A Sahrawi Gandhi in the last colony of Africa

Aminatou Haidar 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate

Kerry Kennedy presenting the 2008 RFK Human Rights Award to Aminatou Haidar at the White House Kerry Kennedy taking testimony from families of “disappeared” Sahrawi activists during last summer’s delegation to Western Sahara Lunch with Mayor of Laayounge Kerry Kennedy and Aminatou Haidar at the White HouseLast August, in the desert 500 miles south of Marrakesh, Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and daughter of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, stepped away from taking testimonies of survivors of sexual assault, imprisonment, and torture to get some fresh air. She and her 17-year-old daughter Mariah walked around the block and came upon a young man standing on a doorstep intently polishing a kitchen pan. As they passed him, never lifting his eyes, the man—at great risk to himself—whispered a warning, “You are being followed.”

Ms. Kennedy and her daughter Mariah were indeed being followed, just as they had been for the duration of their time in Laayoune, the capital of a region most Americans never hear about: Western Sahara, the last remaining colony in Africa. Ms. Kennedy was there with her daughter to lead an international delegation investigating human rights violations by the occupying Moroccan government against the Sahrawi, a community condemned to live under occupation for more than three decades in a land that diplomacy forgot and where the international press is effectively banned.

A human rights mandate for MINURSO would establish a watchdog against the assaults, executions, and day-today brutality that their community has lived under for three decades. Kerry Kennedy

After 80 years of colonialism, Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975. Despite a verdict from the U.N.’s International Court of Justice denying Morocco sovereignty over Western Sahara, Morocco quickly annexed the region and a war ensued between the Moroccan military and Sahrawi independence fighters known as the Polisario Front.

The U.N. negotiated a peace settlement with the understanding that it would oversee a referendum on independence or integration, and in the meantime, would provide peace-keeping forces to the area. Morocco failed to agree to parameters for the referendum and deployed an occupying army 200,000 strong.

For 30 years, more than 100,000 Sahrawi have lived in exile in U.N.-run refugee camps in the midst of the Sahara desert of Algeria. Meanwhile, their Sahrawi brethren suffer under a police state in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

The RFK Center’s work in Western Sahara stems from its ongoing partnership with Aminatou Haidar, the woman known as “the Sahrawi Gandhi” and recipient of the 2008 RFK Human Rights Award. Haidar has dedicated her life to the fight for human rights for the Sahrawi people, a mission that has come at a high personal price for the 47-year-old mother of two.

At the age of 20, after preparing a peaceful protest, she was “disappeared,” and taken to an infamous Laayoune prison where she was strapped to a plank, hands and feet tied, and threatened with rape. For much of the next three years and seven months, she was kept blindfolded, tortured using electrical shock, beaten, deprived of sleep, and starved. Upon release she wrote, “I am liberated, I was only a shadow of myself. A phantom, one of the living dead, a young girl out of a nameless hell.” In 2009, after traveling to the United States, Haidar was accused of relinquishing her nationality and expelled to Spain against her will.

Last November, after Haidar appeared for a meeting with U.N. Secretary General’s Personal Envoy to Western Sahara, the Moroccan police responded with a four hour assault in which she was publicly beaten and her car destroyed while her sister and daughter hid within it. They survived but it was far from the first time that Moroccan supporters have targeted Haidar’s family as an intimidation tactic. In 2012, Haidar’s teenage children were riding a bus home when they were recognized and attacked. Their assailants left them beaten and bloodied, as a message to their mother. The Moroccan-appointed vice governor for the region Mohamed Natichi once told her teen aged son, “I will rape you until you are paralyzed.”

Western Sahara is monitored by an ongoing U.N. peace-keeping mission known as MINURSO. Launched in 1991, MINURSO was the last U.N. peace-keeping mission that was designed without a mandate to investigate and report on human rights violations, and it is one of only a few missions that is still active today. The U.N. meets annually to review and vote on whether to renew MINURSO, but each year the calls to add the long-lost human rights mandate go unheeded.

“For Aminatou Haidar and the Sahrawi people, a human rights mandate for MINURSO would establish a watchdog against the assaults, executions, and day-to-day brutality that their community has lived under for three decades,” said Kennedy. “Residents would finally be able to turn to a neutral party with accusations of abuse and the U.N. would be able to investigate reports of violations of human rights.”

The U.N. Security Council will meet to review MINURSO once again on April 30, 2013, and as always, the international diplomatic community will be faced with the question of whether to institute a human rights monitoring mandate to the now 22-year-old mission. In anticipation of the vote, Ms. Kennedy launched a joint petition to the U.N. with Academy Award-winning actor Javier Bardem, who was inspired to create a film after attending the Sahara International Film Festival in 2008. Exposing the shocking abuse of the Sahrawi people, Bardem’s 2012 documentary Sons of the Clouds captivated audiences throughout the United States and Europe with the story of Western Sahara. 

“The RFK Center- is merely calling on the United Nations to extend to the mission in Western Sahara the same international human rights standards it has applied to every other peacekeeping operation since 1991. If human rights is a pillar of the U.N., why is it so difficult to take this simple, logical step to protect the Sahrawi from human rights violations?” said Santiago Canton, RFK Center Partners in Human Rights Director and former Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In the weeks to come, Aminatou Haidar and her partners at the RFK Center will continue to advocate for this first step toward justice for the Sahrawi people.

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