Aminatou Haidar, a nonviolent activist from Western Sahara and a key leader in her nation’s struggle against the 33-year-old U.S.-backed Moroccan occupation of her country, won this year’s Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
This recognition of Haidar and her nonviolent freedom campaign is significant in that the Western Sahara struggle has often gone unnoticed, even among many human rights activists. In addition, highlighting the work of an Arab Muslim woman struggling for her people’s freedom through nonviolent action helps challenge impressions held by many Americans that those resisting U.S.-backed regimes in that part of the world are misogynist, violent extremists. Successive administrations have used this stereotype to justify military intervention and support for repressive governments and military occupations.
Unfortunately, given its role in making Morocco’s occupation possible, the U.S. government has little enthusiasm for Haidar and the visibility her winning the RFK prize gives to the whole Western Sahara issue.
In 1975, the kingdom of Morocco conquered Western Sahara — on the eve of its anticipated independence from Spain — in defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice upholding the right of the country’s inhabitants to self-determination. With threats of a French and American veto at the UN preventing decisive action by the international community to stop the Moroccan invasion, the nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed struggle against the occupiers. The Polisario established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in February 1976, which has subsequently been recognized by nearly 80 countries and is a full member state of the African Union. The majority of the indigenous population, known as Sahrawis, went into exile, primarily in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria.
Thanks in part to U.S. military aid, Morocco eventually was able to take control of most of the territory, including all major towns. It also built, thanks to U.S. assistance, a series of fortified sand berms in the desert that effectively prevented penetration by Polisario forces into Moroccan-controlled territory. In addition, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Morocco moved tens of thousands of settlers into Western Sahara until they were more than twice the population of the remaining indigenous Sahrawis. Yet the Polisario achieved a series of diplomatic victories that generated widespread international support for self-determination and refusal to recognize the Moroccan takeover. In 1991, the Polisario agreed to a ceasefire in return for a Moroccan promise to allow for an internationally supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Morocco, however, refused to allow the referendum to move forward.
French and American support for the Moroccan government blocked the UN Security Council from providing the necessary diplomatic pressure to move the referendum process forward. The Polisario, meanwhile, recognized its inability to defeat the Moroccans by military means. As a result, the struggle for self-determination shifted to within the Moroccan-occupied territory, where the Sahrawi population has launched a nonviolent resistance campaign against the occupation.
Western Sahara had seen scattered impromptu acts of open nonviolent resistance ever since the Moroccan conquest. In 1987, for instance, a visit to the occupied territory by a special UN committee to investigate the human right violations sparked protests in the Western Saharan capital of El Aaiún. The success of this major demonstration was all the more remarkable, given that most of the key organizers had been arrested the night before and the city was under a strict curfew. Among the more than 700 people arrested was the 21-year-old Aminatou Haidar.
For four years she was "disappeared," held without charge or trial, and kept in secret detention centers. In these facilities, she and 17 other Sahrawi women underwent regular torture and abuse.
Most resistance activity inside the occupied territory remained clandestine until early September 1999, when Sahrawi students organized sit-ins and vigils for more scholarships and transportation subsidies from the Moroccan government. Since an explicit call for independence would have been brutally suppressed immediately, the students hoped to push the boundaries of dissent by taking advantage of their relative intellectual freedom. Former political prisoners seeking compensation and accountability for their state-sponsored disappearances soon joined the nonviolent vigils, along with Sahrawi workers from nearby phosphate mines and a union of unemployed college graduates. The movement was suppressed within a few months. Although the demands of what became known as the first Sahrawi Intifada appeared to be nonpolitical, it served as a test of both the Sahrawi public and the Moroccan government. It paved the way for Sahrawis to press for bolder demands and engage in larger protests in the future that would directly challenge the Moroccan occupation itself.
A second Sahrawi intifada, which because known as the "Intifada al-Istiglal" (the Intifada of Independence), began in May 2005. Thousands of Sahrawi demonstrators, led by women and youths, took to the streets of El Aaiún protesting the ongoing Moroccan occupation and calling for independence. The largely nonviolent protests and sit-ins were met by severe repression by Moroccan troops and Moroccan settlers. Within hours, leading Sahrawi activists were kidnapped, including Haidar, who was brutally beaten by Moroccan occupation forces. Sahrawi students at Moroccan universities then organized solidarity demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other forms of nonviolent protests. Throughout the remainder of 2005, the intifada continued with both spontaneous and planned protests, all of which were met with harsh repression by Moroccan authorities.
Haidar was released within seven months as a result of pressure from Amnesty International and the European parliament. Meanwhile, nonviolent protests have continued, despite ongoing repression by U.S.-supported Moroccan authorities. Despite continued disappearances, killings, beatings, and torture, Haidar has continued to advocate nonviolent action. In addition to organizing efforts at home, she traveled extensively to raise awareness internationally about the ongoing Moroccan occupation and advocate for the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination.
U.S. Increases Backing for Morocco
As repression increased, so did U.S. support for Morocco. The Bush administration has increased military and security assistance five-fold and also signed a free-trade agreement. The United States remained largely silent over the deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied Western Sahara while heaping praise for King Mohammed VI’s domestic political and economic reforms. This year’s Republican Party platform singles out the Kingdom of Morocco for its "cooperation and social and economic development," with no mention of Western Sahara.
However, the occupation itself continues to prove problematic for Morocco. The nonviolent resistance to the occupation continues. Most of the international community, despite French and American efforts, has refused to recognize Morocco’s illegal annexation of the territory.
As a result, the Moroccan kingdom recently advocated an autonomy plan for the territory. The Sahrawis, with the support of most of the world’s nations, rejected the proposal since it would not allow them the choice of independence, as all those living in non-self-governing territories have the legal right to do.
Indeed, the autonomy plan is based on the assumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, a contention that the UN, the World Court, the African Union, and a broad consensus of international legal opinion have long rejected. To accept Morocco’s autonomy plan would mean that, for the first time since the founding of the UN and the ratification of the UN Charter more the 60 years ago, the international community would be endorsing the expansion of a country’s territory by military force, thereby establishing a very dangerous and destabilizing precedent.
In addition, Morocco’s proposal contains no enforcement mechanisms, nor are there indications of any improvement of the current poor human rights situation. It’s also unclear how much autonomy Morocco is offering, since it would retain control of Western Sahara’s natural resources and law enforcement. In addition, the proposal appears to indicate that all powers not specifically vested in the autonomous region would remain with the kingdom.
Despite this, the Bush administration refers to Morocco’s autonomy plan as "credible and serious" and the "only possible solution" to the Western Sahara conflict, further insisting that "an independent state in the Sahara is not a realistic option." While visiting Morocco last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her support for the "good ideas" put forth by the Moroccan occupiers. Referring to the 35-year-old conflict, she proclaimed that "it is time that it be resolved," presumably with the Sahrawis accepting their fate as permanently living under Moroccan rule.
Key House Democrats have weighed in support of Morocco’s right of conquest as well, with Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who chairs the Subcommittee on the Middle East, joining Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) in signing a letter endorsing the autonomy plan. Prominent Republicans signing the letter included Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO), and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL). Indeed, more than 80 of the signers are either committee chairmen or ranking members of key committees, subcommittees and elected leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, yet another indication in this post-Cold War era of a growing bipartisan effort to undermine the longstanding principle of the right of self-determination.
Advocacy for Haidar
The RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights’ selection of Haidar — one of the most prominent opponents of the U.S.-backed autonomy plan — may make it more difficult for the Bush administration to push acceptance of the Moroccan proposal through a reluctant UN Security Council. Ironically, the United States rejected a more generous autonomy plan for Kosovo and instead pushed for UN recognition of that nation’s unilateral declaration of independence, even though Kosovo was legally part of Serbia and Western Sahara is legally a country under foreign military occupation.
Alas, U.S. administrations have gone to great lengths to prevent RFK award recipients from even having the opportunity to tell their stories. For example, the Reagan administration denied entry to the United States to representatives of the 1984 winners CoMadres — the group of Salvadoran women struggling on behalf of murdered and kidnapped relatives and other victims of the U.S.-backed junta. They couldn’t even receive their award.
In addition to a modest cash reward, the human rights award includes the expectation the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights will launch an ongoing legal, advocacy and technical support through a partnership with the winner. According to Monika Kalra Varma, the center’s director, "The RFK Human Rights Award not only recognizes a courageous human rights defender but marks the beginning of the RFK Center’s long-term partnership with Ms. Haidar and our commitment to work closely with her to realize the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people."
Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), brother of the slain senator for whom the prize is named, stated, "I congratulate Aminatou Haidar for receiving this honor. All who care about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law for the people of the Western Sahara are inspired by her extraordinary courage, dedication and skilled work on their behalf."
Western Sahara remains an occupied territory only because Morocco has refused to abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions calling on the kingdom to end their occupation and recognize the right of the people of that territory to self-determination. Morocco has been able to persist in its defiance of its international legal obligations because France and the United States, which wield veto power in the UN Security Council, have blocked the enforcement of these resolutions. In addition, France and the United States served as principal suppliers of the armaments and other security assistance to Moroccan occupation forces. As a result, at least as important as nonviolent resistance by the Sahrawis against Morocco’s occupation policies would be the use of nonviolent action by the citizens of France, the United States and other countries that enable Morocco to maintain its occupation. Such campaigns played a major role in forcing the United States, Australia, and Great Britain to cease their support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. Solidarity networks have emerged in dozens of countries around the world, most notably in Spain and Norway, but don’t yet have a major impact in the United States, where it could matter most.
A successful nonviolent independence struggle by an Arab Muslim people under the Haidar’s leadership could set an important precedent. It would demonstrate how, against great odds, an outnumbered and outgunned population could win through the power of nonviolence in a part of the world where resistance to autocratic rule and foreign military occupation has often spawned acts of terrorism and other violence. Furthermore, the participatory democratic structure within the Sahrawi resistance movement and the prominence of women in key positions of leadership could serve as an important model in a region where authoritarian and patriarchal forms of governance have traditionally dominated.
The eventual outcome rests not just on the Sahrawis alone, but whether the international community, particularly those of us in the United States, decide whether such a struggle is worthy of our support.
Dr. Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern Studies.