Thursday, March 4, 2010


By David Eade
The Western Sahara peace activist, Aminatu Haidar, switched within hours from being on the verge of death from an enforced hunger strike in Spain to being held under house arrest at her home in El Aaiún. When you are fighting for civil rights for your country your life is constantly under threat so such radical changes in fortunes come as the norm to the woman described as the “Saharawi Gandhi” for her non-violent protests.

It was on November 14 that Morocco refused to allow Aminatu Haidar to return to her home in the Western Sahara on her return from New York where she had received the Civil Courage Prize for her work in demanding human rights for her homeland. Although she had neither a Moroccan nor Spanish passport she was allowed to return to Lanzarote with the government in Madrid guaranteeing her safe conduct although she was later fined on public order offences.

The Spanish Government offered her a passport but she refused the gesture as she insisted on keeping her Western Saharan status. Instead she vowed to return to her native land “dead or alive”.

Haidar had upset Morocco because she rejected that country’s right to rule over the Western Sahara. The prime minister of the self proclaimed República Árabe Saharaui Democrática (RASD), Abdelkader Taleb Omar, called on the international community to pressure Morocco to comply with international law and appealed to the Spanish monarch, King Juan Carlos, to add his support by interceding with the Moroccan king on Haidar’s behalf.

On Monday December 14 the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, met with the Spanish Foreign Minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, at the White House with Haidar at the top of their agenda. The meeting had originally been scheduled to discuss Spain taking over the presidency of the EU on January 1 but as Haidar’s condition weakened it became a diplomatic priority to seek a solution. From the US capital Moratinos issued a plea to Haidar to end her hunger strike.

Morocco stood fast over Haidar. The foreign minister, Taib Fassi Fihri, insisted that his government would make no concessions. He accused the activist of blackmail and said it was a campaign organised by Algeria and the Polisario Front.

Apart from demanding that Haidar be allowed to return to the Western Sahara in dignity the area’s premier Abdelkader Taleb Omar, had also called for the release of all Saharan political prisoners, an investigation in to the fate of those who have disappeared plus the opening of the area to international human rights observers.

Then on Thursday December 17 there was frantic activity as first Haidar was admitted to Lanzarote hospital suffering from abdominal pain as a result of her 32-day hunger strike. With reports that her life was hanging by a thread there was increased diplomatic contacts between the Spanish and Moroccan governments with the latter finally relenting and allowing her to return home.

She was declared free to leave Spain for her home country to be with her children and mother. So at midnight on the same Thursday she was flown in a hospital plane to the capital of the Western Sahara - El Aaiún. She was accompanied on her journey by her sister and the doctor who had been attending her. On receiving the news she was free to go home her protest and hunger strike ended. On leaving Spain Aminatu Haidar declared: “This is a triumph - a victory for international law, human rights and the Saharan cause.”

It was a victory at a price! Haidar now says she has being held under house arrest since her return home to El Aaiún on December 18. Before Christmas the Moroccan security forces prevented a Reuter’s reporter from visiting Haidar at her home so she gave a telephone interview with the press agency’s office in Rabat on Christmas Eve. Haidar said: “My isolation continues. I am under house arrest. The members of my family and friends have problems visiting me. The shops in my quarter are suffering from the isolation.”

She continued: “I have the value of my convictions to continue with the cause of self-determination for the Saharan people. Nothing will make me give up – the threat of jail, kidnapping, torture or exile.” She accused Morocco of using “carrot and the stick” politics with the Polisario Front and the Saharans adding that “Morocco is repressing the Saharan population whilst it is negotiation with the Polisario Front.”
Franco’s dying act

Like many of the troubled lands in today’s world the tragedy of Western Sahara lies in its colonial rule by Spain and Franco’s desire to rid his country of its obligations “muy pronto”. Indeed it was literally Franco’s dying act that his government secretly signed a tripartite agreement with Morocco and Mauritania allowing Spain to abandon the Western Sahara. The agreement was signed on November 14 1975 – days later Franco was dead.

Spain was gone from the Western Sahara within three months. Instead of the tripartite administration envisaged in the accord Morocco and Mauritania each annexed parts of the territory. Morocco seized the northern two thirds creating its southern provinces whilst Mauritania took the southern third as Tiris al-Gharbiyya.
Franco’s Spain may have abandoned its former colony but the Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, forced Mauritania to withdraw in 1979. This solved little as Morocco merely moved in to the territory that Mauritania had controlled setting up the sand-berm in the desert to contain the Polisario liberation fighters.

In 1991 the fighting ceased after the UN brokered a peace agreement. However this still leaves the former colony that covers some 266,000 square kilometres of desert flatlands – one of the most sparsely populated nations on earth – in a state of limbo. El Aaiún, where Haidar is now under house arrest, is the Western Saharan capital – home to over half of the more than 500,000 people who live in the former Spanish colony.

So to today where Morocco and the Polosario Front independence movement with its República Árabe Saharaui Democrática (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) government vies for control of these desert sands. It will come as no surprise that the USA has sat on the fence whilst the SADR has won the backing from 46 States plus the African Union and Morocco has the support of the Arab League. Spain is one of those countries refusing to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty claim.

This support swings with the fickleness of international trends and it is left to brave people such as Aminatu Haidar and her Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders to keep the plight of this impoverished would-be nation in the hearts and minds of those who believe in civil rights and the right to self-determination for all.

(A version of this article appeared in The Morning Star in January 2010).

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