Human Rights Watch reports on Western Sahara violence

November 28, 2010

On 26 November, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a detailed report of the violence following the dismantling of the Gdeim Izik camp by Moroccan security forces, near El Aaiun. The report was limited in its scope to the events that followed the closure of the camp, rather than the events that led to this point, or any wider contextual issues. HRW conducted interviews in Western Sahara from 12-16 November, having gained access to the territory after initially being refused access (twice). It appears that the Moroccan authorities were trying to calm things down during this period, for example by offering compensation to people whose houses were looted and/or damaged by Moroccan settlers in collusion with security forces. However, the report details a litany of abuse, and there is still little in the way of news coming from El Aaiun. The HRW report provides the most detailed and comprehensive account of the violence that followed the dismantling of the camp that is currently available (and credible).

In other developments, the European Parliament issued a pretty strong response to the situation, in the form of a resolution and associated press release, expressing its “greatest concern about the significant deterioration of the situation in Western Sahara”. The Parliament  ” ‘strongly condemns’ the violent events of 8 November, when a still unknown number of people were killed during a raid by Moroccan security forces aimed at dismantling the protest camp of Gdaim Izik, in the outskirts of Laâyoune.”

Significantly, MEPs noted that while “the Moroccan parliament has set up a committee of enquiry, MEPs believe that the United Nations is the most appropriate body to launch an international and independent investigation on the events, deaths and disappearances.” So the EU is pushing for a UN investigation where the UN Security Council refused to do so.

The European Parliament also stated that it “deplores the attacks on press freedom, which have affected many European journalists, and calls on Morocco to allow free access and free movement in the Western Sahara for the press, independent observers and humanitarian organisations.”

Quite strong stuff for the EU, and it also raises questions about the future of the EU-Morocco fisheries agreement, which is mentioned explicitly in the text of the resoution (see also WSRW here).

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Liberté, egalité, fraternité, génocide

November 18, 2010

News that the UN Security Council “deplores” the recent violence in the Moroccan-occupied territories of Western Sahara will be small comfort to the Sahrawi who are suffering death, beatings and disappearances in the disputed territory. While some members of the Security Council have proposed sending a UN investigative team to Western Sahara to assess the situation and the claims and counter-claims, the Council as a whole has decided to do nothing. It is likely to the point of certainty that France, Morocco’s long-time ally, played a key role in ensuring that Morocco was left to get on with its oppression. The United States is also apparently not keen on any action to address the violence. The UK, which currently holds the presidency of the Security Council, doesn’t come out looking good either.

The accounts coming out of Western Sahara talk of mass graves, thousands of people “disappeared”, bodies thrown out of helicopters, Moroccan settlers being armed and set on indigenous Sahrawi, and Moroccan forces stationed at hospitals beating Sahrawi seeking medical attention, and Moroccan taxi drivers taking them for treatment (apparently not all Moroccans are allowing themselves to be whipped up into a frenzy of bloody imperialism). These accounts will remain “officially” unsubstantiated as long as the lock-down in the occupied territories continues and journalists and other investigators are denied access to the areas concerned. Of course this it presumably the idea in the heads of the French and the US representatives on the Security Council – if nothing can be proved then nothing can be done, and their friends in Rabat can get away with perpetrating the worst violence seen in Western Sahara since the ceasefire in 1991.

This apathy, or rather protection of Morocco to ensure it can occupy, oppress and kill with impunity, is short sighted. If the above reports are correct, what is currently occurring in the occupied territories of Western Sahara could easily spill over into genocide. The G-word is often used liberally and emotionally, in a way that devalues its meaning. However, what we are seeing (or rather not seeing, and only hearing about via reports that remain unverified by independent sources because of the lack of journalists and observers on the ground) appears to be the orchestrated and bloody persecution of a particular ethnic group by an occupying power and its settlers. If the reports coming out of the occupied territories are accurate, the orchestrated persecution has progressed to mass murder. This certainly looks like the early stages of a genocide, and if the situation continues or escalates then use of the term will be fully justified.

France for one really should know better, after its complicity in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. As a result of its support for the Hutu government, and by extension for the pro-government Interahamwe militias, France has effectively been kicked out of Rwanda, which has transformed iteslt from a Francophone country into an Anglophone one. By supporting a murderous regime in the name of retaining its post-colonial (some would say neo-colonial) influence in Africa, France became a pariah in Rwanda and ended up being excluded. France might always be able to count on Moroccan support, but it will not do itself any favours in the wider region by supporting a second African genocide in as many decades.

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Note 1: Apparently it’s not just me that sees the hallmarks of genocide here. More authoritative foreign voices on the ground think so too.


From the camps

November 17, 2010

The following account from an American living in the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Agleria, is worth reading. It talks about reports reaching the Tindouf camps from the occupied territories of Western Sahara, where Morocco is busily (and violently) repressing dissenting Sahrawi after the setting up (by Sahrawi) and subsequent dispersal (by Moroccan forces) of the Gdaim Izik camp near the Western Saharan capital of El Aaiun.  Gdaim Izik was set up by Sahrawi protesting against economic and social marginalisation in occupied territories, but it looks as if this socio-economic protest is becoming a nationalist issue as a result of the apparently brutal Moroccan response.

The account also describes how people in the Tindouf camps are reacting to the situation in the occupied territories. For a long time many exiled Sahrawi have thought that the peace process is going nowhere and the only way of confronting the occupation is through renewed military action against Morocco. One Sahrawi told me that “even if we can’t win, it is the only way of bringing any attention to our situation”.

The Polisario leadership has been trying to contain the feelings of those who want to renew the conflict, but it might prove difficult under the current circumstances, with people hearing of family members on the other side of the berm being beaten and killed by Moroccan forces, and pursued and attacked by Moroccan settlers encouraged by the Moroccan authorities. The one thing all parties involved in the conflict seem to agree on is that the continuation of this festering conflict increases the risk of radicalisation of young Sahrawi in the camps (this also applies to those living under occupation no doubt). This also won’t be helped by the current situation.

Read the account from inside the Tindouf camps here. While they may need further confirmation, reports of thousands of people “disappeared”, mass graves, bodies dropped from helicopters into the sea, and the expulsion of journalists should be cause for serious concern and some concerted action on the part of the lethargic international community. I’m hesitant to employ the over-used term “genocide”, but reading about the reports coming in from the occupied territories of Western Sahara, the word is hovering in my consciousness. The account speaks for itself, whatever your views of the religious credentials of the publisher.

More recent (Tuesday 16 November) coverage from the UK Guardian newspaper here.


Gdaim Izik

November 9, 2010

There’s been a fair bit of coverage of the Burmese elections in the UK media over the past few days, including the displacement of some 20,000 people as a result of election-related violence. However, there’s been barely a whisper about a comparable eruption of violence much closer to home, on Europe’s doorstep.

Over the past month or so, many thousands of Sahrawi, protesting against the ongoing Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, set up a camp – Gdaim Izik – outside Western Sahara’s principal city, El Aaiun (Laayoune). Over the past week reports from Western Sahara indicated that Moroccan forces were gathering to “disperse” the camp. Reports of clashes were filtering out of the region as early as 24 October, and on 25 October EL Pais reported the death of a 14 year old boy at the hands of Moroccan security forces. Yesterday (8 November) reports were coming thick and fast from activists, Sahrawi support groups  and some international media indicating that such a dispersal was underway (check the ever-informative Sahara Occidental website for links to daily news reports on Western Sahara in several languages).

Morocco appears to have implemented a media blackout – a representative of a major foreign media organisation told me that they hadn’t been able to contact anyone in Western Sahara, or their staff reporter in Rabat, by phone. Nonetheless, plenty of reports have been getting out, including a number in the form of short videos of the confrontation between Sahrawi protestors and Moroccan security forces in the camp and in El Aaiun itself, posted on YouTube. Today the BBC posted an article on its website in which it reported that the setting up of the camp “was the biggest protest against Moroccan rule in 35 years” (mainstream coverage is there, but you have to look for it – most people haven’t heard anything about what’s going on in Western Sahara, and remain unaware of the territory’s existence). Unusually for a mainstream media organisation, the BBC included in its article a map showing the partition of Western Sahara. Usually Western Sahara is reported simply as having been “annexed” by Morocco, when in reality a sizable portion of this disputed, non-self governing territory is actually controlled by the Polisario independence movement (the BBC repeated this cut and paste simplification in the main text of the article). This “Free Zone” is separated from the occupied areas by the “Berm”, a “wall” or series of defensive earthworks build by Morocco.

In a communication issued today, the Polisario claimed that 11 Sahrawi had been killed and 723 injured in clashes with Moroccan security forces, and that 159 people were missing. The Polisario also suggested that the timing of the raid on the camp was chosen to coincide with, and to sabotage, UN sponsored talks between Morocco and the Polisario. After arranging a ceasefire between the two parties in 1991, the UN promised a referendum on self determination for Western Sahara. The referendum has never happened. While the Polisario has softened their line on the conditions of such a referendum, indicating that the vote could include the options of independence, limited autonomy within Morocco, or full integration within Morocco, Morocco has refused to countenance any vote that offers independence. Instead it is offering limited autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, a solution its apologists have referred to as an “advanced form of autonomy”, apparently without irony.

While the mainstream domestic media in the UK is keeping silent on the clashes at Gdaim Izik, there is more coverage in ex-colonial power Spain. El Pais today warned that Rabat was risking “civil war” in Western Sahara. Web news services are also carrying stories about the clashes.

How all this will play in the rest of the EU (if at all) remains to be seen. Unfortunately, and based on recent performance, the EU is likely to ignore the violence, or at best make some limp statement of general concern, as it continues to collaborate with the new colonial power, Morocco, in the illegal exploitation of Western Sahara’s resources, principally fisheries, which its granting of Advanced Status to Morocco was meant to lubricate.