Life under occupation in Western Sahara
John Hilary, Executive Director of War on Want, offers initial reflections from the first UK parliamentary delegation to occupied Western Sahara
The first British parliamentary delegation to the occupied territory of Western Sahara visited the capital Laayoune (El-Aiun) from 13 to 16 February 2014. The primary objective of the visit, organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Western Sahara, was to witness at first hand the situation experienced by the Saharawi people and to produce a report on that situation for wider public dissemination in the following weeks. The delegation consisted of MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Mark Williams; John Gurr, coordinator of the Western Sahara Campaign; and me.
The delegation met with a number of Saharawi civil society organisations during its visit, including human rights organisations, the families of Saharawi activists killed or disappeared by Moroccan state forces, the families of political prisoners held in Moroccan prisons (especially those jailed following the Moroccan assault on the Saharawi protest camp Gdaim Izik in 2010), and organisations dedicated to preserving the territory's natural resources for the benefit of the Saharawi people. All these organisations expressed a common complaint at being denied any legal status by the occupying Moroccan authorities, leaving them unable to operate openly as civil society organisations, to hold public meetings or to raise funds.
Equally, all those we met expressed a common demand for the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression – rights currently denied under Moroccan occupation. The organisations called for the immediate release of all Saharawi political prisoners, the right to self-determination by means of a referendum, and the extension of the mandate of the UN monitoring body, MINURSO, to include the monitoring of human rights – a call that has again been taken up in an international campaign of solidarity with the Saharawi people. All leading figures in the organisations we met had themselves suffered significant human rights violations at the hands of the Moroccan authorities over a period of many years.
The parliamentary delegation was also received by the governor and mayor of Laayoune, who defended the achievements of the Moroccan occupation and countered the call for a referendum on self-determination with the offer of regional autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. The delegation later met with representatives of pro-Moroccan civil society organisations, who confirmed the scale of the continuing social and economic needs of the Saharawi population, now greatly outnumbered in occupied Western Sahara by Moroccan settlers who have been attracted to the territory by government subsidies and preferential access to jobs.
The delegation was able to witness first hand, on the evening of 15 February, the level of violence and intimidation experienced by the Saharawi people at the hands of the occupying Moroccan forces. The Coordination of Human Rights Activists in Laayoune had given official notice to the authorities of a peaceful demonstration planned for that evening to demand full disclosure of the whereabouts of disappeared persons, the release of political prisoners and the extension of the MINURSO mandate, as described above.
Yet the delegation witnessed first hand the massive presence of police and paramilitary forces around the designated starting point of the demonstration, as well as the deployment of plain clothes policemen armed with batons in surrounding streets in a strategy of intimidation to prevent any groups of protestors from forming. This open denial of the right to freedom of assembly was followed by reports that those who did manage to reach the demonstration were assaulted by police, video evidence of which was seen by the delegation the following morning.
Three members of the parliamentary delegation were themselves briefly detained during the demonstration when we were ordered to leave the car in which we were driving and the car was impounded by the Moroccan police. A camera belonging to one of the delegation was snatched out of his possession and whisked away in one of the police vehicles, and only returned later after considerable protest with all photos of the demonstration wiped off its memory card.
The delegation held a public meeting to report back on its findings in the House of Commons at 7pm on 25 February 2014, which was also addressed by the prominent Saharawi human rights activist Brahim Dahane. Video footage from the meeting is online here.