Article from Margot Kessler's office (Member of EU Parlament) published by the Institute of Human Rights of Potsdam University, Germany.

[original german version][traduction française]

Since early 2000, the Saharawi people are on the verge of reliving the tragedy that threw them into exile in 1975 when Morocco illegally invaded Western Sahara1 and precipitated both a 16 years military conflict and the fleeing of tens of thousands of refugees to south-western Algeria. The similarities with the situation that prevailed in 1975 are as follows: it is possible to hold the referendum of self-determination, Morocco is nevertheless sabotaging the work of the UN and the holding of the referendum, some countries on the UN Security Council support Morocco's attempts at evading international legality- and war is round the corner. History started repeating itself in January 2000: as MINURSO2 completed the corner-stone of the 1991 UN Peace Plan by publishing the list of voters for the referendum of self-determination promised to the Saharawi people ever since the early sixties, Morocco blocked the coming holding of the referendum by immediately lodging 130 thousand appeals, the vast majority of them devoid of any practical or legal basis. What is worse, influential countries sitting at the Security Council, amongst which France and to a lesser extent, the United States, have supported Morocco's attempt to evade the commitments it contracted when it agreed to the 1991 UN Peace Plan and the 1997 Houston Accords.

There is a direct link between Morocco's persistent refusal to abide by international legality in relation with its occupation of Western Sahara, and the gross violations of human rights this regime perpetrates on a daily basis against the Saharawi population: the security forces which in 1975 violated all Humanitarian International Law like the Geneva conventions when they bombed with napalm the Saharawis, massacred them, and destroyed their possibilities of survival in the desert by poisoning their wells and killing their herds of camels, are the same who are still oppressing in all impunity, and under UN cease-fire and supervision, the Saharawis that are unlucky enough to find themselves living on the West side of the Moroccan military wall which divides their country. To this day, living under Moroccan occupation means to live with the fear of arbitrary arrest, torture, detention without trial, unfair trial, disappearance, and summary execution- not mentioning discrimination on the work place, and the overall plunder of Western Sahara natural resources by Morocco.

The de facto legal vacuum resulting both from the situation of occupation and the reluctance of the United Nations to fully take its responsibilities, has created a situation whereby the ongoing violation of international legality by the Moroccan state facilitates bureaucratic discrimination against Saharawis. This discrimination, in turn facilitates the violation of Saharawis' fundamental human rights, freedom of movement, speech, association and information by the Moroccan security forces.

Bureaucratic discrimination is the first manner in which Moroccan authorities enforce their oppression and violate Saharawis rights.

Identity documents delivered by Morocco to Saharawis show an "S" which immediately identifies its owner to any member of the security forces. Such a discrimination and its consequences is unfortunately well known in history: the use of the yellow star against Jewish people during the Second World War comes to mind, a more recent situation is that of apartheid South Africa and its notorious imposition of "pass laws" against the African population. This bureaucratic discrimination contributes to the tight control of the Saharawis population and the severe restriction of their freedom of movement: by law Saharawis are not allowed to leave the occupied territories. Many cases of torture, detention, and excessive prison terms are related to the arrests of Saharawis trying to escape from Morocco by crossing the border and get to Algeria (particularly in the Oujda region). Any Saharawi having his/her ID checked outside the occupied territories, showing a permanent address there, and not being able to explain what he/she is doing away from it, is exposed to immediate arbitrary arrest and ill-treatments. Travels abroad are also under stringent control. The Moroccan authorities only deliver passports to very few Saharawis, and the delivery of this document is accompanied by pressures and threats. Close relatives cannot travel together: a child or a parent must be left behind as virtual hostage so as to insure that the traveller(s) will return without having damaged the reputation of the Kingdom for fear of retaliation against the relatives they were forced to leave behind in the occupied territories. Such practices are also sadly reminiscent of the dictatorial bureaucratic control that the GDR used to exercise over its population.

A most shocking example of this situation happened on 24th March this year: as they were on their way to testify at the UN 57th Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Brahim NOUMRI and Mahmoud ELHAMED3 were arrested at Casablanca airport, and their passports and documents, confiscated from them. Despite international outcry, they were not allowed to continue their journey to Geneva, although they were released by the security forces. Travelling abroad remains forbidden to them.

The story of Morocco's illegal and brutal occupation of Western Sahara is also illustrated by the violations perpetrated in the course of the repression against any form of dissent or protest.

Some issues in human rights debates are not popular: despite the publicity made around Morocco's "democratisation", the wounds of the past are not healed for the Saharawis. In its 2001 Report 4, Amnesty International writes, in its chapter "Morocco/Western Sahara" that "… the [Moroccan] authorities failed to clarify the cases of several hundred "disappeared", most of them Saharawis, or to acknowledge the deaths of some 70 Saharawis who "disappeared" in secret detention between the 1970s and the early 1990s." In the same report, AI names Brahim LAGHZAL, Cheikh KHAYA, and Laarbi MASSOUDI as three Saharawis adopted by the organisation as prisoners of conscience. Elsewhere in the report, AI also writes "the right to freedom of expression was increasingly violated leading to the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience".

In late August, a weekly 48 hours hunger strike campaign was launched by veteran Saharawi political prisoner Mohamed DADDACH, along with 25 other similar detainees5 , to protest against inhuman conditions of detention in Moroccan jails such as in Marrakech, Kénitra, Sough El Arboua, Laayoune, and Inzegan.

Since mid-September, the occupied territories of Western Sahara are the scene of non-violent protest actions (peaceful marches and gatherings, hunger strikes, as well as distribution of Polisario Front leaflets and Saharawi Republic flags) that meet with violent repression: for instance several Saharawis were reported wounded, and others, tortured, over the first week-end of October alone6 . All these events are organised by the Saharawis to protest against Moroccan occupation, the indefinite postponement of the referendum of self-determination, and to commemorate the September-October 1999 intifada which rocked the occupied territories, led to Driss Basri's dismissal from the ministry of Interior, but also led to increased repression by the Moroccan security forces and accelerated process of colonisation of the territory by Moroccan settlers. These events are also taking place in the border region of southern Morocco where Saharawi communities live in cities like Goulimines, Assa, and others. The FVJSS (Forum Vérité et Justice Section Sahara) has been documenting for years the ongoing exactions committed against Saharawis and calls for "an investigation on the violations of human rights committed in Western Sahara", as well as for the "judgement of the persons responsible of such violations, whatever the extent of their responsibility within the power structures may be"7 . In this context, the work conditions, as well as the access to education and health care of Saharawi people, are often compromised

Morocco's ruthless repression against Saharawi people's rights and aspiration to self-determination has only one purpose: to entrench the fait accompli of its illegal occupation of Western Sahara, to entrench its plunder of the natural resources of the territory, and to entrench the presence of an increasingly high number of Moroccan settlers, with a view to have the economic and human means to destabilise the territory when it wants to do so.

A growing international concern is mounting about the illegal plunder of Western Sahara's natural resources. In April this year, an international conference8 brought together many specialist of international law who unanimously reminded all concerned that it is the international community's duty to protect the exploitation of the natural resources of this un-determined territory (since this is the official status of Western Sahara as long as it stays on the list of countries waiting for self-determination by the UN 4th Committee on Decolonization). Ever since the invasion, Morocco pocketed considerable profits through its illegal exploitation of the phosphate mines of Bou-Crââ (check spelling), but most of all through totally illegal fishing contracts with the European Union. This year, after Morocco refused to renew these contracts, it emerged that very high ranking military officers, including generals in charge of the forces stationed in the occupied territories, illegally obtained fishing licences and run fleets of fishing boats, now pocketing the money that used to be lost to the EU contracts9 ! More worrying developments are now happening: on 4th October, the American firm Kerr Mc Gee signed an illegal off-shore petrol exploration contract in the territorial waters of occupied Western Sahara (Boujdour area) with the Moroccan ministry of energy and mines10 . This illegal contract was signed in the presence of US ambassador in Rabat Margaret Tutwiler. The deal, which was first reported in Moroccan newspapers, is now triggering an international outcry, the first one to protest being the Polisario Front as well as solidarity organisations11.

Silence is necessary for such broad violations of fundamental rights to take place over so many years: with time, Morocco has succeeded in enforcing both a ruthless press censorship and an efficient disinformation: it has worked particularly hard12 to insure that its propaganda finds an indulgent ear in European countries' top newspapers: France and Spain are notoriously biased on the topic of Western Sahara due to the "special links" that tie them economically and politically to the Kingdom. The way press censorship works is as follows: there is NO free and independent reporting possible in the occupied territories of Western Sahara- foreign journalists are heavily and overtly put under surveillance by the many teams of the Ministry of Interior, security forces, and secret police. For local newspapers, the timid attempts at running articles on Western Sahara, although within the overall "line" of Moroccan propaganda, have led to the suspension of some newspapers: in December 2000, three weekly publications- Demain, Le Journal, and Assahifa- were suspended by Mohamed VI for threatening the "stability of the State". They had published interviews of Polisario Front leader Mohamed Abdelaziz. The publications were allowed again at a later stage. Censorship falls equally hard on foreign press- to such an extent that on 6th September 2001, the organisation Reporters Sans Frontières sent a letter to the Moroccan Minister of Culture and Communication Mohammed Achaari, complaining that "every time a foreign newspaper writes an article that displeases the Moroccan government, it gets banned"13 .

Media censorship preserves the breeding grounds for violations of fundamental rights. Such violations come as the logical consequence of the contempt for international legality: the conflict in Western Sahara is one of the most tragic and clearest illustration of the reasons why human rights issues cannot be treated separately from the broader context of international law.

Brussels, october 2001

1. This happened in November 1975. Morocco invaded the territory that was known as Spanish Sahara after the colonial power that controlled it: Moroccan propaganda staged a "peaceful march" where 350 thousands civilian Moroccans brought by bus crossed the border wrongly claiming they were "going back" to "their" Sahara. Inland, away from the world's cameras, Moroccan fighter jets bombed the Saharawi population, while its armies unleashed terror on anybody they came across. Tens of thousands of people fled this terror and crossed the border with Algeria, settling as refugees in the Tindouf area. The Polisario Front, which is recognised by the UN since the early 70's as the legitimate representative of Saharawi people's aspiration to independence, formed a government in exile, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, recognised by over seventy countries in the world. The Polisario Front is the official party at war with Morocco in the conflict of Western Sahara. The conflict was suspended in 1991 when a UN cease-fire was implemented, the only objective of which is to help implementing the UN/OAU 1991 Peace Plan leading to a referendum of self-determination, to which both the Polisario Front and Morocco agreed. This settlement plan was furthered by the 1997 Houston Accords. There are strictly NO other agreements existing between the Polisario Front and Morocco other than these two.

2. French acronym for UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara.

3. For more details, see ARSO website at www.arso.org

4. The Amnesty International 2001 Report can be consulted on the website www.amnesty.org. See both Regional Summaries, Middle East and North Africa, and article referring to Morocco/Western Sahara.

5. This campaign is mainly co-ordinated by the European Bureau for the Respect of Human Rights in Western Sahara based in Geneva (tel/fax:+41-22-320 6550, e-mail: bdh_sahara@hotmail.com ). News of the campaign can be found on ARSO website.

6. For more details, consult ARSO website, as well as the Press Service of the Saharawi republic, SPS, on website www.site.voila.fr/sps_rasd

7. See news item from El-Aaiun dated 30/09/01 on SPS website.

8. The conference papers are published in Colloque des juristes sur le Sahara Occidental-Samedi 28 avril 2001, Paris, éditions de L'Harmattan, Paris, 2001.

9. See early July edition of Moroccan weekly Demain-Magazine , particularly the articles by Thami Afaifal "La dorade à 70 DH", "Ca pêche en général", and "Les bateaux de la joie".

10. See L'Economiste on website www.leconomiste.com, edition dated 5th October 2001, in De bonnes sources section, article "Les scoops du jour".

11. See information websites www.groups.yahoo.com/group/Sahara-update, as well as www.wsahara.net

12. In that case, "generosity" is another word for corruption: over the years, Morocco bought many sympathies, giving lots of money to newspaper editors, offering exotic journeys and ready-made reporting trips to journalists world-wide, thus insuring a sympathetic coverage, or even non-coverage, of some burning issues like Western Sahara.

13. See text referenced as 09.07/Morocco, under Protest Letters, on RSF website www.rsf.fr