Human rights monitoring needed more than ever in Western Sahara

By: Yasmine Kacha, researcher on Algeria/Morocco/Western Sahara at Amnesty International

On 13 November, Morocco’s army launched an operation in the village of Al Guerguerat in the disputed Western Sahara region to dismantle a camp set up three weeks earlier by around 60 Sahrawi peaceful protesters. Moroccan authorities said the camp had been blocking traffic between the Moroccan-controlled part of the non-self-governing territory of Western Sahara[1] and Mauritania.

Morocco declared the military operation successful, and traffic resumed once more. However, the next day, the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) President Brahim Ghali announced that the  Polisario Front was putting an end to the ceasefire that had been in force since 1991. Since then, there have been reports of exchanges of fire between the two sides.

According to local organizations monitoring the human rights situation in Western Sahara, the Moroccan military operation was followed up with a crackdown on Sahrawi activists by Moroccan police, including raids on homes, increased surveillance, and arrests.

The roots of this latest development in Al Guerguerat – a buffer zone under the observation of the Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), the United Nations peacekeeping force which monitors the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front – go back several years to when Morocco began to build an asphalt road in the area. 

The Polisario argued that the road construction was a violation of international law. Pro-self-determination Sahrawis started organizing peaceful demonstrations in the area to remind the international community about its commitments to find a solution to one of the few unresolved decolonization situations in the world.

Though no civilian casualties have been reported in the clashes, the latest developments are a stark reminder of the urgent need for an independent, impartial and effective human rights monitoring mechanism in the territory, as well as in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, south-west of Algeria.

For the past decade, the UN Security Council has been ignoring calls by Amnesty International and others to add a human rights component to MINURSO, which would allow for monitoring and reporting on human rights abuses, as is done by the vast majority of comparable UN missions around the world.

This is in addition to the fact that in recent years, access to the region has grown increasingly difficult for external monitors as the human rights situation has continued to deteriorate. In 2020, Moroccan authorities prevented at least nine lawyers, activists and politicians from access to Western Sahara. Journalists have also been denied access.

As confrontations between Morocco and the Polisario escalate, both local human rights activists and supporters of Sahrawi self-determination are coming under increased pressure.

Between 13 and 21 November, Moroccan police surrounded and kept close surveillance on the houses of several Sahrawi activists and journalists, including in the cities of Laayoune and Boujdour. Among those targeted are activists Mahfouda Lefkire, Nazha El-Khalidi and Ahmed Ettandji.

Local organizations monitoring the human rights situation in Western Sahara also reported that at least four Sahrawis were arrested in Laayoune. One was a 12-year-old girl arrested on 19 November, reportedly for wearing a military-style clothing at school and a shirt with the Sahrawi flag on it. She was released the same day.

Meanwhile, this August, Polisario Front police arrested citizen-journalist Mahmoud Zeidan in the refugee camp in Tindouf. He was held for 24 hours and interrogated about posts he published online, where he had criticized the distribution of aid during COVID-19.  

Today, international human rights organizations are very rarely allowed to monitor and report from the ground, whether in Western Sahara or in the refugee camps in Tindouf. 

This has to change, especially ahead of what seems to be a new phase of conflict in the long-term dispute over the territory, with the possibility of renewed fighting endangering civilians and intensified repression of dissent by both sides.

Now, more than ever, impartial and independent UN human rights monitoring and reporting in Western Sahara is desperately needed. 

[1] Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony on the Atlantic coast between Morocco and Mauritania. The UN considers Western Sahara a “non-self-governing territory” since Spain withdrew in 1975. In 1991, a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front was signed and a UN peacekeeping mission (MINRUSO) was set up. Today, the territory is divided by a 2700 Km sand berm built by Morocco, which de-facto administers its west part. East of the berm are the liberated territories by the Polisario Front which headquarters are in the Sahrawi refugee camps hosted by Algeria in the city of Tindouf since 1973.