Brian Eno & Stefan Simanowitz | 15.12.2009 13:40
Known as the 'African Gandhi', Aminatou Haidar has been on hunger strike in Lanzarote airport since being deported there from her home in Western Sahara on 15th November. On 13th November Haidar had flown back to Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara, from New York where she had picked up the Train Foundation's Civil Courage human rights award. On her arrival in Laayoune she wrote her address on her landing card as being in 'Western Sahara' rather than 'Morocco'. As a Saharawi she has never recognised Moroccan sovereignty over her native land which has been occupied by Morocco in breach of international law for over 34 years. In the past Morocco has chosen to overlook her numerous 'landing card protests' but on this occasion, she was interrogated, stripped of her passport and expelled her to the volcanic Canarian island which lies less than 80 miles off the African coast.
Spain offered to give Haidar refugee status or Spanish citizenship so she could be allowed to return home but she rejected both options on the grounds that she did not want to become “a foreigner in her own land.” According to Human Rights Watch her forced expulsion breached Article 12 (4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Morocco, which makes it clear that no one can be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter their own country. In addition, by preventing her return to Western Sahara, Spanish authorities may have breached both Spanish national law and Article 2 of Protocol 4 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Article 12 (2) of the ICCPR also stipulates that everyone shall be free to leave any country.
On 4th December, perhaps after having been made aware of the legal situation, Spain laid on a private aircraft to carry Haidar back to Laayoune. As she boarded the plane together with cabinet chief Spanish Foreign Ministry, Agustin Santos, it seemed as if Haidar had won a significant victory. However, celebrations among Saharawi's and campaigners around the world were short-lived when it emerged that the Spanish had not received any agreement from Morocco to allow her return. In a hastily organised press conference held soon after tearful supporters had watched Haider being stretcher back into the airport terminal, Santos claimed that Spain had attempted “to facilitate the exercise of her right to return to her country” and could do no more. This statement was greeted with incredulity by the Spanish media, and the Zapatero government has come under increasing internal and international pressure to do more to resolve the crisis. Indeed on Monday 14th December Hilary Clinton arrived in Madrid to discuss the issue with Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos. Last week UN Secretary General Ban-Ki moon spoke with the Moroccan Foreign Minister and urged him to readmit Haidar. The European Union has also urged Morocco to “meet its human rights obligations.”
Morocco has taken a firm line on the matter with Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri insisting that Haidar had “disowned her identity and her nationality” and “must accept, on her own, the legal and moral consequences which result from this behavior.” They have also demanded that she offer an apology for questioning Morocco's claim to sovereignty over the former Spanish colony, a claim that has not been recognised by a single nation and was rejected by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Indeed it was the ICJ's decision in 1975 that precipitated the mass mobilization known as the Green March whereby hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians crossed into Western Sahara. With Franco on his deathbed, the Spanish had hurriedly signed the Madrid Accords in which they agreed to divide Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for continued fishing rights and partial ownership of their valuable phosphate mining interests.
In February 1976, the Spanish withdrew from Western Sahara, the Moroccans and Mauritanians occupied much of the territory and the Western Saharan independence movement, the Polisario Front, declared creation of an independent state. A fifteen-year war ensued between Polisario and the Moroccans, the Mauritanians withdrawing in 1979. The fighting was brutal, with the Moroccans using their well equipped army and air-force to full effect but the Saharawi’s conducting an effective counter insurgency. In 1991 a ceasefire was declared and under the terms of a UN agreement a referendum for self-determination was promised. Seventeen years later the Saharawi are still awaiting that referendum.
Despite efforts by the international community the referendum has been repeatedly obstructed by the Moroccans who have remained in occupation of roughly three quarters of Western Sahara. An estimated 165,000 Saharawis still live in exile living in four large camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert separated from their homeland by a 2500km fortified barrier known as ‘the wall’.
There have been many attempts to break the long-running diplomatic stalemate, but it has been the election of President Obama and the recent appointment of Christopher Ross as the new UN Special Envoy to Western Sahara that has given renewed hope to those hoping for a resolution of the conflict. In early August representatives of both sides met in Austria for UN sponsored 'talks about talks' after which Mr Ross indicated that there was reason for cautious optimism. Since that time however, Morocco has been waging a vicious crackdown against Saharawi activists, of which Aminatou's case is just the latest example. In October seven human rights defenders were arrested in Casablanca after returning from a visit to the refugee camps in the Algerian desert and are awaiting a sentence from a military court in Rabat which could include the death penalty.
Some analysts believe that this escalation of repression is an attempt by the Moroccan authorities to scupper UN-sponsored negotiations before they even start. Indeed the increasingly hard line attitude of Morocco was made very public on 4th November when, in a speech that had echoes of George Bush's “with us or against us” State of the Union Address, King Mohammed VI stated that on the matter of Western Sahara "one is either a patriot or a traitor."
Haidar's deportation has been condemned by governments, civil society groups and human rights organisations across the world. Calls for her return have been made by those including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Nobel Laureates, Jose Saramago and President Ramos-Horta and hundreds of celebrities including Pedro Almodovar, Javier Bardem and Ken Loach have spoken out on her behalf. The US State Department has issued statements and over 30 British MP's have signed a Motion condemning the Moroccan action. Tens of thousands of people have mobilised across the globe. Through her action Aminatou Haidar has single-handedly raised global awareness of the forgotten injustice perpetrated against her people, but the cost may be high. Imelda Gonzalez, one of many campaigners who travelled to Lanzarote to offer their support, is aware that Aminatou Haidar is irreplaceable. "Western Sahara has had so many martyrs, they do not need another. Her death would be a tragic loss to the world and its leaders must act together and act quickly to save Aminatou.” As high level discussions take place around the world, Aminatou Haidar is on the brink of death. Sadly, biology knows nothing of politics.
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Brian Eno & Stefan Simanowitz