Generations of Saharawi remain divided by an illegal Moroccan occupation that brutalizes the population in the occupied Territory, whilst more than 150,000 Saharawi live in exile under harsh conditions in desert refugee camps in south-west Algeria. They have been denied the right to live peacefully in their own nation, while also being subjected to systematic violations of their human rights.
All violations of human rights in the Western Sahara are a consequence of the Saharawi people being denied the opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination. The non-realization of this right has prevented the enjoyment of all other rights guaranteed in the core international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Respect for the human rights of the Saharawi people must thus be seen in tandem with their right to self-determination as affirmed by the Report of the OHCHR Mission to Western Sahara and the Refugee Camps in Tindouf in 2006, “The question of the right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara is paramount to the consideration of the overall human rights situation.”
In the Moroccan-occupied territory, authorities habitually violate the basic human rights of the Saharawi. Moroccan security forces have created a climate of fear and suffering. Disappearances, torture, intimidations, arrests, detainments, abuse in captivity, grotesque sentences, and denial of fair trials are the order of the day. Victims of human rights violations include women, like the courageous human rights defender Aminatou Haidar. Some like Ali Salem Tamek, have been arrested over and over again—beaten and held in secret prisons. They join thousands of Saharawi whose human rights have been violated over the last decades by Morocco, including those arrested in 2010 and handed heavy sentences when Morocco forcibly dismantled the Gdeim Izik protest camp. Hundreds of detainees remain unaccounted for, having disappeared in the secret prisons of Morocco. The only crime these activists committed has been the peaceful demand for the right to vote on the future of Western Sahara.
Morocco continues to try civilians in military courts, as in the case of Mbarek Daoudi, a Saharawi activist held since September 2013, or the case of twenty-two other Saharawis currently in prison serving long sentences imposed by a military court in 2013. These charges were made in connection to the violent dismantling by Moroccan security forces of the Gdeim Izik protest camps in 2010. Human Rights Watch notes that, “the military court failed to investigate defendants’ allegations that police officers had tortured or coerced them into signing false statements, and relied heavily on the statements to return its guilty verdict.” As of March, many of these prisoners have embarked on a hunger strike in protest against their arbitrary detention which has lasted for over five years.
The only way to address the human rights violations is to have “international monitoring and the observance of human rights in both Western Sahara and the refugee camps” as it would best guarantee that violations will not occur, and would constitute confidence-building measures for the purposes of the negotiation process.
MINURSO remains the only UN peacekeeping mission established since 1978 not to have a mandate to monitor human rights. This is a significant stain on the credibility of the UN. The anomaly is difficult to understand given the number of independently documented human rights abuses in Western Sahara Monitoring and reporting is thus a crucial tool in combatting abuses.
Despite the growing international recognition to include a human rights component to MINURSO, despite the UN Secretary-General himself having recommended to the Security Council to expand MINURSO’s mandate to include a human rights monitoring component, and despite the recommendation made by the HRC Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which reviewed Morocco during its 13th session in May 2012, that Morocco accept the need for MINURSO to be mandated to monitor human rights in Western Sahara, Morocco has strongly resisted such an expansion of MINURSO’s mandate. Human rights monitoring is a necessary component and a regular feature in nearly all UN peacekeeping missions and there is a need to bring MINURSO in line with UN best practices.
While Moroccan authorities have co-operated with mandate holders of the special procedures of the Human Rights Council, it should be noted that these thematic special procedures holders provide a limited view of the situation of human rights in the Territory. In the absence of an overall mechanism, it would be valuable for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR) to visit the refugee camps and the occupied territories as a first hand assessment of the situation.
The United States called for a visit of the OHCHR to the camps and the Territory during the 28th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 2 March 2015. In response, HCHR Zeid sent a technical delegation to the occupied Territory at the end of April 2015 and to the refugee camps in Tindouf in May/June 2015. No report has been officially issued by OHCHR on the visits. HCHR Zeid has also not mentioned the technical visits in his ‘oral’ reports to the Council, and there has been no follow-up in the Human Rights Council. These visits were to be followed by a series of such technical visits in 2015, which has not happened.
The situation of human rights in Western Sahara has not been on the agenda of the Human Rights Council since its establishment in 2006, and has not been discussed in any meaningful way in the UN General Assembly. It is critical that human rights of the Saharawi people feature in discussions of the HRC and the General Assembly. All measures must be taken to ensure the protection of these rights.