Western Sahara: The UN remains 'blind, deaf and dumb'

May 19, 2013

After 40 years of struggle, in the place known as “Africa's last colony”, human rights abusers continue to be given a free hand by the international community.

As Western Sahara's independence movement, the Polisario Front, commemorated four decades of struggle on May 10, news broke of a Sahrawi activist who died in a Moroccan prison three days earlier.

Mohamed Bourhim was just 22 when he died on May 7, after a week-long hunger strike. The president of the Sahrawi Journalists' and Writers' Union, Malainin Lakhal, told Green Left Weekly the tragic death is an “international shame”. He pointed to the failure of the United Nations to achieve a lasting resolution.

“The UN remains unable to do anything in Western Sahara because the decision makers are the members of the Security Council, not the UN,” Lakhal said. Lakhal pointed to the close relationship between Morocco and Security Council member France as an impediment to peace.

Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975, and now occupies about 80% of the territory. Morocco's claim of sovereignty over the territory is not recognised by any nation. Its claim is disputed by the Polisario, which now controls a thin strip of the territory's east.

The Polisario is considered Western Sahara's legitimate government by the African Union. Australia recognises the Sahrawi's right to self-determination, but not the Polisario government.

Turning a Blind Eye

Just days before Bourhim began his hunger strike, the UN Security Council again extended the UN mission in the territory on April 25 without mandating it with monitoring human rights.

The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has been operating in the territory since the 1991 ceasefire. It has a mandate to oversee a referendum of self-determination, which is yet to occur.

In recent years, there has been no progress towards the referendum. Worse still, without a human rights mandate the mission has been powerless to address the rampant brutality inflicted on indigenous Sahrawi by Moroccan security forces in occupied Western Sahara.

When I visited the Moroccan occupied city of Laayoune last year, I met with Sahrawi activists who spoke of the almost daily violence from Moroccan security forces. At the time, peaceful protests were generally ended by police descending on unarmed men, women and children with batons and riot shields.

Activists lived in constant fear of not only the police, but also their Moroccan neighbours. In the past, Moroccan settlers have been reported by Sahrawi activists and human rights observers such as Amnesty International as indiscriminately attacking the indigenous population after protests.

An international campaign is pushing for MINURSO to be mandated with human rights monitoring, but Morocco and its close ally France have fiercely opposed the proposal.

This decision to simply ignore human rights violations in Western Sahara is not without its defenders. On May 2, the think tank Global Europe (GE) said the proposal “would ultimately run against the main underlying objective of the UN Mission ― to design and implement confidence-building measures”.

In its May 2 report, GE said that if the proposal had been passed, it would be “easy to envision an endless chain of mutual accusations of real or alleged human rights abuses ― a scenario that would hardly serve as a good example of an effective confidence-building strategy”.

Perhaps one reason why the authors of the GE report found it so easy to imagine such a scenario is because that is basically what has been happening for two decades.

Since the 1991 ceasefire, the Moroccan government and the Polisario have been accusing one another of human rights abuses in what any sane observer would describe as “an endless chain of mutual accusations”.

The second fact that GE and other defenders of the status quo seem to ignore is that there is an endless chain of human rights abuses in Western Sahara ― mostly (though not exclusively) perpetrated by Moroccan security forces.

Since I visited Western Sahara, nothing has changed. The violence against Sahrawi continues, with human rights abusers enjoying almost complete impunity.

Within 24 hours of the UN decision to omit a mandate to monitor human rights, a report from the Laayoune-based Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights defenders (CODESA) said Moroccan forces violently suppressed several Sahrawi protests that erupted across the territory.

“Moroccan authorities intervened on 26, 27 and 28 April, 2013 ...[and] committed violations against the Sahrawi demonstrators,” the CODESA report said.

“This security forces crackdown resulted in dozens of injured, some of them with permanent disabilities in El Ayun [Laayoune], Smara and Boujdour, Western Sahara.”

The Polisario said that “brutal treatment [was] inflicted on around 40 Sahrawi protesters by the Moroccan police”. The UN is in no position to determine exactly what happened ― thanks to the lack of a human rights mandate.

Lakhal told GLW the UN is “just blind, deaf and dumb, while Sahrawi people are demonstrating every single day in all the occupied cities and in the south of Morocco, suffering torture, arrests, ill-treatment; women and kids and elderly are beaten, raped, insulted, intimidated”.

Yet Lakhal said that, even after 40 years, the Sahrawi remain determined to persevere.

“The Sahrawi people in the occupied territories, in the camps and in the diaspora are unanimous on the necessity of getting their independence with their own resistance,” he told GLW.

However, despite the determination of the Sahrawi, without international support, occupied Western Sahara will remain a human rights free zone. The apathy that permitted MINURSO's mandate to again be renewed without human rights monitoring must be overcome.

Otherwise, the Sahrawi will continue to suffer in obscurity, while human rights abusers are left to act with impunity.

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