19 Feb 2021
In August 2012, my daughter Mariah and I took part in an international human rights delegation trip to Western Sahara, where we met with hundreds and hundreds of victims of abuse. People there told us they had been threatened, beaten, raped, tortured and had family members killed, all for criticising the Moroccan regime or calling for self-determination.
Everywhere we went, we were followed. At one point while driving, we encountered a handful of men attacking a group of women. We pulled over to get closer to this horrific scene, which Mariah began to record on camera. Soon, several men surrounded our car to block our view. One of the brutes even lunged through the window to grab her camera.
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureate Aminatou Haidar, who was traveling with us, recognised the thugs immediately. She said they were the feared General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance – Moroccan secret police. She pointed to the leader and said he told her 13-year-old son, “I will rape you until you are paralysed.”
Two of our delegation members followed one badly beaten woman to the hospital and took pictures of her bloodied and bruised face. Later that night, the hospital workers who had let us in were told they might be fired.
That same week, we met a dozen women whose sons and husbands were beaten and remain in prison for their non-violent activism. We met with a group of men who showed us home videos of peaceful demonstrators being harassed, kicked and beaten with nightsticks by police.
We met with a group of lawyers who said from 1999 onward, they had represented over 500 cases just like the one we witnessed that day; peaceful protesters bruised, bloodied, often murdered and always, always falsely accused of some crime. These lawyers estimated that across all those years, the courts had acquitted only one Sahrawi defendant.
Morocco’s lack of adherence to basic decency and international norms did not prevent the Trump administration from selling out the United States’ allies. In December 2020, the administration traded the Sahrawi right to self-determination – the mandate upon which the US itself was formed – for a deal in which Morocco recognises Israel, ignoring decades of United Nations (UN)-led efforts to reach an agreement between the Polisario Front and Morocco.
This quid pro quo to normalise relations between Israel and an Arab state is the fourth such agreement the US has pulled together in recent months. While the wins are clear for Israel and Morocco, the Sahrawi people are once again left vulnerable and ignored.
As one of the few human rights organisations allowed by authorities to visit the territory, we know things have only gotten worse. Just this past December, Haidar, one of the most prominent human rights defenders in the world, started suffering a new wave of harassment, including constant surveillance and a smear campaign, after she announced the creation of a new organisation committed to defend the Sahrawi people’s rights to freedom, independence and dignity through legitimate non-violent means.
In all this time, a long-promised referendum on self-determination for the territory has yet to take place. Meanwhile, the 500,000 Sahrawi living in the region are forced to live in a state of oppression they have existed in for nearly four decades, causing long-term negative effects on their culture and general well-being.
Many Sahrawi are unable to find work, maintain a steady household or keep in contact with their families. Individuals who participate in peaceful protests who are known to sympathise with the Polisario Front face discrimination, harassment, beatings and detention by police and other agents of the Moroccan state.
What’s more, 125,000 Sahrawi refugees continue to subsist in what were intended to be temporary camps established near Tindouf, Algeria in 1976.
During our 2012 trip, our delegation observed camp conditions that cannot be accepted as part of any permanent standard of living, including permanent exposure to extreme heat, limited electricity and sanitation, lack of access to nutritious foods, and very limited ability to work. Sadly, nearly a decade later, the situation has not improved.
Despite Morocco’s international human rights obligations, there is near-absolute impunity for the abuses committed against the Sahrawi people, who live in a state of constant fear and oppression. In Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, the overwhelming presence of security forces, the violations of the rights to life, liberty, personal integrity and freedom of expression, assembly and association create a state of fear and intimidation that violates the rule of law and respect for human rights of the Sahrawi people. There is virtually no prosecution of human rights violations, and officials responsible for the violations and torture walk freely on the streets . While the Equity and Reconciliation Commission established by Morocco in 2004 played an important role in initiating a process to deal with the atrocities of the past, Morocco’s reforms have failed to effectively enhance protection of human rights in Western Sahara. Royal discretionary powers allow the King to operate outside the realms of adequate checks and balances, and those who advocate for their right to self-determination or who denounce human rights violations committed by Moroccan authorities remain particularly at risk.
The Trump administration’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara comes on the heels of Moroccan military aggression in the Western Saharan village of Gueguerat on 13 November 2020, and threatened the already fragile ceasefire agreement with the Polisario Front, which has been in place for almost 30 years. As someone who has actively worked for peace in the region for years, I believe it is clear the Trump administration is playing with fire.
For the situation not to escalate further, the Biden administration must quickly undo Trump’s damaging decision on Western Sahara by stating its disagreement with it, and instead actively support a re-energised UN settlement effort. This includes the appointment of a new Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, a critical position that has not been filled in over 18 months, as well as the inclusion of a long-overdue human rights mandate to the UN peacekeeping mission in the region.
On the campaign trail, Biden promised America would once again lead by example in international affairs. This is a first, key test.