Despite shifting sands at international level, for the Saharawi people, the day-to- day grim reality of stalemate persists. All continue to be denied the right to self-determination which the UN ceasefire agreement promised them some 26 years ago. Those living under Moroccan rule in the occupied portion of Western Sahara suffer repression of their freedom of expression, with authorities having “systematically prevented gatherings supporting self-determination”.
Human rights organisations report that in January this year an 11-year old boy was detained by Moroccan police for drawing a Western Sahara flag, and that in total 24 Saharawi juveniles were detained in relation to political protests in the last quarter of 2016. Many of them report being beaten while in police custody.
Retrial for Saharawi political prisoners
One notable positive development has been the quashing of the convictions of the Gdeim Izeik prisoners, and the opening of a new trial. These were Saharawis convicted of violent offences during the Moroccan break-up of the Gdeim Izeik Saharawi protest camp in November 2010. Many were serving life sentences. They were convicted by a military court in 2013, largely on the basis of confessions – which they insist were extracted from them under torture.
From March to April 2016 many of the prisoners held a hunger strike. In July 2016 another Moroccan court declared the military convictions “null and void” and ordered a civilian trial. In December 2016 the UN Committee Against Torture condemned Morocco for the use of torture, and for not investigating allegations of torture made by Gdeim Izeik defendant Naama Asfari.
Preliminary proceedings have been held, in December 2016 and January 2017. However, there appear to be serious flaws in the trial process, including: defence lawyers unable to communicate with defendants, relatives of defendants threatened by Moroccan security personnel in the court building, and more.
Morocco has continued its policy of deporting foreigners suspected of wanting to talk to Saharawi human rights activists. During January 2017, 57 people – mostly Norwegian – were expelled from Western Sahara. These visits and expulsions coincided with the trial of the Gdeim Izeik prisoners discussed below. Further expulsions of foreign journalists and lawyers took place in autumn 2016.
A clear role for MINURSO
The ongoing human rights abuses committed by Moroccan forces in Western Sahara are unacceptable in themselves; and they can only hinder a peaceful resolution of the conflict. It is therefore extraordinary that MINURSO is not mandated even to monitor the human rights situation in the territory.
The UN’s own high level review of peacekeeping operations stresses the importance of missions acting to protect the human rights of civilians. In particular, it notes that:
“Human rights monitoring, investigating, and reporting by human rights officers and child and women protection advisers, and advocacy efforts, especially by senior mission leadership, contribute to ensuring greater accountability and prevention of human rights violations. Failure to address these violations contributes to a climate of impunity”
In our recommendations we therefore once again highlight the need for MINURSO to be given a legal mandate to monitor human rights in Western Sahara.
Read more in the 2017 MINURSO Briefing.
Join us in taking action. You can write to members of the UN Security Council ahead of the annual MINURSO vote at the end of April. Find out how you can get involved here.