Viewpoint: A hunger strike for human rights

BY REBECCA ROBERTS-WOLFE

Published March 31, 2009

Three political prisoners of Western Saharan (Sahrawi) origin, Khallihanna Aboulhassan, Ali Salem Ablagh and Brahim Baryaz, have been on a hunger strike since Feb. 12. They are striking from a Boulhemharez prison in Marrakech, Morroco, in protest of the miserable conditions of the prison and in an appeal to be treated as prisoners of conscience. On Mar. 24, the Collective of the Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA) called on international human rights associations to intervene in order to save the lives of these three Sahrawi prisoners.

The region known as Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1975 despite a decision by the International Court of Justice in that year which upheld the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. Violence between the Moroccan military and the Polisario Front — the independence movement of the Sahrawi people — broke out the same year and continued for many years. Throughout the 1980s, Morocco constructed a series of walls to keep the Polisario military forces out of the occupied territory.

The war between the two sides ended in 1991 with a ceasefire agreement brokered by the United Nations. The ceasefire was contingent upon a referendum being held the following year to decide the future of Western Sahara by popular vote. This referendum has still not taken place and the United States government has done little to pressure Morocco, a close ally, to fulfill its agreement to conduct the referendum. Eighteen years later, the Sahrawi people are still waiting for justice. The conflict between the people and the Moroccan government, though largely forgotten by most of the rest of the world, continues to severely disrupt their lives and society.

The walls built by the Moroccan government in the 1980s separate the occupied majority of Western Sahara from a small territory along its eastern and southern border that is controlled by the Polisario. The walls continue to be heavily monitored by Moroccan troops who severely limit the movement of civilians between the occupied territories, Western Sahara and the outside world.

Most Sahrawis in exile live in refugee camps near Tindouf in western Algeria, just on the other side of its border with Western Sahara. For decades, Sahrawis in the camps have been divided from their families in the occupied territory. The level of expense and bureaucratic negotiation that would be required for these families to visit each other makes most such visits impossible. The refugee camps are located in one of the most inhospitable regions of the world, with temperatures reaching over 120 degrees in the shade during the summer. Despite concentrated efforts by the Polisario and the refugees to improve the standard of living in the camps, conditions there are extremely difficult.

Sahrawis living within the occupied territory have very little freedom of expression. Journalists and political activists are routinely beaten, detained and made to disappear by the Moroccan police. Political prisoners like Aboulhassan, Ablagh and Baryaz suffer terrible conditions in prison. Although the health situation of the three men — who have now been on hunger strike for well over a month — is reported to be critical, the prison administration continues to ignore their demands.

The United States government has a long and regrettable history of supporting repressive regimes for economic and political reasons. It has strategic interests in maintaining its longstanding friendship with the Moroccan government. This is largely because Morocco currently controls the world’s largest phosphate reserves, which are located in Western Sahara.

But the practice of putting its short-term strategic interests before the defense of international law and its moral obligations tarnishes the U.S. government’s international image, damages its credibility and risks creating enmity among foreign populations — things that have occurred all too frequently over the last several years. This practice should be put to an end. The U.S. government must use its diplomatic weight to influence the Moroccan government to conduct the U.N.-mandated referendum under fair and reasonable terms. In the meantime, the U.S. should persuade the Moroccan government to mitigate the conditions of the hunger strikers and their fellow prisoners.

Rebecca Roberts-Wolfe is an LSA junior.