Aminatou Haidar was staging a peaceful demonstration in El-Aaiún, the biggest city in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, on 5 December when Moroccan police decided to pay her a visit.
She was attacked and beaten for protesting against the same “courtesies” Moroccan authorities showed Sultana Khaya, a fellow rights rights activist who has been repeatedly harassed, sexually assaulted, and placed under house arrest since November 2020.
“They caused some of the bones in my spine to be displaced,” Haidar says, sitting in the offices of the Right Livelihood Foundation at the Maison de la Paix. Any pain she might be experiencing is hidden away behind her firm gaze and bright Sahrawi dress.
Haidar is on her way to Madrid for a back operation that will take several months to recover. But first, a visit to Geneva, she says, “to knock on some doors” and remind the international community not to forget about Western Sahara.
“I have to convey the pain and suffering of my people, to speak on behalf of the voiceless people who are oppressed on a daily basis in the occupied territory of Western Sahara,” she says.
The 54 year-old activist and rights defender has been campaigning for the independence of her homeland for well over 30 years. A former Spanish colony, Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco in 1975 after Spain pulled out.
Situated on the northwest African, the territory is a mostly desert expanse but also possesses lucrative resources including phosphate reserves and has rich fishing grounds off its coast.
Since Morocco’s annexation, it has been the subject of a fierce and long-running territorial dispute between the Moroccan government and the indigenous Sahrawi people, led by the Polisario Front.
Like many other Sahrawi activists, Haidar has been subject to enforced disappearance, beatings, torture and arbitrary detention by Moroccan authorities for speaking out on human rights issues without charges or trial. She was an early initiate, after spending four years of her twenties in a secret prison where she was subject to torture and ill-treatment, for taking part in peaceful demonstrations.
Thirty years on, attempts to intimidate her have become more sophisticated, she says. Earlier this month, Amnesty International’s Security Lab revealed that Haidar’s phones were hacked by Pegasus spyware as recently as November 2021.
“It's a new method of attacking us, to silence voices that demand respect for their rights. By going after me, they’re sending a message to other activists and to scare them into dropping their rights activities,” she says. Morocco has previously denied claims that it has infiltrated phones using the Israeli software.
The big freeze over the desert region
Efforts to resolve the dispute between the Moroccan government and Polisario Front have been deadlocked for decades while tensions have been gradually worsening.
In 1991, after 16 years of armed conflict, a UN-brokered truce came with the promise of a referendum on independence. But 31 years later, this has yet to take place.
There is mounting frustration among the Western Saharan people, Haidar says, who today live divided by a 2,700km heavily fortified sand wall, between the region controlled by Morocco (around 80 per cent of Western Sahara and comprising the capital, El-Aaiún), and the smaller inland strip controlled by the Polisario Front.
Hundreds of thousands of Sarwahi are also living in refugee camps across the border in Algeria after fleeing in the 1970s during the conflict. The headquarters of the Polisario Front are also based there.
Haidar says she is particularly concerned that young Sahrawis are losing faith in peaceful methods of protest, like those she has upheld, and who demand the long-awaited referendum promised by the UN.
“Over the last years, I have tried to tell the international community, the Security Council in New York, here in Geneva to the High Commissioner on Human Rights, that I am concerned about young people of Western Sahara who no longer believe in passive resistance and who increasingly believe that taking up arms is the only means to be heard,” she says.
In 2020, the 45-year ceasefire collapsed amid renewed confrontation in the border region and violence has been escalating since, despite receiving little attention outside of the region, says Haidar.
The right to self-determination
When the ceasefire was agreed in 1991, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established by the Security Council to lay out the groundwork and organise a free and fair referendum for the people of Western Sahara.
Haidar and other activists have continued to campaign for their right to self-determination. In 2020, she established the Sahrawi Organ Against the Moroccan Occupation (ISACOM), “to defend the Sahrawi people’s rights to freedom, independence and dignity through legitimate non-violent means.”
Three decades on, however, the referendum looks no closer to happening and the situation in the territory remains a humanitarian crisis with systematic, gross human rights violations against those that try to speak out, including members of ISACOM, and breaches of international humanitarian law.
At the Human Rights Council last year, Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders urged Morocco to stop targeting individuals and organisations.
“Not only do human rights defenders working on issues related to human rights in Morocco and Western Sahara continue to be wrongfully criminalised for their legitimate activities, they receive disproportionately long prison sentences and whilst imprisoned, they are subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture,” she said.
What’s more, MINURSO is the only UN peacekeeping mission without a human rights monitoring mandate, meaning it cannot intervene when violations occur. Activists and NGOs have been calling for the mandate to be urgently extended so that they can have greater protection.
The outside view
The situation in Western Sahara has divided nations – with many countries, including the United States and a majority of Arab countries, supporting Morocco’s territorial integrity.
Under Donald Trump, the US recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalising diplomatic ties with Israel, in a major coup for the kingdom. It has been trying to convince other countries to follow suit.
However, under international law, Western Sahara is not a legal part of Morocco and it remains under the international laws of military occupation. According to the UN, Western Sahara is still a non-decolonised territory – Africa’s only state still awaiting decolonisation.
Meanwhile, on its side, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, declared by the Polisario Front in 1976, is recognised by many governments including Algeria and is a member of the African Union.
The EU has remained stuck in the sidelines due to differing agendas among its members, with Spain last week shifting its stance. Its prime minister wrote to the Moroccan king agreeing that having Western Sahara operate autonomously under his rule – a proposal that has been put forward by Morocco – was “the most serious, realistic and credible” initiative for resolving a decades-long dispute.
For the Polisario Front, there is no question of Moroccan rule and compromising on the referendum promised to them. Haidar remains, she says, bewildered by the lack of action.
“If Western Sahara is addressed each year during the fourth committee of the UN General Assembly as an issue of decolonisation, and if Morocco is recognised as an occupying power, then why does the UN not put pressure on Morocco?”
In October last year, the UN appointed an envoy, Italy’s Staffan de Mistura, to the Western Sahara conflict, nearly two and a half years after the role had become vacant and after dozens of other candidates were rejected by either Morocco or the Polisario Front.
De Mistura travelled to the region and visited the camps in Algeria in January in a renewed attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the territory.
After more than forty years of fighting for justice, winning her several accolades including the Right Livelihood and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award – and despite the continues diplomatic deadlock – Haidar says she finds hope in knowing their campaign efforts have made a difference in raising international awareness.
“Even if this international community is slow to act, one day justice will be applied. I still have hope and I am certain that the people of Sahrawi will have their freedom like other peoples. But to have freedom, you need sacrifice. And the Sahrawi will continue to make sacrifices to guarantee our existence and freedom.”