New Internationalist

The longest day

Issue 428

Hunger-striking human rights activist arrives home in Western Sahara. Jeremy Corbyn and Stefan Simanowitz report.

On 17 December human rights activist Aminatou Haidar called off her 32-day hunger strike and was allowed to fly home to Western Sahara without making any concessions to the Moroccan authorities who had deported her to Lanzarote. Her homecoming represents a significant victory for the Saharawi people, whose last taste of real political success came over three decades ago when the Spanish colonizers agreed to leave Western Sahara. That victory proved to be hollow when, in 1976, the Moroccans unlawfully occupied most of the territory.

As the day progressed, concerns about Haider's health turned to excitement as whispers about a resolution to the crisis began to circulate

The month-long standoff that had been playing out on the volcanic Canarian island of Lanzarote between the Moroccan Government and Haidar, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, reached its dramatic denouement late on Thursday night. A day that had started with Haidar’s hospitalization ended with the 42-year-old mother of two being flown home on a special Spanish military plane equipped with medical equipment. Her return followed intense diplomatic pressure involving the UN and the governments of several nations including Spain, France and the US.

Aminatou Haidar has been campaigning for Western Saharan self-determination for over two decades. Her hunger strike had been staged very publicly in Lanzarote airport terminal in protest at her unlawful deportation by Moroccan authorities after she had refused to write her nationality as Moroccan on a landing card when returning from a trip abroad. The Moroccans were insisting that before she could be readmitted, Haidar recognize the sovereignty of Morocco and apologize for having questioned it. This she refused to do.

In the early hours of Thursday morning Haidar had asked to go to the hospital following a bout of severe abdominal pain and vomiting blood. Doctors who examined her said she was severely dehydrated and expressed fears that she could be nearing an irreversible deterioration that could result in her death even if she were to abandon the hunger strike. However, as the day progressed, concerns about her health turned to excitement as whispers about a resolution to the crisis began to circulate.

At around 10pm local time, Haidar was stretched to a waiting ambulance and driven from the hospital to the airport. She boarded the aircraft with her sister, Laila Haidar, and Dr Domingo de Guzman Perez Hernandez, director of Lanzarote Hospital who has been caring for her from the start. The aircraft took off at 10.30pm and landed at Hassan I airport in Laayoune, Western Sahara’s largest town, just after midnight. Her passport was returned to her by a customs officer and according to a Moroccan Interior Ministry statement, Haidar completed the usual customs and police formalities.

Whilst Haidar’s return is a significant victory, the dust will have to settle before independence campaigners can assess whether this debacle has taken them any closer to the long-awaited referendum for self-determination in Western Sahara

At the airport she was met by relatives, including her children, and was driven with them back to her home where Haidar, who had continued to fast on the plane, tasted her first food for over a month. Dozens of her supporters congregated around the house until the early hours of the morning. An earlier larger gathering was dispersed by Moroccan police. With international concern for Haidar building the Moroccans had been under increasing pressure to readmit Ms Haidar. Over the past week alone, statements were made by UN General Secretary Ban ki-Moon, and on Monday Hillary Clinton flew to Madrid to discuss the matter with the Spanish Foreign Minster, Miguel Ángel Moratinos. Ironically it was Clinton’s visit to Morocco in November during which she appeared to implicitly endorse Morocco’s ‘autonomy’ proposal that might have encouraged the Moroccans to crack down on Saharawi activists, including Haidar. After her visit, King Mohammed VI gave a speech in which he branded as ‘traitors’ anyone who questioned Moroccan sovereignty over her ‘Saharan provinces’ and days later Haidar was deported. The quiet diplomacy by the Obama Administration to resolve the crisis might well be a way of avoiding what might otherwise have been seen as a foreign policy embarrassment.

Ultimately a combination of diplomatic pressure, mass mobilization of civil society groups around the world and negative coverage in the media would appear to have persuaded the Moroccans to allow Haidar to return home without having to any concessions. ‘She is returning without conditions having been placed and without apologising,’ said Carmelo Ramirez, president of FEDISSAH, a Spanish Western Saharan solidarity organization.

Whilst Haidar’s return is a significant victory, the dust will have to settle before independence campaigners can assess whether this debacle has taken them any closer to the long-awaited referendum for self-determination in Western Sahara. Whilst the level of international awareness of the situation will undoubtedly push the matter up the international agenda, the bitterness of the dispute will not have done anything to create the atmosphere of trust and mutual respect that UN Special Envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, had hoped to foster when he met the parties for talks about talks in August.

In addition, the personal safety of Aminatou Haidar is far from guaranteed. As well as concern about any permanent damage inflicted to her health by the hunger strike there are also fears that the Moroccan authorities might mete out some form of punishment now that Haidar is back under their control. Haidar has endured over four years of imprisonment and torture in the past and her situation and that of other human rights defenders such as the seven awaiting trial by military tribunal in Rabat, remains precarious. Haidar, however, was upbeat as she boarded the plane in Lanzarote. ‘This is a triumph, a victory for international rights, for human rights and for international justice,’ she said, her face breaking into a smile for the first time in many weeks.

The Moroccan decision to let her return to her family owes a great deal both to international diplomacy, particularly that of the Obama Administration, and to the mass mobilization of civil society groups around the world that made politicians sit up and take notice. It is now incumbent on politicians and civil society to use the momentum generated over the past weeks to ensure that Western Sahara is granted the referendum on self-determination that has been unlawfully obstructed for so long.

Jeremy Corbyn is MP for Islington North and Vice Chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and Chair of the Free Western Sahara Network.

For more information about the situation visit www.freesahara.ning.com

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