January 24th, 2014
10:21 AM ET

A forgotten human rights tragedy

By Kerry Kennedy, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Kerry Kennedy is the president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. The views expressed are her own.

Aminatou Haidar was pulled from her vehicle by a mob, shoved to the ground and repeatedly assaulted in a four hour public attack that left her severely beaten. Inside her car, destroyed during the November 2012 incident, sat her teenage daughter and her sister.

Haidar, a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureate, was heading home from a meeting with United Nations officials in Western Sahara. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time her family had been attacked. Months earlier, a group of men on a bus recognized her son and daughter and attacked the children, sending them home bloody and bruised as a message to their mother. Before that, she says a thug snarled at her teenage son: “I will rape you 'til you're paralyzed.”

The most troubling aspect of all this? In all three cases, the attackers were reportedly Moroccan police officers.

Haidar is the leading human rights activist in the region known as Western Sahara, home to one of the least advertised, longest running human rights crises on Earth. Having traveled to the region, interviewed hundreds of victims, and witnessed the brutality firsthand when my own teenage daughter was attacked, I know that Haidar’s experience is all too common for the thousands of Sahrawi people living under the brutal grip of a Moroccan occupying force that believes no one is watching.

I have taken testimony from hundreds of Sahrawi people, both in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps in Algeria. The men, women, and children we meet with consistently report human rights violations by Moroccan police and security agents, from surveillance and arbitrary arrests, to intimidation and torture. Most terrifying of all, they tell us about friends and family members who simply vanish, or else turn up in mass graves like the eight bodies unearthed this summer, two of which seemed to be the skeletons of children.

Last year alone, the RFK Center reported violations by Morocco against freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly, and right to due process. Between May and September 2013, four prisoners died from conditions at Ait Melloul prison, where 30 percent of those incarcerated are non-violent human rights defenders. After visiting the region, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez reported hearing credible allegations of Moroccan officials using torture and rape against detainees who are suspected of being pro-independence.

These violations have continued with impunity because few people – especially in the United States – have even heard of Western Sahara. Currently, the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is the only modern peacekeeping mission that does not include a mandate to track and report violations of human rights. And because Morocco routinely bars international human rights observers or journalists from entering Western Sahara, the human rights crisis in this last colony of Africa continues unmonitored.

Despite rulings by the International Court of Justice dating back to 1975, and a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations in 1991, the promised referendum on Sahrawi self-determination has been blocked for a generation. And year after year, Morocco is welcomed as a member of the United Nations, and is allowed to ratify the international human rights treaties it has no intention of honoring.

After nearly forty years, the crisis in Western Sahara has reached a point where the international community must act. Every spring, the U.N. Security Council has an opportunity to revise the mandate of MINURSO before it is renewed. With local and international human rights organizations – as well as the European Union and the U.N.’s own officials – confirming our worst fears about what unmonitored occupation by Morocco has meant for the Sahrawi people.

The Security Council must add a human rights monitoring mechanism to the MINURSO mission for 2014. Such a move would be historic, but by no means revolutionary. We are simply calling on the United Nations to extend to the mission in Western Sahara the same international human rights standards it has applied to every other peace-keeping operation since 1991.

Surely, if human rights are a pillar of the United Nations, this simple, life-saving change is not too much to ask.

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Topics: Africa

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. matslats

    My comment button has disappeared

    January 24, 2014 at 10:30 am |
  2. matslats

    Oh no the button image is missing.
    You can just click next to the small text...

    January 24, 2014 at 10:32 am |
  3. Moroccan and sahrawi

    "Kerry Kennedy is the president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. The views expressed are her own."'
    Thank you for reminding the lectors of that , the only competences of this kenendy are her last name , this kerry kenendy is judged this month for driving while being drugged and is trying to escape the justice pretending she is a humanitarian , I DON'T ACCEPT JUDGEMENTS FROM PEOPLE WITH NO COMPETENCES YOU ARE NOR A HISTORIAN NOR A HUMANITARIN YOU ARE JUST A KENENDY AND I HOPE PEOPLE WON'T BE RICH AND RESPECTED AUTOMATICLY ONLY BECAUSE THEIR PARENTS WERE GREAT BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT.

    January 24, 2014 at 6:45 pm |
  4. chrissy

    Dude...are you on drugs?

    January 24, 2014 at 8:20 pm |
    • Aldo

      You are on drugs Chrissy . You got made cause he said the truth

      January 24, 2014 at 10:53 pm |
      • M'hamid EL GHIZLANE

        what you know about the truth, Mr. or Mrs. Aldo, if you really want to know the truth, you got to travel to Tindouf, if you havea little bit courage to see what is happening every day, I hate and i love at the same time people like you.

        February 6, 2014 at 4:52 am |
  5. Journalist Aljazeera

    Your article has no credibility because of Kerry Kennedy drugged-driving case back in court Thursday http://lohud.us/1jvds7G, This scandal made you in worst position to defend human Rights, I advice you to give your resignation . Honest people in such case, give their resignation, at least until final judgment, instead of taking position in the propaganda of human rights in Western Sahara, funded by Algeria. You leave Iraq, Syria, Egypt where is killing people day and night, and you do all this propaganda in Western Sahara on false videos share by separatist, in order to involve Morocco the most stable countries in the region. Shame ! I ask you to present your resignation from human right ?

    January 25, 2014 at 9:36 am |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    James Baker submitted a "Framework Agreement", known as the Third Way, in June 2001, which provided for autonomy for Saharawis under Moroccan sovereignty, a referendum after a four-year transition period, and voting rights for Moroccan settlers living in Western Sahara for over a year. This formula was rejected by Polisario and Algeria. Condoleezza Rice sought to break the impasse, but the pursuit of al-Qaeda networks in Morocco and Algeria took precedence. Indeed, both Morocco and Algeria have interests in stability in Western Sahara, or else it would be another hotbed for Islamists.

    January 26, 2014 at 10:28 am |
  7. jawad chafil

    hi everyone,
    Kennedy center is promoting international dichotomy , it represents the views of the new imperial elites. Africa is not for sale and believe me dear Kennedy human rights concepts are different in each continent. You are not getting the point of black politics,,this is Morocco , this is Africa ,,we are fighting for unity of the nations what about you ? What s your motivation ? You have no credibility to represent Sahrawi or moroccans or even US citizens.,. You can t access US federal ,state and local politics because of your character issues, alcohool consumption and drugs use. So you decided with a group of academic mercenaries to target emerging ,economic potential countries.
    I just came from dakhla and seriously i invite you to come over and debate me , i can even offer you a nice bottle of wine so you can enjoy the landscape, the peace and the hospitality of the locals. We are not playing your game ,, we are breaking the chain.

    February 5, 2014 at 5:04 pm |
  8. Samir Bennis

    Please guys, we don’t have to attack her personally, there is another way of debunking her arguments and showing that she is lying. Kennedy’s most scandalous misrepresentation of facts is when she says that the MIUNRSO is the “s the only modern peacekeeping mission that does not include a mandate to track and report violations of human rights”.
    Well this is a blatant and disingenuous misrepresentation of facts. A simple research on the website of the UN peacekeeping department will show you that many UN mission don’t include a human right monitoring mechanism. To name but a few, there, the United Nations Mission in Liberia, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, the United Nations Mission in Liberia, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.
    Check here to know that Kennedy used the same tactics in another case. http://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2013/05/89398/kerry-kennedys-questionable-human-rights-activism-in-ecuador-and-the-sahara/
    This shows that the Polisario has an unscrupulous lawyer.

    February 6, 2014 at 10:56 am |
  9. Karim_citizen of the world

    "the human rights crisis in this last colony of Africa continues unmonitored." ??!!! are you drunk again?? the last colonies of Africa are Ceuta and Melilla. The region you're referring to is part of Morocco (historically, now, and forever!). I hate this western hypocrisy.

    February 13, 2014 at 4:27 am |
  10. Mostafa

    The only reason why Kerry Kennedy is speaking against Morocco is because she is getting paid by the Algerian ROTTEN government with millions of dollars. If she wants to defend Sahrawi people she should travel to Tindouf in the Algerian territory and expose how the Sahrawi people are imprisoned by the Algerian backed POLIZARIO. The Sahrawi people in the south region of Morocco are treated better than any other part of Morocco.

    February 13, 2014 at 11:09 am |
  11. Bourezza

    If you want to know how accurate is Kennedy in her work on the Sahara check this article:

    February 14, 2014 at 1:59 am |

    Mrs Kennedy ,please imagine for a second" American p eaceful "protesters set up a camp in Times Square and decide to make their own country.Those peaceful American protesters are financed by Venezeuela ,North Korea Russia and Iran.
    Our brave NYPD tries for a month to get them out of their peacefully ,They refuse and when the law is applied ,those peaceful demonstrators slaughter with knives and burn to death 11 members of the authorities forces .Now Moroccans are supposed to just sit and bury their victims without defending themselves>Mrs Kennedy ,i respect your family but you are way out of line ,You have been brain washed y the Algerian Dinar.

    February 23, 2014 at 8:10 am |
  13. Khales s

    Please try to learn history before doing human rights. Its clear that algeriais giving money

    March 2, 2014 at 1:27 am |
  14. Amazigh

    I couldn't agree more with Ms Kerry, there is a problem of human rights in Western Sahara and everywhere in Morocco. The Moroccan regime is absolutely pitiless with its "subjects""- we are not yet citizens in this special country. But what about Polisario movement? Does it respect human rights in Tindouf, Algeria? Does Algeria, who always backed it with arms and money for decades, respects human rights ?

    Sincerely, you are kidding because neither Algeria/Polisario nor Morocco respect human rights. As all "Arabic" countries, human rights don't have any sense for them. Why just picking on Moroccan regime? Is it because Algeria is bribing you with millions of dollars ... You are absolutely not fair at all.

    By the way, the territory of Sahara belongs to the natives of this part of the world who are Amazigh people (you can make your own search in Google). Do you know at least who are the Amazigh people? I am sure you don't have a clue. All the founders of Polisario movement say that they are Arabs and their ancestors came from Saudia Arabia. If it is so, why don't they go there and make their Arabic republic? We Amazigh people all around North Africa we can help them... to go back to their homeland.

    March 5, 2014 at 3:43 am |
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