Human Rights Council must insist Morocco end repression of the Sahrawi People

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Morocco rejects the establishment of a permanent human rights component in MINURSO

Aminatou Haidar

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate Aminatou Haidar, RFK Partners for Human Rights Advocacy Director Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, Professor Susan Akram from Boston University Asylum & Human Rights Program, and Erik Hagen from the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara, joined the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Study in Geneva as part of an international coalition of human rights organizations to attend the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session. The delegation drew attention to human rights violations against Sahrawi people in Morocco-occupied Western Sahara. The coalition submitted a joint report in preparation to the UPR and made specific recommendations, including the need for an independent, international, permanent human rights monitoring and reporting mechanism as part of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

At a public briefing at the UN on May 21, Haidar addressed numerous human rights abuses perpetrated by the Moroccan government in Western Sahara. She could not address the members of the Human Right Council as members of civil society organizations are not allowed to participate during the actual review session. Using pictures, videos, and personal accounts, Haidar illustrated the dire plight of the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara and the abuses committed by Moroccan security forces. She described how the Sahrawi people face arbitrary arrests, torture and sexual abuse, forced disappearances, and forced expulsions. Haidar discussed the systemic problems in the Moroccan judicial system that fail to guarantee fair trials to Sahrawi dissidents, or guarantee their right to freely express their opinions or assemble without fear.

Haidar’s decades of struggle for international attention to the plight of the Sahrawi people brought some results at the UPR session. Ten UN member states called attention to the treatment of the Sahrawi people, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Their concerns highlighted the struggle of human rights defenders in Western Sahara. Norway drew attention to Morocco’s refusal to grant civil society groups in Western Sahara legal recognition and the right to organize, which does not comply with international standards. Canada echoed these concerns, and called on Morocco to cease the repression of Sahrawi activists. The United Kingdom expressed alarm at the continued incarceration of a number of Sahrawi activists who were arrested in the aftermath of the dismantling of the Gdaim Izik camps, and who have been held without trial since late 2010.

Ireland expressed concern about the human rights situation in Western Sahara, and was “particularly concerned about reports of arbitrary arrest, detention, and mistreatment of human rights defenders.” Ireland, along with Costa Rica, and Uruguay, expressed support for the inclusion of an independent, international human rights monitoring mechanism within the UN’s mandate in Western Sahara.

The concerns of these states underscore that MINURSO is ineffective. The criticisms and recommendations illustrate the need for the Human Rights Council to insist that Morocco end the repression of Sahrawi activists, implement measures to effectively investigate and prosecute abuses by state actors, and appoint a special rapporteur with a specific mandate concerning the human rights situation in Western Sahara.

Morocco’s draft report was released 14 hours after it was due, and sadly unfortunately, it did not adequately address the situation in Western Sahara. “Seven out of the ten explicit mentions of concern for the human rights situations in Western Sahara voiced during the review did not make the draft final report,” observed Marselha Gonçalves Margerin.

On the other hand, Morocco did accept 140 recommendations of the Human Rights Council, including considering extending a standing invitation to all special procedures of the Human Rights Council and continuing to cooperate with the UN human rights mechanisms.

Among the Human Rights Council’s recommendations related to the protection of human rights defenders, particularly in Western Sahara, were that procedures governing the registration of civil society organizations, including those advocating for the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination, be in conformity with international standards, and that measures be taken to ensure the adequate protection of human rights in the Western Sahara in light of the reported cases of forced disappearances, torture, and ill-treatment, and restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly by Moroccan security forces. Morocco reported that those procedures and measures are being implemented.

Responding to Morocco’s report and assurances, Erik Hagen, Director of the Norwegian Committee for Western Sahara reiterated, “This international coalition will closely monitor the recommendations Morocco claims it is currently implementing on the ground in Western Sahara.”

Uruguay addressed the coalition’s concerns and recommended that Morocco “accept the establishment of a permanent human rights component in the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).” Morocco rejected this recommendation, claiming that the Human Rights Council does not have mandate for this action.

“Members of the Security Council claim that they do not have the mandate needed to address human rights problems in Western Sahara. If the Human Rights Council itself does not have the mandate to make recommendations on human rights protection of the Sahrawi people, who will protect us?” questioned Haidar.

The draft final report will be considered for adoption during the Human Rights Council session in September 2012 and is available here.

The coalition’s report is available here in EnglishFrench, and Spanish.


Western Sahara is known as “Africa’s last colony.” The current conflict has existed since 1975, when Morocco occupied Western Sahara in spite of a ruling by the International Court of Justice that Morocco did not have a legitimate claim to the territory. This invasion has led to a decades-old conflict between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front, a national movement committed to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. With the war and Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, its native people—the Sahrawi—were divided in two, those living under Moroccan Occupation and those living in refugee camps in Algeria. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum of Western Sahara (MINURSO) was created in 1991 to provide an international presence overseeing a cease-fire between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front. The mission was also tasked with helping to administer a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara. In spite of the mandate’s success at maintaining the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the situation in Western Sahara is no closer to being resolved now than it was in 1991. The referendum on self-determination never took place and systematic human rights violations are recurring. In the decades since the creation of the MINURSO mandate, Morocco has consistently ignored the basic human rights of the Sahrawi people, particularly those who advocate for change in Western Sahara.


The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights was established in 1968 to carry on the legacy of the late U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy. In 2008, the president of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA), Aminatou Haidar, received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for her undaunted non-violent work, promoting the civil, political, social, cultural, and economic rights of the people of Western Sahara. Through the RFK Human Rights Award, the RFK Center joins CODESA and Ms. Haidar in their struggle to increase visibility and dialogue about ongoing rights violations in Western Sahara and to promote the protection of human rights in the territory.

The Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA) is a grassroots collective of Saharawi human defenders distributed throughout occupied Western Sahara who operates under severe risk and constant surveillance. They are deemed illegal by Morocco and unable to register as an association.

The Boston University Asylum & Human Rights Program

The Asylum and Human Rights clinical program at Boston University School of Law is a full-year live-client representation and advocacy program through which law students handle domestic immigration and international human rights cases and projects on behalf of refugees, asylum-seekers and forced migrants. Under the supervision of BU law faculty, students represent clients in immigration and federal court proceedings, as well as in regional human rights and UN fora on a range of issues and projects in many areas of the world.

The Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara (NSCWS) is a membership organization, formed in 1993in Norway. The organization distributes information on the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. The most important campaign areas have been work towards stopping foreign companies that work for the Moroccan authorities in the occupied territories, and to put pressure on Morocco at the times when Sahrawi civil society is subjected to particularly grave human rights violations.

The Fahamu Refugee Programme (FRP) is part of the FAHAMU TRUST with offices in the UK, Kenya, South Africa and Senegal. The Fahamu Refugee Programme was created to provide access to knowledge, nurture the growing refugee legal aid and advocacy movement in all countries, and encourage active sharing of information as well as expertise among legal practitioners throughout the world. It links refugee-assisting networks both on line and off line.

The US-Western Sahara Foundation is a program of the Defense Forum Foundation (DFF). DFF is a U.S. non-profit foundation dedicated to promoting a strong national defense and promoting freedom, democracy, and human rights abroad. It works promoting the freedom, human rights and dignity of the people of North Korea, and self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) is an independent regional non-governmental organization founded in 1993. It aims at promoting respect for the principles of human rights and democracy, analyzing the difficulties facing the application of International Human Rights Law and disseminating Human Rights Culture in the Arab Region as well as engaging in dialogue between cultures in respect to the various International Human Rights treaties and Declarations.

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