Aminatou Haidar, one of the most prominent human rights activists in the liberation of the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara, was detained, then deported, by the Moroccan authorities on her arrival in the territory last Friday. Some weeks earlier, she visited Washington, DC to receive the Civil Courage Prize, sponsored by the U.S.-based Train Foundation. AllAfrica interviewed her there.
Could you give us a brief description of the current situation in Western Sahara?
Western Sahara as you may know is a former Spanish colony. Its decolonization is still being studied every year at the Fourth Committee [of the General Assembly] of the United Nations. The Sahrawi people are still waiting for their right to self-determination.
Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara since 1975 has caused a lot of suffering. Today, the Sahrawi people are divided into two groups: one lives in refugee camps in Tindouf on Algerian territory, in very difficult conditions. The other, to which I belong, is still under Moroccan administration.
The occupation has led to widespread human rights abuses and Morocco has since the invasion been intent on organizing a collective genocide.
There are mass graves, people are being thrown out of helicopters and the army has tortured, raped and killed hundreds of people. People of all ages and social backgrounds are disappearing even I have suffered from this. When I was 20 I was arrested and held for four years in an unknown location without [court] judgment. I was tortured and my family did not know of my whereabouts.
During Hassan II's reign [King Hassan of Morocco] no one dared question those disappearances. As I speak, human rights abuses are still taking place. The situation is very difficult in the occupied territories as we have no rights. We are regularly arrested, tortured and transferred to other Moroccan cities. In the last two months, the Moroccan authorities have stepped up the repression against the population in general and mostly against human rights activists.
During the month of August, on the 5th, six young people were prevented from participating in a debate on the situation in Western Sahara organized by TalkTogether, an organization based in London.
On October 5th, the [the Moroccans] arrested five human rights activists at the Mauritanian border. They [the activists] are now in an illegal situation as [the authorities] took all their papers.
On October 8th, they arrested seven human rights activists for visiting their families in refugee camps. This is considered a crime in Morocco.
They [the activists] are being held at the Sali prison near Rabat and will appear before a military tribunal. They face charges that could carry a sentence ranging between 15 years and the death penalty. Their families cannot visit them. A group of lawyers was allowed to see them and have confirmed they are being detained in poor conditions.
A United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso) was established in 1991. However, it is the only UN mission that does not have a mandate to promote or defend human rights, or even observe [the situation].
There have been reports from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner [of Human Rights] requesting the establishment of a protection mechanism in the territories and the expansion of Minurso's mandate. There has been no response, and the situation is only going to get worse.
Do you believe there will be a positive resolution to this conflict? What would satisfy the Sahrawi people?
For the last two years, there have been negotiations between the Polisario Front, which is the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, and the Moroccan authorities. However, none of the agreements have been respected, and for me at least, we have not seen any improvements, particularly when it comes to human rights. Morocco must respect human rights in times of war just as in times of peace.
What we now want is for the United Nations to give the Sahrawi people the right to express themselves, the right to choose. If they choose to be part of Morocco, fine, but this should not be forced on them. If they choose to be independent, their choice should be respected.
What is unacceptable is the international community's silence in this situation. There has been an illegal occupation for the last 34 years and not one country has recognized Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara. Morocco is however not worried about this situation. We are waiting for decolonization and our right to self-determination, through a referendum.
We do not reject the United Nations proposals but the final decision should come from the Sahrawi people. They should get to choose their future.
What do you specifically expect from the United States?
As we all know, the U.S. is one of the most powerful countries on the United Nations Security Council. Without their support at the UN there will be no change because Morocco is really supported by France. France is blocking the peace process.
What does France gain from this occupation?
France turns a blind eye because of its economic interests in Morocco, but human dignity should prevail over economic interests. These violations of human rights do not only affect the Sahrawi people, but the Maghreb Union in general.
Do other Maghreb countries support you?
Yes, Algeria supports our rights to self-determination along with Libya and Mauritania.
What about Tunisia?
You have just received the 10th annual Civil Courage Prize. How does it feel?
It is a great honor for me to receive another award from the United States. I had already been awarded prestigious prizes such as the Robert F. Kennedy [Human Rights] Award last year. This is such a great support for me and a recognition for my struggle. But more importantly, it will open doors, such as those of American civil society institutions. It will also bring more attention to the Sahrawi problem, which is almost forgotten or unknown here in the United States.
Your last word?
I call upon the American people. We really need their support. We would like them to play a major role in ending this conflict. They should pressure Morocco into respecting the rights of the Sahrawi people. The United States should be neutral, and for the time being that is what they have been doing. All we ask for is that international laws be respected, nothing more.
Children, women and old people are victims of Moroccan repression on a daily basis. We are non-violent and our resistance is non-violent. We respect the Moroccan people and have no hatred for them. We have legitimate rights to liberty, dignity and self-determination.
I call upon the American people to mobilize for the liberation of political prisoners and human rights activists. We need to do so to save their lives as they face the death penalty and that is unfair.