foreign media access,” Reporters Without Borders wrote. “Torture, (…) intimidation and lengthy prison sentences are daily fare for Sahrawi journalists,” the organisation added.
Frontline Defenders stated 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.”
Fighting for justice has come at a heavy price for Haidar, and the harassment has continued also in later years. In June 2005, police beat and severely injured Haidar during a peaceful demonstration. She was arrested and sentenced to seven months imprisonment on false charges. Amnesty International expressed “serious concerns about the fairness of the trial.” In jail, Haidar carried out two hunger strikes protesting mistreatment and arbitrary detention.
In November 2012, she was beaten and threatened with a knife by the police on her way home from a meeting with the Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, in El Ayoun. Two and a half years later, in April 2015, Moroccan police attacked Haidar’s home with rocks as she hosted a meeting with UN representatives. Travel bans and asset freezes are other methods the Moroccan authorities have used to suppress her voice.
The UN remains passive
Over the past years, Haidar has spent more and more time engaging with younger Sahrawis, some of whom are losing faith in the non-violent struggle for independence. Haidar’s message to the young generation is clear: There is no advantage in taking up arms.
“The truth is that the UN hasn’t done anything concrete so far,” she has said. “Young Sahrawis are desperate, disappointed about the lack of will within the UN Security Council to solve the issue of Western Sahara.”
After more than 40 years of Moroccan occupation, frustration is growing among the youth. “They are convinced that the Polisario Front must take up arms and that it should start a war to solve the problem,” Haidar has said. “When that happens, the Security Council will regret not having listened to the messages from human rights defenders.”
The struggle continues
Haidar has been suffering from health problems that are due to the years of imprisonment and the torture she was subjected to. Nevertheless, she continues to advocate for independence and respect for human rights. 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 issue of Western Sahara. In the long term, self-determination is the only way forward, according to Haidar.
Alarmed by the deterioration of the human rights situation in Western Sahara, Haidar announced the establishment of the Sahrawi Organ Against the Moroccan Occupation (ISACOM), on September 20, 2020. The organisations’ aims are “committing to defend the Sahrawi people’s rights to freedom, independence and dignity through legitimate non-violent means.”
A few days later, the Moroccan Prosecutor’s Office in El-Ayoun opened a judicial investigation against ISACOM on the basis that the organisation “threatens national integrity.” In the following months, Moroccan occupation forces maintained a police siege on Haidar and other fellow activists’ houses for months, preventing them from leaving their residences or receiving visits, while also intimidating their family members.
Since the violation of the ceasefire agreement between Polisario and the Kingdom of Morocco on November 13, 2020, the authorities have further intensified their crackdown on Sahrawi citizens.
“I always have hope for the future,” Haidar has said. “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, doesn’t show the will to solve the problem, we are losing our time.”