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November 06 2013

Documenting Violence on Video in Western Sahara

Dakhla, Western Sahara. Photo by Yo TuT via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Dakhla, Western Sahara. Billboard in foreground features a photograph of Moroccan King Mohammed VI. Photo by Yo TuT via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

By Madeleine Bair and Sidahmed Tfeil

Recent video footage from Western Sahara has captured the deadly nature of political violence in the region. In a territorial and ethnic conflict that has taken various turns since the former Spanish colony was annexed by neighboring Morocco in 1975, separatist protesters are demanding that Morocco recognize the sovereignty of Western Sahara, which the UN defines as a non-self-governing territory.

Morocco claims that Western Sahara is an integral part of the Moroccan kingdom and accuses the Sahrawi separatist movement of being a puppet used by neighboring Algeria.

The conflict concerning Western Sahara is the last item on the agenda of the UN’s Decolonization Committee. It is largely under the jurisdiction of the Moroccan government, which has been accused by separatists of systematically marginalizing and mistreating people in the region, particularly those involved in the Sahrawi separatist movement. Human Rights Watch has called for human rights monitoring in all areas of Western Sahara — those controlled by Morocco and those under Sahrawi leadership.

In recent years, separatist demonstrators and human rights defenders have documented police abuses during periods of protest. A series of videos that recently emerged from the area tell the story of a young protester who activists say was killed by Moroccan forces while calling for the autonomy of Western Sahara.

The video above shows a September 23 protest in the city of Assa. The figure of 20-year-old activist Shin Rashid is circled so that viewers can see where he stood when a vehicle pulled up to the protest quickly before taking off. When the filmer and others approach Rashid, he is bleeding from a rubber bullet wound. According to the uploader and various reports, Rashid died from a rubber bullet wound. In a video apparently taken later that day, Rashid’s mother tells the cameraman her son had been protesting with friends. In her hands, she holds rubber bullets she says were used to kill her son. She calls on the international community to join her in calling for an independent investigation of the conduct of Moroccan authorities, whom she believes are responsible for her son’s death.

Shin Rashid was killed just weeks before UN envoy Christopher Ross visited Western Sahara in an attempt to resolve its long-disputed status. During Ross's visit, demonstrators surrounded a UN vehicle to draw attention to human rights violations and restrictions on free association and expression. Yet even then, authorities reportedly used violence to break up the demonstrations, resulting in several injured civilians, such as this man filmed in a hospital.

Western Sahara is a dangerous place for those filming protests. In practice, the Moroccan government restricts reports that would support or even document the independence movement or criticize King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Because of that risk, those who film social movements do not dare upload them to their own YouTube accounts, but rather send them to third parties, such as Al Khayma Press, Assa Presse and Equipe Media, which often operate outside of the Western Sahara or Morocco.

UN Envoy Ross presented his report to the Security Council a week ago and announced that he would return to the region soon to conduct separate bilateral talks with Morocco and the Polisario Front (which is recognized by the UN to represent the Sahrawi separatist movement).



Madeleine Bair is the curator of the Human Rights Channel, a project of the international human rights organization WITNESS. The Human Rights Channel curates and contextualizes verified video by citizens and activists around the world.

A version of this blog post originally appeared on WITNESS’ blog here.

January 04 2013

TERRA 801: Salma: A Wingless Nomad

This film presents the political conflict of Western Sahara through the fictional story of a young Sahrawi refugee whose only way of connecting with reality and the memories of her childhood is through the images of flamingos. For her, flamingos incarnate the freedom her people lost when, consecutively, Spain and Morocco invaded them. They also represent the nomadic tradition of her ancestors, a way of life that she romanticizes as the true identity of the Sahrawis.
Sponsored post

December 29 2012

MENA: Acclaimed Authors’ Favorites of 2012

M. Lynx Qualey, blogger, who is interested in Arab and Arabic literature, wrote a series of posts introducing acclaimed Arab poets, novelists, and short-story writers’ favorite Arab reads of 2012. She started with a list of nonfiction books, then followed by a list for poetry [En] and fiction [En].

December 14 2010

Western Sahara: Wikileaks Revelations Spark Comments

By Lina Ben Mhenni

Reactions to the diplomatic cables released by the whistleblower website Wikileaks continue to flourish all over the blogosphere. Revelations concerning the conflict over Western Sahara have sparked a few comments.

Ali Amar is a Moroccan journalist. Writing on VoxMaroc [Fr], a blog hosted by the French daily Le Monde, he underlines the fact that although the leaked cables revealed American diplomats' reservations about bad governance and corruption in Morocco, they showed unwavering American support for the kingdom's position on Western Sahara:

[A]ux yeux de Washington, le Maroc demeure une monarchie bananière, régentée par une clique proto mafieuse. La realpolitik reprend cependant le dessus lorsqu’il s’agit d’épauler le régime de Mohammed VI, sur la question du Sahara Occidental notamment : un rapport de l’ex ambassadeur Thomas Riley daté de 2009 soutient sans détour le plan d’autonomie préconisé par Rabat.

In the eyes of Washington, Morocco remains a banana monarchy, regimented by a proto mafia clique. Realpolitik, however, takes the upper hand when it comes to supporting the regime of Mohammed VI, on the question of Western Sahara in particular: a report by former Ambassador Thomas Riley dated 2009 clearly supports the autonomy plan advocated by Rabat.

Stephen Zunes writing on the Huffington Post, agrees. He dismisses views expressed by a diplomat on a cable dated August 2009, as flawed and distorted by an ideology, he says, is reminiscent of the Cold War (link added):

This cable is very reminiscent of the longstanding effort by State Department officials during the Cold War to delegitimize national liberation struggles by claiming they were simply the creation of Cuba, the Soviet Union, or some other nation-state challenging U.S. hegemony. Indeed, in a throwback to Cold War rhetoric, Jackson [the diplomat, author of the cable] insists that the Polisario Front, which has been recognized as the legitimate government of Western Sahara by over 80 governments, is “Cuba-like.” In the cable, Jackson calls for U.S. support for Moroccan calls for a census and audit of international programs in Polisario-led refugee camps, but not support for the international call for human rights monitors in the occupied territory.

A cable released earlier this month suggests that Algerian president is seeking a resolution of the conflict that would allow his country to “save face.” Fayçal, writing on the Algerian online news website Algerie Focus comments [Fr]:

L’Algérie aurait-elle tourné le dos au Front Polisario ? La question mérite d’être posée, surtout quand on lit un câble du site WikiLeaks assez intriguant qui montre un Président algérien voulant en finir avec un problème devenu trop embarrassant pour l’Algérie.

Has Algeria turned its back to the Polisario Front? The question is worth asking, especially when one reads an embarrassing cable released by the Wikileaks website, which intriguingly shows Algerian President wanting to end a problem that has become too embarrassing for Algeria.

November 29 2010

Morocco: Danish journalist deported for Western Sahara fishing story

By Solana Larsen

A Danish journalist who did a radio story on the European Union paying Morocco for fish from Western Sahara was deported from Morocco two days after arriving. His computer hard drive and SIM card were confiscated.

February 10 2010

Morocco: Talks on Western Sahara to Resume

The dispute over the Western Sahara is a complex one–Morocco claims it as their own, while the Saharan independence movement (the Polisario), backed by Algeria, desires independence. Three years ago, talks resumed between the Polisario and Morocco, but after four rounds of formal negotiations, a conclusion still had not been reached. Morocco's current proposal is autonomy, but the Polisario demands a referendum on the territory's future, including an option for independence.

The latest news is that talks are set to resume on February 10, informally, in upstate New York. Bloggers are weighing in with their thoughts on what the future might hold for the region. Maghreb Blog, whose author is based in the U.S., gives a bit of background to the conflict, and offers this opinion:

If the plan is not to their liking, which is obviously the case, then it is incumbent upon Algeria and the Polisario to step up to the plate and propose a non-obstructionist, realistic alternative. The blind rejectionism of anything Moroccan will only lead to maintaining the current status-quo largely in favor of Morocco at this point. Any meaningful compromise between Morocco and Algeria is beneficial, not only to the two countries, but also to the other three countries in the Maghreb region, as it could be a tremendous step towards full economic and political integration.

Commenter Chasli expresses disagreement with the blogger's assessment, saying:

You and clearly Rabat are in total denial that the Polisario has already offered a plan. Shortly before Morocco officially came forward with their autonomy plan the Polisario presented a plan that called for a referendum that, as far as I can tell, could include just about anything as long as it included independence as an option. And if the inhabitants voted for independence the Polisario pledged to allow the illegal Morrocan colonists to remain and to institute a special relationship with Morocco. This is I feel a very impressive compromise that deals with a number of Rabat's concerns; however, because Rabat flatly refuses to discuss the UN-mandated referendum on self-determination they have totally ignored the Polisario plan.

The debate continues throughout the comments section.  Blogger Analitikis also takes on the subject in a recent post; discussing a recently-issued UN statement, the blogger writes:

Reading the statement and subsequent euphoria on the seeming acceptance of the parties to engage in yet another round of “talks”, one would think that a resolution to the Western Sahara conflict is within reach; that all it takes is a Security Council’s resolution, a Secretary General’s report, a Special Representative’s statement, and a parties half-hearted acceptance for a 35-year-long intractable conflict to be resolved. Little attention is paid to the process, to the parties’ readiness, and to the contextual conditions that may signal the opposite. As far as I know, neither the parties nor the UN (I use the term loosely here) are ready for any kind of serious and honest engagement that would put an end to the conflict of attrition known as the Western Sahara conflict.

January 07 2010

Western Sahara: Running the Sahara Marathon 2010

So you just made that list. Yes, the list with your  New Year’s Resolutions. Maybe you have written there that you want to exercise more often, and you also want to  help other people around the world, travel to a different country and also meet people from other cultures. If the answer is `yes`, you will love to learn more about the Sahara Marathon 2010 on February 22, 2010.

The Sahara Marathon is an international sport event to demonstrate solidarity with the Saharawi people and this year celebrates its tenth anniversary. Twenty different nationalities will face an enormous challenge in the Western Sahara desert while helping the Saharawis in refugee camps.

Running Shoes by Josiah Mckenzie under a creative commons licence

Running Shoes by Josiah Mckenzie under a creative commons licence

This year the marathon will go to Dajla (Dakhla) and many Saharawi blogs are announcing and promoting the event. In Spanish, Todos con el Sahara, Sahara Deportes and Blog de Montaña,  write about the event. You can also find information about it in English on the official site as well as at euskera, where you can find a blog dedicated to the event. 

Con el Sahara blog explains the purpose of the event:

Las aportaciones de todos los corredores y el dinero recaudado de particulares o instituciones es íntegramente destinado al proyecto de ayuda humanitaria en los campamentos.

The donations from the participants and the funds raised by individuals or institutions will go towards the humanitary aid project in the refugee camps.

Sahara Marathon by aabrilru under a Creative Commons License

Sahara Marathon by aabrilru under a Creative Commons License

Last year, Kilometrosysueños attended the Sahara Marathon and his inspirational experience to motivate you to take part of it:

Recomiendo firmemente a todos los corredores esta prueba. Es maravillosa la experiencia de correr por el desierto, además hay distancias para todos: 5, 10, 21 y 42. No hay excusa!!!

I strongly recommend this challenge to any runner. A race in the desert is a wonderful experience, besides there are distance options for all: 5, 10, 21 and 42 kms. You have no excuse!!!

If you miss this, your second opportunity is the “Sahara Bike Race” that will take place next April, with a blog promoting the event in multiple languages: Spanish, French, English and Italian.

Many Saharawis have been refugees for more than 30 years, entirely dependent on restricted aid and big efforts by their political leaders and facing the indifference of the rest of the world. One third of them are children. Events like the marathon and the bike race described above are intended to raise funds to help them develop small projects but also to share with anyone a unique and rich culture, but also the problems they face to survive as a nation.

November 18 2009

Western Sahara: Aminatou Haidar Deported

Photo of Aminatou Haidar by saharauiak

Photo of Aminatou Haidar by saharauiak

Aminatou Haidar is a leading activist for independence of the Western Sahara (from Morocco).  Born in 1967, she was “disappeared” by Moroccan authorities for her activism at age twenty, only to reemerge three years later.  In 2005, Haidar was arrested for her participation in a protest and sentenced to seven months in prison for “inciting violent protest activities.”  Amnesty International deemed her a prisoner of conscience, questioning the fairness of her trial and those of 6 others.  Since her release, she has been honored with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and most recently awarded the Civil Courage Prize in New York, all for her work defending human rights in the Western Sahara.

Regardless of the accolades given to her, Haidar lived - until recently - in Morocco with great fear of being arrested; that is until Friday, November 13 when, upon returning to Laayoune (a city in the Western Sahara region), she was arrested and subsequently deported.  According to the Christian Science Monitor, authorities took issue with her writing “Western Sahara” on her customs forms.  According to Moroccan officials, Haidar renounced and “willingly signed away” her Moroccan citizenship.  She was then sent to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, and later granted Spanish residency on humanitarian grounds, according to Spanish news organization ABC.

Pro-independence blog Sandblast reminds readers that Haidar is not the only dissident persecuted for her cause, stating:

Since October 6, fifteen well-known human rights defenders from Western Sahara have been arrested, detained and interrogated. Seven of them, known as the Casablanca 7 are being tried in a military court for acts of treason after visiting their relatives in the Saharawi refugee camps in SW Algeria. These Saharawis have been targeted for speaking out against the repression of the Moroccan occupation in their homeland and advocating their self-determination rights as recognized by the UN charter and over a 100 UN resolutions. In August, the Moroccan authorities prevented six Saharawi youths from traveling to the UK to participate in the Oxford-based programme Talk Together, which promote dialogue between youth in areas of conflict.

Spanish blogger Bilbaobilonia, referencing a recent speech in which Moroccan King Mohammed VI stated that anyone supporting the Sahara's independence is a traitor, expressed support [es] of Haidar:

Ya lo dijo el rey Mohamed VI en su discurso conmemorativo de la Marcha Verde: en Marruecos sólo se puede ser patriota o traidor.  Claro que, si alguien se toma la molestia de examinar las raquíticas libertades que promueve la dinastía alauí o la persecución a la que somete a la disidencia saharaui , es fácil llegar a la conclusión de que en Marruecos, la traición es la forma más noble de patriotismo.

As King Mohammed VI already said in his speech commemorating the Green March: A Moroccan can only be a patriot or a traitor. Of course, if someone takes the trouble to examine the stunted freedoms the Alawite dynasty promotes or the persecution to which it submits Saharawi dissidents, it is easy to conclude that in Morocco, treason is the noblest form of patriotism.

Blogger One Hump or Two expresses surprise at the fact that Moroccan authorities would go after someone so well-connected:

This shows Moroccan police will go after any Sahrawi who supports a referendum, even those with international connections and support. Haidar's awards (most recently the Civil Courage Prize) weresupposed to place her outside these dangers by showing the Moroccan government the world is watching them.

Sahara Occidental continues to post media roundups on Aminatou Haidar's case.

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