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Africa’s Last Colony: Morocco’s Monarchy Pursues Neoliberal Policies in Occupied Western Sahara

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As Democracy Now! broadcasts from the United Nations climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, we report on an issue that is largely ignored: Morocco’s 41-year occupation of the Western Sahara. Many consider it to be Africa’s last colony. We speak with British-based Algerian activist Hamza Hamouchene, who serves as the senior program officer for North Africa and West Asia at the British organization War on Want. He recently attempted to enter the occupied Western Sahara but was stopped by Moroccan authorities on his way.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Marrakech, Morocco. Here at the U.N. climate talks, one issue that’s being largely ignored is Morocco’s more than 41-year occupation of Western Sahara, located south of Morocco. Many consider it to be Africa’s last colony. Last week, Moroccan authorities barred the Sahrawi political leader Suelma Beirouk from attending the climate summit, even though she serves as the vice president of the Pan-African Parliament. She was reportedly held by Moroccan police for 75 hours without food or water. Morocco also faced criticism after it briefly published a map on an official COP 22 website that showed occupied Western Sahara to be a part of Morocco. The image was later taken down from that website.

The U.N. considers Western Sahara to be a non-self-governing territory. In March, Morocco expelled U.N. staffers from Western Sahara after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to Morocco’s rule over the region as an “occupation” during a visit to the Algerian town of Tindouf, which has been the home for Western Saharan refugees for four decades. One-half of the Sahrawi population lives in the refugee camps, while the other half lives in the territory under occupation. Moroccan authorities also continue to block many international journalists and human rights organizations from entering the occupied Western Sahara.

This week, I spoke to the British-based Algerian activist Hamza Hamouchene, who serves as the senior program officer for North Africa and West Asia at the British organization War on Want.

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: So, I’m here for the COP to organize events around the COP 22, but I’m not participating officially for the COP 22. So we organize different events to be in solidarity with communities that are being affected by environmental injustices, by the neoliberal policies of the Moroccan monarchy. And I have attempted to travel to the occupied territories of Western Sahara two days ago, and I have been denied entry.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened? Where did you go? And how were you stopped?

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: So, I started my journey from a southern town in Morocco called Guelmim. So, I took a bus ride from there to Dakhla. And just before Tarfaya, just on the border between Morocco and the occupied zone, I have been ordered off the bus. And I’ve been informed that there are specific instructions, coming from high up, to not allow me to proceed to Laayoune.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened to you then?

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: So, basically, I waited for—for an hour, and they hired a taxi for me that took me back to Agadir, which is around six, seven hours away. And they kept a close eye on me at every checkpoint. So I have been stopped around five, six times. They were checking my passports. They were calling the driver. So it felt a little bit unsafe.

AMY GOODMAN: So they drove you away five hours to where?

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: So they drove me, I think, more than six hours to Agadir, which is three hours away, or three hours and a half away from Marrakech. And I spent the night there, and I came back the day after. But, for me, that episode is just an example of how Morocco, the Moroccan monarchy, how the makhzen, the king and the elite around him, does not want international people and people coming for the COP 22 to know about its occupation of Western Sahara, that has been ongoing for more than four decades now.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, was here, actually met with the king, though it doesn’t look like the king wanted to exactly look at him, because he just recently called the presence of Morocco in Western Sahara an “occupation.”

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: So, COP 22, the climate talks that are being held in Marrakech this month, are an excellent opportunity for the makhzen, which is the king and the ruling elite around him, to whitewash, you know, their crimes, their repression and the authoritarianism, and also make people forget about the occupation that has been ongoing for more than four decades in Western Sahara. It’s also an opportunity to greenwash the environmental crimes that the makhzen has been—

AMY GOODMAN: And the makhzen means?

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: Makhzen is the king and the elite around him, so, basically, the ruling class in Morocco—to greenwash the environmental crimes in Morocco and in the occupied zones. So I have been visiting different places in Morocco recently where people are suffering from big, huge environmental injustices. And one of them is the Imider community that has been struggling with the royal holding silver mine, Imider mine, that has been, you know, grabbing their resources, grabbing their water.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain where Imider is.

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: So, Imider in southeast Morocco. It’s around seven hours’ drive from Marrakech. So the community has been struggling there for years against this silver mine that has been polluting their environment, affecting their agriculture. And so, this is, in a way, a contradiction between the narrative that the monarchy is trying to give to outsiders, that they are champions of renewable energy, that they are green and all of that, but in reality, when you look deep down, you see a lot of environmental destruction.

There is another example, too: Safi, which is a town, an industrial town on the ocean, which is really a victim of the industrial policies of Morocco. There is actually now a coal-fired power station that is being built. And that will be operational in 2017. So, at the time they are saying we are doing renewable energy, they are building a coal-fired power station. And that coal will be brought from Russia, Poland and South Africa. But then, if you look deeply into the details of the renewable plants, you see that an important part of it is based on occupied territory, so without the approval of Sahrawi in taking the decisions on how those resources are being used.

AMY GOODMAN: The Sahrawi are the West Saharans?

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: Yeah, yeah, West Saharans. So, there is a report by an organization called Western Sahara Resource Watch just released a few weeks ago called “Powering the Plunder,” where they document all those renewable plants—wind and solar—and they mentioned an example of where a wind farm is powering the Bou Craa phosphate mine, which is on an occupied territory, so basically powering that mine to plunder even further the resources of the Sahrawis.

AMY GOODMAN: How difficult is it for people to get to Western Sahara who don’t already live there?

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: I think the movements of the Sahrawis are monitored. So, the Moroccan security services and the Royal Gendarmerie really monitor the movements of the Sahrawi people. For international delegations—so, the moment they detect that those delegations are talking with human rights activists and human rights organizations, they deport them. There have been many examples in the past, with delegations from Norway, from Spain being deported the moment they detect them talking with, you know, human rights activists.

AMY GOODMAN: What are they hiding?

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: I think, to say it briefly, they’re hiding the reality of occupation. They’re hiding the reality of repression. They’re hiding the reality of the denial of the rights of the Sahrawis for their self-determination.

AMY GOODMAN: Share the history of Western Sahara.

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: So, Western Sahara was a colony, a Spanish colony, 'til 1975. So when the Spanish left, the Morocco and Mauritania invaded Western Sahara. Mauritania retreated, I think, a year later, but Morocco still occupies that land and plunders the resources. And it's not just phosphate. It’s fishing. It’s tomatoes. It’s agriculture. And Sahrawis do not have any input in the decision making. And I think this needs to be exposed. And the COP 22 should not be allowed to be an opportunity for the makhzen, the king and the elite around him, to greenwash their crimes and to whitewash the occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: There are amazing parallels to Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor in 1975. But in 1999 the U.N. was able to sponsor a referendum for the people of East Timor, and they voted for their independence, and now they’re one of the newest nations in the world.

HAMZA HAMOUCHENE: Yeah, I think—I think that’s what the Sahrawis wish to happen. They just want their right to self-determination. And the U.N. is supportive of that, except that Morocco has the support of some Western powers, including France and the U.S. and Spain. And that diplomatic and international support allows it to continue the occupation. So I think we need to exercise the pressure on the Moroccan monarchy, as well as its backers and the multinationals that are complicit in the plunder of resources.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the British-based Algerian activist Hamza Hamouchene, who serves as the senior program officer for North Africa and West Asia at the British organization War on Want. He recently attempted to enter the occupied Western Sahara but was stopped by Moroccan authorities on his way.

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