Published on Thursday, October 9, 2008 by Foreign Policy in Focus
Aminatou Haidar, a nonviolent activist from
This recognition of Haidar and her nonviolent freedom campaign is significant in that the
Unfortunately, given its role in making
In 1975, the kingdom of Morocco conquered Western Sahara on the eve of its anticipated independence from Spain in defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice upholding the right of the country's inhabitants to self-determination. With threats of a French and American veto at the UN preventing decisive action by the international community to stop the Moroccan invasion, the nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed struggle against the occupiers. The Polisario established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in February 1976, which has subsequently been recognized by nearly 80 countries and is a full member state of the African
Thanks in part to
French and American support for the Moroccan government blocked the UN Security Council from providing the necessary diplomatic pressure to move the referendum process forward. The Polisario, meanwhile, recognized its inability to defeat the Moroccans by military means. As a result, the struggle for self-determination shifted to within the Moroccan-occupied territory, where the Sahrawi population has launched a nonviolent resistance campaign against the occupation.
For four years she was "disappeared," held without charge or trial, and kept in secret detention centers. In these facilities, she and 17 other Sahrawi women underwent regular torture and abuse.
Most resistance activity inside the occupied territory remained clandestine until early September 1999, when Sahrawi students organized sit-ins and vigils for more scholarships and transportation subsidies from the Moroccan government. Since an explicit call for independence would have been brutally suppressed immediately, the students hoped to push the boundaries of dissent by taking advantage of their relative intellectual freedom. Former political prisoners seeking compensation and accountability for their state-sponsored disappearances soon joined the nonviolent vigils, along with Sahrawi workers from nearby phosphate mines and a union of unemployed college graduates. The movement was suppressed within a few months. Although the demands of what became known as the first Sahrawi Intifada appeared to be nonpolitical, it served as a test of both the Sahrawi public and the Moroccan government. It paved the way for Sahrawis to press for bolder demands and engage in larger protests in the future that would directly challenge the Moroccan occupation itself.
A second Sahrawi intifada, which because known as the "Intifada al-Istiglal" (the Intifada of
Haidar was released within seven months as a result of pressure from Amnesty International and the European parliament. Meanwhile, nonviolent protests have continued, despite ongoing repression by U.S.-supported Moroccan authorities. Despite continued disappearances, killings, beatings, and torture, Haidar has continued to advocate nonviolent action. In addition to organizing efforts at home, she traveled extensively to raise awareness internationally about the ongoing Moroccan occupation and advocate for the Sahrawi people's right to self-determination.
As repression increased, so did
However, the occupation itself continues to prove problematic for
As a result, the Moroccan kingdom recently advocated an autonomy plan for the territory. The Sahrawis, with the support of most of the world's nations, rejected the proposal since it would not allow them the choice of independence, as all those living in non-self-governing territories have the legal right to do.
Indeed, the autonomy plan is based on the assumption that Western Sahara is part of
Despite this, the Bush administration refers to
Key House Democrats have weighed in support of Morocco's right of conquest as well, with Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who chairs the Subcommittee on the
Advocacy for Haidar
The RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights' selection of Haidar one of the most prominent opponents of the U.S.-backed autonomy plan may make it more difficult for the Bush administration to push acceptance of the Moroccan proposal through a reluctant UN Security Council. Ironically, the
In addition to a modest cash reward, the human rights award includes the expectation the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights will launch an ongoing legal, advocacy and technical support through a partnership with the winner. According to Monika Kalra Varma, the center's director, "The RFK Human Rights Award not only recognizes a courageous human rights defender but marks the beginning of the
Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), brother of the slain senator for whom the prize is named, stated, "I congratulate Aminatou Haidar for receiving this honor. All who care about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law for the people of the
Western Sahara remains an occupied territory only because
A successful nonviolent independence struggle by an Arab Muslim people under the Haidar's leadership could set an important precedent. It would demonstrate how, against great odds, an outnumbered and outgunned population could win through the power of nonviolence in a part of the world where resistance to autocratic rule and foreign military occupation has often spawned acts of terrorism and other violence. Furthermore, the participatory democratic structure within the Sahrawi resistance movement and the prominence of women in key positions of leadership could serve as an important model in a region where authoritarian and patriarchal forms of governance have traditionally dominated.
The eventual outcome rests not just on the Sahrawis alone, but whether the international community, particularly those of us in the
Stephen Zunes , a Foreign Policy In Focus  senior policy analyst, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle East Studies at the
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs