Saharawi Human Rights Defenders Collective "Territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan Control"

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Open Letter to the Participants in the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva

On 31st October 1975, and in violation of international law, Western Sahara was forcibly annexed by Morocco. The territory's decolonisation process, recognised by the UN, was blocked. Thus began the humanitarian drama of the Saharawi people.

In parallel with the forced annexation, the Moroccan authorities unleashed terror against the Saharawi people. To save their lives, thousands of Saharawis had to flee the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control. During their flight, their temporary camps were bombarded by the Moroccan Air Force with forbidden weapons, i.e. napalm, white phosphorous and cluster bombs. The survivors have lived for 27 years in refugee camps on Algerian territory, receiving humanitarian aid from the World Food Programme, other international humanitarian organisations and Saharawi people's support committees. Others have chosen to live in the diaspora. Thus the Saharawis find themselves scattered. As for the other Saharawis who were not able to flee the territory, they continue to live in the throes of ferocious repression from the Moroccan authorities.

Campaigns of kidnapping and arrest have targetted all generations of the Saharawi People &endash; the old, the young, women, even pregnant women, infants, etc. Thousdands of Saharawis have known forced "disappearance" before later "reappearing". The periods of disappearance vary, from a few weeks to 16 years. They were incarcerated in the following Moroccan prisons: PC CMI (Command Posts of the Mobile Intervention Companies), ALBIR barracks, Royal Armed Forces barracks, Auxilliary/"paramilitary" Forces barracks, the Secret Wing of the Laayoune Civilian Prison, Agdez, Kalaat Megouna, Skoura, etc… Hundreds of kidnapped Saharawis - 526 Disappeared &endash; remain still in Moroccan prisons. Their absence accentuates the suffering of their families. Despite appeals from the Secretary General of the UN in his periodic reports to the Security Council on the situation in Western Sahara, Morocco continues to show complete indifference with regard to these appeals, denying the existence of the disappeared Saharawis and refusing to provide any information concerning them. For these disappeared Saharawis who are yet to reappear, the International Office for the Respect of Human Rights in Western Sahara (BIRDHSO) launched the international campaign "Freedom and Justice for the 526 Disappeared Saharawis" in October 2002.

Dozens of Saharawis have been arrested and subject to the most barbarous bodily and psychological tortures, then brought before the courts for unfair trials. Others died under torture, without their mortal remains being returned to their families so they could be buried with religious rites. Tens of Saharawis were buried alive in communal graves while others were thrown out of helicopters by the Moroccan army.

The Moroccan army's guns achieved a partial extermination of the livestock &endash; camels, goats and sheep &endash; belonging to Saharawi nomads and villagers. Their tents, houses and furniture were destroyed. The Moroccan authorities even destroyed and poisoned their wells and water sources. In this way thousands of nomads and Saharawi villagers were forced to move to the towns of Western Sahara. Their way of life was brutally changed. After 27 years, they continue to suffer the psychological traumas resulting from this forced change of their way of life.

To control the Saharawi population living in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control, and isolate them from the outside world, the Moroccan state constructed a military, security and media control-grid across the region. It reinforced its military presence with mini-barracks in every district of the Saharawi towns. Searches, at checkpoints situated on the roads just outside the towns, were very severe, and targetted uniquely at Saharawis.

For 26 years the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control had no automatic telephone access to international communications. International telephone service was only established in March 2002. Restrictions also targetted the presence of the international press and independent foreign observers. The territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control is still in the grip of a military, security and media control network.

The forest resources of Western Sahara were partially destroyed by Moroccan troops. Many plants and tres were uprooted to serve as cooking fuel for the Moroccan soldiers' meals, and also to deprive the Saharawi people's livestock of pasture.

Bird species, in particular the bustard, met the same fate as the forest resources. Under the surveillance and protection of the Moroccan army, Princes of the Gulf monarchies come to camp in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control to hunt this species. Many species of animal &endash; wolf, rabbit, gazelle &endash; that existed in Western Sahara have been exterminated by senior officers of the Moroccan army, who hunted them for pleasure and for status, and then consumed the meat.

Contrary to the principles of international law forbidding the exploitation of the riches of non-self-governing territories, the Moroccan state continues to exploit the fisheries and phosphate reserves of the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control in a wild and irrational manner, without any profit for the autochtonous population. This exploitation is illustrated by:

  • the sale of millions of tons of phoshpates annually to the countries of Europe, Asia, America and Oceania;
  • the presence in Western Saharan coastal waters of an enormous trawler fleet. High-ranking Moroccan army officers, members of the Moroccan politico-military establishment and a few foreign shipowners dominate this activity
  • the presence of 200,000 Moroccan fishermen in camps the length of the Saharawi coastline, engaging in small-scale fishing

The savage exploitation of the Saharawi fisheries will certainly lead to the exhaustion of these resources and, in consequence, ecological problems which will adversely affect the whole regional ecosystem.

Since 1975, the Moroccan state has systematically violated the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of the Saharawis. Thus the districts, streets and boulevards of Saharawi towns cary names drawn from Moroccan history and culture, while those from Saharawi culture are banned.

The Moroccan state, as part of its strategy of repression, has modified the demographic map of the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control by overpopulating it with thousands of Moroccans. The economically active Saharawi population thus found itself suffering unemployment, while priority in employment was given to the Moroccan population residing in the territory. To encourage them to live in the territory, the Moroccan state guaranteed them prosperous conditions of living, with statutory supplementary financial allowances for employees, subsidised food and fuel, and by turning a blind eye to illicit activities. Thus the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control has witnessed a proliferation of networks of prostitution, drug-traficking, underground alcohol production, clandestine immigration etc. These networks are encouraged and protected by the Moroccan authorities.

To encourage Moroccan investors to invest in the territory, the Moroccan state has set aside funds to cover tax exemptions for them.

Access to education and training is subject to hindrances that do not guarantee a good education. In addition to the poor quality of instruction provided, the teaching body includes some of the most mediocre teachers.

In 1988, under the pretext of wanting to intergrate them into professional life, the Moroccan authorities forced 6000 Saharawi pupils and students to interrupt their studies and to join a profession in Moroccan towns. At the beginning of 1991, these young deported Saharawis were repatriated to the territory, and since that date their careers have not progressed, nor have they been able to resume their studies that were forcibly broken off in 1988.

The workers and retirees of the phosphate company Phosboucraa have seen their rights, acquired in the Spanish colonial period, treated as a joke by the Moroccan authorities, in contravention of clauses of the Tripartite Accords of Madrid and their employment contracts.

In the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control, civil association is subject to very severe restrictions. Only associations upholding the official opinion of the Moroccan government are authorised to pursue their activities freely. Freedom of speech is a taboo, it is conditional on not crossing the "red line", i.e. not contesting the "Moroccanness" of Western Sahara.

Ordinary Saharawi prisoners are habitually condemned to heavy prison sentences without benefitting from the consideration of mitigating circumstances guaranteed under Moroccan law.

Since the ceasefire instituted by the UN in Western Sahara, Saharawi human rights activists in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control have continued to denounce and publicise the human rights violations committed by the Moroccan state against the Saharawi people in connection with the politico-military conflict that Western Sahara has experienced since 1975. This is why the Moroccan authorities intimidate and threaten them. These authorities still refuse to grant passports to some human rights activists, and confiscate them from others. They are forbidden from leaving Moroccan-controlled territory to participate in human rights conferences. They are constantly watched, spied on and harrassed. Often they are summonsed by the various repressive bodies and taken to centres where they are interrogated and intimidated. Several of them are currently under arrest. Others have been unfairly transferred to Moroccan towns to distance them from the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control, to subject them to harsh living conditions and to reduce them to silence. Others have been unfairly dismissed from their jobs. The Moroccan authorities continue to increase threats of dismissal against others. The Moroccan political parties' press outlets lead hysterical campaigns against them; they even call for their arrest.

Senior officials of the Moroccan state are directly responsible for the human rights violations committed in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control. These officials still enjoy total impunity. The principal forces responsible for these shameful practices are: the Royal Armed Forces, the Royal Gendarmerie, the Auxiliary Forces, the National Security force, the Territorial Security Directorate (DST) and the General Directorate of Studies and Documentation (DGED).

So, Moroccan anti-Saharawi repression is wide-ranging and atrocious. Despite the Moroccan authorities' barbarous repression, the Saharawi People in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control continue to wage peaceful resistance. They have never resorted to violent actions to demand their legitimate rights. They have always prefered to place their trust in international law and the support of the international community to bring respect for their legitimate rights. This is a people that have chosen to fight CLEAN. This is a people bringing a message of PEACE.

The Collective of Saharawi Human Rights Defenders in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control considers that the human rights violations committed in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control are directly linked to the politico-military conflict that the region has experienced since 1975. These violations can only finish with the institution of peace in the region. This peace cannot be achieved but by the organisation of a referendum, under the auspices of the UN, of a referendum of self-determination that permits the Saharawis, and ONLY the Saharawis, to freely express themselves on the definitive political status of Western Sahara. But, before this referendum can be organised, the international community finds itself morally and politically obliged to put pressure on the Moroccan state to respect human rights in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control in line with the norms of international humanitarian law.

The Collective of Saharawi Human Rights Defenders in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control calls on member states of the UN Commission on Human Rights and NGOs participating in the 59th session of the UN CHR to put pressure on Morocco to demand:

  • the establishment of the truth about the fate of the Saharawi disappeared, through the release of those still alive and the restitution of the mortal remains of those who have died in secret prisons
  • the unconditional release of all Saharawi political prisoners currently incarcerated in Moroccan prisons
  • material and moral compensation, in line with international norms, to all victims of human rights abuses in Western Sahara
  • trial of all those responsible for human rights violations in Western Sahara, regardless of their position in the Moroccan state
  • respect of the international convention on protection of human rights defenders
  • respect of the Geneva conventions on the protection of civilians during armed conflicts
  • opening of an inquiry into the affair of the mass graves in which tens of Saharawis were buried alive
  • removal of the military, security and media control network that covers the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control

Finally, the human rights situation in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control demands that the member states of the UN CHR and the NGOs participating in the 59th session of the Commission work for the adoption, by the UN CHR, of a resolution concerning respect for human rights in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control, calling for in particular:

  • the nomination of a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control
  • the constitution of an international commission charged with establishing the truth about the serious human rights violations committed by the Moroccan state against the Saharawi civilian population since the forced annexation of Western Sahara by Morocco in 1975
  • the sending of a Special Rapporteur on Forced and Involuntary Disappearance to Morocco to investigate the disappearance of hundreds of Saharawis
  • the sending of the UN Secretary-General's Representative for Human Rights Defenders to investigate the intimidation perpetrated against Saharawi human rights defenders by the Moroccan authorities
  • the holding in Western Sahara of the referendum of self-determination provided for by the UN/AU peace plan and the Houston Accords.

Laayoune, April 2003


[Communiqués, lettres. documents]

Droits humains au Sahara Occidental