Interview to Aminatu Haidar, the most notorious human rights and pro-saharawi activist in Morocco
By: Karlos Zurutuza / Source: Gara / Rebelion.org / The Dawn / September, 2015
It seems like yesterday when we saw [human rights and pro-saharawi activist] Aminatu Haidar put the Moroccan king in check with a 32-day hunger strike. We remember her in the Lanzarote airport, sheltered by friends and family and surrounded by a legion of journalists who broadcast her message to the world: that the Saharaui people exist, and are suffering under the occupation of Morocco.
Five years later, Aminatu Haidar appoints us at 12pm at her home in Laayoune, in occupied Western Sahara. This is one of the places most closely watched by the Moroccan police, but police presence appears to be reduced at this time of night. After the greeting, we asked about her health, a question that, in her case, is more than mere courtesy.
“I have chronic stomach problems from the hunger strike, but I control them” explains the activist, downplaying the importance of sequels that add up to the ones caused by the years spent in Moroccan jails.
Haidar answers to our questions in an almost perfect Castilian, resorting to French occasionally in case we have any trouble understanding. We did not have any.
Five years have passed since your hunger strike. Has there een any improvement regarding the human rights situation of your people?
It is still not a priority on the international agenda and we have a long way to go. However, I think the situation of human rights in Western Sahara has begun to become visible. The international community seems to be much more sensitive and now we can find some news about the topic in specific media outlets, something that had never happened before.
Among other factors, I believe that the involvement of the African Union has been fundamental, but I guess that’s what comes with being a signatory member of the peace plan. We have also perceived that even the US is more interested in the issue of human rights violations in our country and the international community is beginning to openly denounce both the constant violations of our rights and the systematic plundering of our natural resources (mainly phosphates, sand and fishing). The latest report of Ban Ki-moon (UN Secretary General) has also been a boost to the Saharawi cause because it is a factor of pressure on Morocco, in the capital Rabat, and his partners to respect our people and end the plundering of our land. I like to think that all of this will contribute to a solution to the conflict.
A solution to a conflict in a particularly turbulent area of the world, especially since the beginning of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011.
The focus is centered on the countries at war, but, whatever triggers it, what is undeniable is the frustration of the youth. In the case of the Sahrawis, they are doomed to exclusion and lack of opportunity in a country —Morocco— which gives preference to the settlers in all areas of our society. We are talking about a planned and systematic marginalization, ranging from the lack of jobs and opportunities to emerge from poverty, to the use of drugs as a weapon of control. Drug dealers sell to the younger ones, even children, in broad daylight and in any public space, without police intervention. And as you have seen for yourselves, the police is omnipresent in Laayoune.
In a report dated last May, Amnesty International denounced several cases of minors who had been tortured by Moroccan security forces. Is there a campaign against this sector of the population?
Certainly, especially in those neighborhoods in Laayoune where population is predominantly Saharawi and there is a strong dissident movement. We speak of a meticulously planned campaign to tackle the root of the independentist movement. Unfortunately, all of this adds to the collective suffering of our people; every family has sequels, both physical and psychological. This is a very deep wound in the heart of every Sahrawi that will take time to heal.
The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) does not seem to live up to its name. Do you consider their presence in the territory justified?
The MINURSO was established in 1991 with the mission of facilitating the holding of a referendum and to protect the Saharawi people, but it has not complied with any of the two goals. During the early years, people smiled when he saw their cars on our streets, but nowadays they are seen as vehicles of the Moroccan government. And there are repeated cases of corruption among the mission, which only increases distrust of the Saharawi people. The only upside is that their presence serves to remind Rabat and the rest of the world that Morocco is an occupying power and that the United Nations still does not recognize our country as an integral part of Morocco.
Have the Spanish and French states taken any responsibility as former colonial powers?
Not for the moment. In reality, both are among the most responsible for our situation. Spain withdrew before completing the process of decolonization, and apart from not having been involved in protecting the Saharawis, it also remains a faithful ally to Rabat. However, I must stress the tremendous gap between the Spanish people and their government. We continue to receive a lot of solidarity from citizens and I know they are angry with the position of their Government in our conflict.
France is the greatest obstacle, since it is a permanent member of the Security Council and plays a key role in exercising its right to veto or hinder any favorable decision by forcing alliances between the other members. However, I believe that the current government is more sensitized to human rights issues. I hope that both Paris and Madrid play their role in maintaining peace in the Maghreb, where the phenomenon of terrorism is growing inexorably. I would be wrong, but, for now, don’t see the will of any of the two parties.
What can unlock a conflict that has lasted for forty years?
The international community must put pressure on Morocco urgently and through all means at its disposal to force Rabat to respect human rights and ensure a decent life for the Saharawi people. We must also respect the right of self-determination of the Saharawi people for them to be master of his own destiny.
Between repression and recognition
Aminatu Haidar was born in 1966 in Tata, a Moroccan town on the northern border with Western Sahara, but mostly Saharawi. Nowadays she is the most recognized activist for the human rights of the Saharawi people, both in her own country and internationally. Among her many awards are the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, awarded in 2008, the Civil Courage Prize from the Train Foundation (2009), and the Dolores Ibarruri Award (2010). Haidar has also been nominated for the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.
Her activist career dates back to 1987 when, at the age of 21, Haidar took part in a peaceful demonstration demanding a referendum on independence. That first public appearance would take her to prison for four years, where she was tortured along with other activists.