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The Other Occupation: Western Sahara and the Case of Aminatou Haidar

How long will U.S. authorities ignore the bleak realities of Moroccan repression?

Aminatou Haidar, a nonviolent activist from Western Sahara and a key leader in her nation's struggle against the 34-year-old U.S.-backed Moroccan occupation of her country, has been forced into exile by Moroccan authorities.  She was returning from the United States, where she had won the Civil Courage Award from the Train Foundation. Forcing residents of territories under belligerent occupation into exile is a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which both the United States and Morocco are signatories.

Her arrest and expulsion is part of a broader Moroccan crackdown that appears to have received the endorsement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rather than joining Amnesty International and other human rights groups in condemning the increase in the already-severe repression in the occupied territory during her visit to Morocco early this month, she instead praised the government’s human rights record. Just days before her arrival, seven other nonviolent activists from Western Sahara – Ahmed Alansari, Brahim Dahane, Yahdih Ettarouzi, Saleh Labihi, Dakja Lashgar, Rachid Sghir and Ali Salem Tamek – were arrested on trumped-up charges of high treason and are currently awaiting trial. Amnesty international has declared them prisoners of conscience and called for their unconditional release, but Clinton decided to ignore the plight of those and other political prisoners. 

Almost exactly one year ago, Haidar was in Washington D.C. receiving the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award. The late Senator Ted Kennedy, while too ill to take part in the ceremony personally, said of Aminatou Haidar, “All who care about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law for the people of the Western Sahara are inspired by her extraordinary courage, dedication and skilled work on their behalf."

Patrick Leahy, speaking in place of Kennedy, praised Haidar’s struggle for human rights against Moroccan repression and promised that, with the incoming Obama administration, “Help was on the way.” Unfortunately, Obama ended up appointing Clinton, a longtime supporter of the Moroccan occupation, to oversee his foreign policy. 

It is not surprising that Morocco sees Haidar as a threat and that Clinton has not demanded her right to return to her homeland. Not only is her nonviolent campaign an embarrassment to a traditional American ally, but having an Arab Muslim woman leading a mass movement for her people's freedom through nonviolent action challenges the widely held impression that those resisting U.S.-backed regimes in that part of the world are misogynist, violent extremists. Successive U.S. administrations have used this stereotype to justify military intervention and support for repressive governments and military occupations.

Moroccan Occupation

In 1975, the kingdom of Morocco conquered Western Sahara on the eve of its anticipated independence from Spain in defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice upholding the right of the country's inhabitants to self-determination. With threats of a French and American veto at the UN preventing decisive action by the international community to stop the Moroccan invasion, the nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed struggle against the occupiers. The Polisario established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in February 1976, which has subsequently been recognized by nearly 80 countries and is a full member state of the African Union. The majority of the indigenous population, known as Sahrawis, went into exile, primarily in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria.

By 1982, the Polisario had liberated 85 percent of the territory, but thanks to a dramatic increase in U.S. military aid and an influx of U.S. advisers during the Reagan administration, Morocco eventually was able to take control of most of the territory, including all of its major towns. It also built, thanks to U.S. assistance, a series of fortified sand berms in the desert that effectively prevented penetration by Polisario forces into Moroccan-controlled territory. In addition, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Morocco moved tens of thousands of settlers into Western Sahara until they were more than twice the population of the remaining indigenous Sahrawis.

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