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Aminatou Haidar, the “Gandhi of Western Sahara,” Wins Right Livelihood Award

Web ExclusiveSeptember 25, 2019
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The 2019 Right Livelihood Awards are being given out this week in Stockholm. One of this year’s honorees of the “Alternative Nobel” is Sahrawi human rights activist Aminatou Haidar. She has spent decades peacefully resisting the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, often called “Africa’s Last Colony.” Democracy Now! interviewed Haidar in 2014.

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StoryDec 05, 2019Aminatou Haidar Honored for Decades of Peaceful Resistance in Western Sahara, Africa’s Last Colony
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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. The 2019 Right Livelihood Awards have just been announced, otherwise known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” One of this year’s honorees is Sahrawi human rights activist Aminatou Haidar. She’s a native of Western Sahara, a territory in northwest Africa that’s been under occupation by the kingdom of Morocco since 1975, after the departure of Western Sahara’s longtime colonial ruler, Spain.

Western Sahara, often called “Africa’s last colony,” is home to the indigenous Sahrawi people, who waged an armed struggle for self-determination until a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in 1991. As a result of the conflict, the Sahrawi population is now split, with many living under occupation, tens of thousands more living in desert refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Morocco has stonewalled any attempt to hold a U.N.-sponsored referendum in Western Sahara, which would allow the Sahrawi people to vote on whether to become an independent nation or a semiautonomous territory of Morocco.

I spoke to Aminatou Haidar here in New York City in 2014. She had come to push the United Nations for the promised referendum and to highlight the human rights abuses being committed by Morocco in occupied Western Sahara.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We turn now to a deeply contested part of the world that few Americans have ever heard about: the Western Sahara, a disputed territory in North Africa bordering Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. Formerly controlled by Spain, Morocco has occupied most of the territory since 1975, just when the Western Sahara was gaining its independence from Spain.

Now a prominent Western Saharan human rights defender has come to the United States to raise awareness about the grave situation in her occupied homeland. The activist is named Aminatou Haidar. She’s meeting with ambassadors and U.S. government officials to urge them to support a human rights monitoring mechanism, which the United Nations Security Council will consider implementing at the end of this month. Aminatou Haidar is often called the “Sahrawi Gandhi.” In 2009, she received the Civil Courage Prize for her nonviolent resistance to the Moroccan occupation of Sahrawi land. She’s launched weeks-long hunger strikes and organized countless protests against ongoing human rights abuses in her homeland.

Aminatou Haidar joins us now, and she’s being translated by Kate Kelly, who’s an international human rights attorney with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, where she focuses on Western Sahara.

Aminatou Haidar, welcome to Democracy Now!

AMINATOU HAIDAR: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the situation in Western Sahara and why you’ve come to the United States.

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity to come on Democracy Now! It’s an opportunity for me to talk about the painful situation of the Sahrawi.

The situation of the Sahrawi is a difficult one. It’s a population that is divided in two by the illegal occupation of Morocco. One part is in refugee camps in Algeria, in Tindouf. They have left so that they can save themselves from the human rights violations that Morocco is committing and crimes against humanity. These violations are being committed against a civil population, including bombings, white phosphate and other types of attacks and bombings.

The other Sahrawi who are in the occupied territory also suffer grave human rights violations. They’ve suffered forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention. I am personally a victim of forced disappearance, this crime. I spent four years in a prison, a secret prison, with my eyes literally blindfolded the entire time. I was completely isolated this entire time while I was being tortured, and my family had no idea where I was. I was only 20 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain when this happened and who took you.

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] This happened in the time of Hassan II, who was the king of Morocco. And the situation has not improved under the new king, Mohammed VI. In 2005, I personally was detained and tortured for seven months. And three months prior to being detained, I was targeted because I organized — and kicked out of my job, because I organized a demonstration in support of the International Day of Women. The torture continues against women, against elderly people, including against minors and children.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain where you live, how you were taken in these circumstances, who came to your house or to your workplace.

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] I live in Laayoune. It’s the capital of Western Sahara, and it’s the zone that’s currently illegally occupied by Morocco. The people who kidnapped me and took me the first time and the second time are Moroccan police and Moroccan security forces. To this day, we still have 500 cases of disappeared Sahrawis since the year 1975. Even today, we have 79 political prisoners, 21 — I mean, 23 of them who last year received in a military tribunal sentences from 20 years to indefinite detention.

AMY GOODMAN: In your case, the first imprisonment of four years, what ended it? Why did they release you?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] So, I spent four years in prison, but there’s other Sahrawi who spent up to 16 years. In 1991, there was a ceasefire brokered by the international community between Polisario and Morocco, and part of the ceasefire came MINURSO, the peacekeeping monitoring mechanism. So part of this agreement to resolve the — to do a referendum, the plan of peace, there were conditions. And part of the conditions were freeing all political prisoners, in addition to the ceasefire. So, this is why myself and other Sahrawi were freed at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was what year?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] In ’91. So, in 2005, I was again detained.

AMY GOODMAN: Aminatou Haidar, can you explain what happened in 2009, when you were detained an airport in Spain? Set the scene for us. I remember when we were covering this, you know, what would happen to you.

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] In 2009, when I was returning from the United States from receiving the Civil Courage Prize from the John Train Foundation, I was detained in the airport for 24 hours, and then I was forcibly extradited to Spain, with no passport, with no documentation, with the complete complicity of the Spanish government.

And so, when I arrived in the Canary Islands, in Lanzarote, I decided to start a hunger fast, a hunger strike, without limit, until they permitted me to return to my home. And I did a hunger strike that lasted for 32 days.

And thanks to international solidarity and, more than anything, the action that the Robert F. Kennedy Center did in the United States, and thanks to the intervention of the United States and France, I was able to return to my own country and to hug my children again.

AMY GOODMAN: And the political prisoners who were being held, can you describe a few of them?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] With their names? We have 79, today, prisoners, political prisoners. We have 79 political prisoners today. One of them is named Mohamed. Since 2007, he’s been in prison, with 15 years. He’s father of three children. And we have 21 of these prisoners who were sentenced under a military tribunal, from 20 years up to indefinite detention, like the human rights defender Naâma Asfari, like Banga Cheikh, who’s also a member of CODESA, like Ahmed Sbaï, Abdeljalil Lemkaimad. This prisoner is suffering and is close to death, and he has hypertension, very high. And he suffers also under the mistreatment of the paramilitary Moroccans. And he needs good medical attention. And there’s others.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened in 1975, how it was that Morocco came to occupy Western Sahara.

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] The Western Sahara, before, was occupied by Spain for more than a hundred years. In 1975, when the international community decided to give the right of self-determination to the Sahrawi people, a referendum was prepared. There was a complicity on the part of some world powers, including the United States, who gave support to Morocco, to invade and occupy Western Sahara. So, Spain actually left before finishing the process of decolonization. The Western Sahara has been registered as a non-self-governing territory since 1966. And so, the people of Western Sahara continue waiting for their right to self-determination.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the role of the Polisario?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] The Polisario is a liberation movement that represents the two areas of Río de Oro and Saguía el-Hamra, and it is the only legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. They participated in a war with Morocco for 16 years. And now it’s Polisario that is negotiating with the kingdom of Morocco under the auspices of the United Nations, since 2007.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the role of the United States in 1975, when Morocco invaded?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Unfortunately, they supported the occupation. So I think today the United States and France need to rectify this historical error, and they need to support human rights and end human rights violations in Western Sahara.

AMY GOODMAN: At the time, in '75—I know this because of Timor. You know, in 1975, President Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went to Jakarta, to Indonesia, gave the go-ahead for the invasion of East Timor, and Indonesia invaded Timor. There's a very similar parallel here. In 1975, the very same year, was it U.S. President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who were involved in the support of Morocco invading Western Sahara?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Yep, exactly. More than anything, Kissinger.

AMY GOODMAN: And a wall was built. Can you describe what this wall looks like, how long it is, who built the wall?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] The wall was constructed by the Moroccan state in the '80s. And it is 2,600 or 2,700 meters long — kilometers. And it's, on both sides, surrounded by mines and land mines, and so it’s an extremely dangerous place. And even more, it separated Sahrawi families. They find themselves on either side of the wall, and so it separates hearts.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Aminatou Haidar, who is a Western Sahara human rights defender, president of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders, or CODESA, has come to the United States to weigh in on the situation, calling for human rights to be defended in the Western Sahara and, ultimately, for Western Sahara — for Morocco to leave the Western Sahara. Can you talk about the state of the negotiations between the Polisario, that represent the Western Sahara people, and Morocco right now?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Like I just said, there are — there have been negotiations with the Polisario Front since 2007. And now the one who has been carrying out the negotiations and brokering them is the U.N. special envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross. He’s a diplomat, and he has a lot of experience and patience to carry out negotiations. And we have a lot of hope and a lot of faith in both his principles and his personality.

But, unfortunately, Morocco rejects any advances that are made, and rejects any progress in the process. And I believe that there really won’t be a solution, and we won’t make any progress, as long as the Security Council doesn’t support a resolution. And so, I think that both — all members of the Security Council need to support a final resolution, including the United States and France.

AMY GOODMAN: The breakdown of the talks between Morocco and Polisario is related to Morocco’s demand that no vote would involve independence. Can you explain that?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Morocco wants to obligate the Sahrawi people — Morocco wants to obligate the Sahrawi people to be Moroccan. So the only option that they give is that they have autonomy, and they want to be under Moroccan rule. Polisario is willing to put three options on the table. One is independence. One is what Morocco is putting forward, which is autonomy, and including Polisario has offered the option of being part of Morocco. But Morocco rejects the referendum, because they know that the majority of the Sahrawi are going to vote for independence.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve come here to also talk to the United Nations about the issue of human rights. There is a U.N. mission in Western Sahara. Explain how human rights defense fits into that.

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] MINURSO, which is the peacekeeping mission of the United Nations, has been in Western Sahara for 22, 23 years, and they are there specifically to organize the referendum. But it’s not part of their mandate to monitor and to investigate human rights violations. And so, after 22 years, this mission has not been able to achieve what they were created for, which is the referendum. And it also hasn’t been able to guarantee or protect the rights of the population of Sahrawi people.

And so, myself, as a human rights defender, what I urgently request is that while the referendum process is being carried out and resolved, that human rights violations be respected — or human rights violations be stopped and human rights of the Sahrawi people be respected.

The people who live under Moroccan occupation, we suffer all types of human rights violations and the denial of all of our rights. We don’t have the right to register our associations. I am personally president of CODESA, but we’re not permitted to operate legally by Morocco. We’re not able to register; Morocco doesn’t permit it. And there’s other organizations that also don’t have authorization. The demonstrations, that are peaceful, are always repressed.

The torture continues, both in detention centers and prisons, in the street, including Sahrawi people are not safe from torture in their own houses. And this includes children. Torture is committed against children and mistreatment against children by the Moroccan police.

AMY GOODMAN: How are people tortured and mistreated?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] It’s horrible. It’s terrible. They use all the forms of torture.


AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] In the police stations, they tie your hands, they blindfold you, and they start to beat you. And sometimes you’re hung. Another type of torture is rape by the police.

AMY GOODMAN: If someone were to go to the U.N. mission to talk about being abused, what role does the U.N. mission play? And how would it be different if they had this human rights defense mechanism?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Right now it’s not even possible to go to where MINURSO is. It’s impossible. Right now it’s surrounded by Moroccan police. It’s more like a Moroccan police station. You can’t even get close to where MINURSO is. Right now it’s, for me, like an international observer that is in the location, but they, too, have their eyes blindfolded. They can’t see anything. And they don’t have a mandate to do it. And so, our ask of the Security Council is that they have this additional mandate, so that they can monitor human rights violations.

AMY GOODMAN: Are there examples in the world where U.N. missions do?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] After 1991, I think all of the missions that have been created, all of them, have this human rights monitoring mechanism.

AMY GOODMAN: So why doesn’t the people of Western Sahara have this in the U.N. mission there?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] That’s my question, as well. And that’s part of how you can see the complicity of the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the role, Aminatou, of journalists? Are journalists able to operate freely in the Western Sahara?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] So, a few times, journalists have been able to make it into Western Sahara. But most of the time they are expelled. Last year on May 4th, a delegation of women journalists came from the United States and from the U.K. And a demonstration that the Sahrawi people organized was violently repressed. This delegation had an interview with me and with the other members of my NGO, CODESA. And the police came and attacked my house. They were throwing rocks, and they destroyed my car, which was outside. And after that, they impeded the journalists from leaving the hotel. And about 20 days ago, a British delegation came, including journalists and even MPs in the British Parliament, and they were also humiliated and threatened.

AMY GOODMAN: A world-famous actor has taken on the cause of the people of the Western Sahara. The Spanish actor Javier Bardem produced a documentary called Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony. It examines the plight of refugees from Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Let’s go to a clip.

JAVIER BARDEM: I am here as an independent citizen. I’m not affiliated with any political group or representing any government. It is our duty as citizens to remind our leaders of their responsibilities with injustice, of course. It is an international disgrace that generations of Sahrawis are born, live and die in these camps, and their compatriots suffer under repression in their territory. Almost no one has heard of this abuse, because journalists and human rights organizations are not allowed to visit the territory.

AMY GOODMAN: The well-known actor Javier Bardem did this documentary about — about the Western Sahara. What is the significance of when reports get out, the role of both journalists and also international protest? What happens inside when films or protests take place?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] This really animates the Sahrawi people, and it really — it gives us hope. It’s a message for them that they are not alone. It’s the same effect when an international NGO does a report, like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or the great work that the Robert F. Kennedy Center is doing in support of the Sahrawi. It’s something that’s extremely, extremely important. It’s something that helps us, as human rights defenders, maintain the peaceful resistance. For us, it’s a way to stop the violence and to teach the youth about nonviolence.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the role of oil in Western Sahara?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] So, it’s unknown if there is oil. There’s definitely a phosphate industry and fisheries. But right now there are U.S. companies who are doing oil exploration, including Kosmos and Atwood Oceanics. These companies are trying to find out if there is oil.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is Kosmos based?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] They’re doing work in Bojador in the occupied zone.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do they come from in the United States?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] I think they’re from Texas. And it’s against international law, because it’s a non-self-governing territory, and they shouldn’t be making these explorations. And these explorations that they’re doing can threaten the peace process. And they can make it take longer, or they can set back a peaceful solution.

AMY GOODMAN: And they’re making contracts with Morocco, the occupying power?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: This oil company, Kosmos Energy, reportedly plans to start exploration drilling in occupied Western Sahara in October or November of this year. I wanted to play a clip of protesters who have taken to the streets to object to the plans.

PROTESTER 1: [translated] In the name of God, the merciful and just, we are against the agreement about exploiting our natural resources. We want the world to help us to stop this farce. Those resources belong to the Sahrawi people, only the Sahrawi people.

AMY GOODMAN: Another protester said Sahrawis want freedom from both economic exploitation and political oppression.

PROTESTER 2: [translated] I am participating in this peaceful demonstration today to demand that you stop plundering our natural resources. And we want freedom, only freedom, and we will not give up. We want our political activists in prison released. We want nothing from Morocco. We do not want any money or houses or anything, only this.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to drilling for oil, what about the issue of mining for phosphate? Talk about the significance of that in Western Sahara?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] One of the biggest resources and riches that the Western Sahara has, in addition to the fisheries, is the mining for phosphate. And the Western Sahara people, the people, the Sahrawi people, do not benefit from these resources. There is a pillaging on the part of the Moroccan government. The priority is given to the Moroccans, who make decisions in Western Sahara. There’s ex-employees, who were employees under the Spanish colonization, and their rights are violated, and they aren’t given their due. The Sahrawi who live in the occupied territories suffer economic conditions that are horrible and poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what do you think the U.S. can do? I mean, this is an international issue, but clearly the U.S. has been involved in different ways. What are you calling on the Obama administration to do, Aminatou Haidar?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] The United States can play a role that is extremely important, so that justice is done and to guarantee peace in the whole Maghreb region. They only have to apply international legality. The United States can help the resolution by supporting the self-determination of the Sahrawi people. And they have to give the word and the power to the Sahrawi people to decide their own future and their own status. I am in favor of a peaceful resolution; I am completely against war. And I hope that war never returns, because this is going to damage both the Sahrawi and the Moroccans themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the power of lobbyists. According to the Sunlight Foundation, since 2007, the Moroccan government has spent over $20 million lobbying journalists, lobbying the administration, lobbying congressmembers. Now, this is more than any other Arab country, more than twice Egypt, for example. So this is a lot of money. Among the firms — there are about nine of them — is Covington & Burling. That is the current Attorney General Eric Holder’s old firm. What is the power of these lobbyists?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] The Moroccan lobby has the role of selling a false perception of what is happening, here in the United States. Over decades, three decades, Morocco has been able to create a positive image that they really don’t have. It’s not reality. And this is thanks to the lobby.

So, the Moroccan lobby is selling a false image of what Morocco is. They’re using this to convince people in the United States that they’re improving on human rights and that they are making steps in the right direction. But this is a lie. And this is what the Moroccan lobby is doing, is trying to convince people of something that’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: A recent article in Foreign Policy, the magazine, says, “In April 2013, [the Moroccan American Center for Policy] circulated an editorial by email arguing that the refugee camps in Algeria filled with Western Sahara citizens have 'reportedly become a recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda-linked groups,' a development that should prompt 'active diplomatic action from the United States.'” Aminatou Haidar, your response?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] This is not true. This is something that the Moroccan lobby in the United States would like to sell. The United States themselves has said it’s a false representation. And France also has said that it’s not true. And Morocco themselves admitted to Christopher Ross that it’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. negotiator.

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] Yes, the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy on Western Sahara. He’s the one that’s carrying out the negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: So, clearly, you are having an effect, for Morocco to be spending more money than any Arab country on lobbying the United States. Clearly, they think the United States is important, and you have had an effect, because they are spending tens of millions of dollars to counter your message. What is the population of Western Sahara?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] I can’t give you an exact figure. And so, I can’t give you an exact figure, because the Sahrawi are in the refugee camps, they’re in the occupied territories, some of them are in the south of Morocco, they’re in Mauritania, they’re in Spain. I think that there is an estimated half a million population.

AMY GOODMAN: What gives you hope? Morocco invaded in 1975. That was more than 40 years ago. East Timor was invaded at the same time. They got their independence more than a decade ago. What gives you hope to continue this struggle all of this time?

AMINATOU HAIDAR: [translated] The justice of my cause. One part is the determination that I have personally, and also the firm determination of the Sahrawi people. Now we are three generations, and they are continuing the fight.

AMY GOODMAN: Sahrawi human rights activist Aminatou Haidar, speaking in 2014. She has just been named one of the 2019 Right Livelihood Award winners. This year’s other honorees are 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg; the Chinese human rights activist Guo Jianmei; and the Yanomami activist Davi Kopenawa of Brazil, and the group he founded, Hutukara Yanomami Association.

Visit to see our documentary Four Days in Occupied Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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