Biology knows nothing of politics

Brian Eno and Stefan Simanowitz uncover the background to the month-long hunger strike of Nobel Peace Prize activist, Aminatou Haidar.

Aminatou Haidar on 11 December 2009.

Anyone who has seen Hunger, Alexander McQueen’s harrowingly visceral film about the Maze prison hunger strike will have some idea of just how horrific it is to die by starvation. Bobby Sands, a fit 27-year-old man, survived 66 days without food. Aminatou Haidar, a delicate 42-year-old mother of two is now on the 29th day of her hunger strike, but with a perforated ulcer and a constitution weakened by years of imprisonment and torture, there are fears that she will not survive much longer. Suffering dizziness and loss of vision she is now too weak to stand and Lanzarote Hospital director, Domingo de Guzmán, has warned that Ms Aminatou's life expectancy is now ‘hours or days rather than weeks’. Listing her symptoms as hypotension, nausea, anaemia, muscular-skeletal atrophy and gastric haemorrhaging, Dr Guzman believes she is nearing an irreversible deterioration which could result in her death even if she were to abandon the hunger strike. But abandoning her strike is not something Aminatou Haidar, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated human rights activist, will countenance unless her single demand – to be allowed to return to her country – is met.

Known as the ‘African Gandhi’, Aminatou Haidar has been on hunger strike in Lanzarote airport since being deported there from her home in Western Sahara on 15 November

Known as the ‘African Gandhi’, Aminatou Haidar has been on hunger strike in Lanzarote airport since being deported there from her home in Western Sahara on 15 November. On 13 November Haidar had flown back to Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara, from New York where she had picked up the Train Foundation’s Civil Courage human rights award. On her arrival in Laayoune she wrote her address on her landing card as being in ‘Western Sahara’ rather than ‘Morocco’. As a Saharawi she has never recognized Moroccan sovereignty over her native land, which has been occupied by Morocco in breach of international law for over 34 years. In the past Morocco has chosen to overlook her numerous ‘landing card protests’ but on this occasion she was interrogated, stripped of her passport and expelled to the volcanic Canarian island which lies less than 80 miles off the African coast.

Spain offered to give Haidar refugee status or Spanish citizenship so she could be allowed to return home but she rejected both options on the grounds that she did not want to become ‘a foreigner in her own land’. According to Human Rights Watch, her forced expulsion breached Article 12 (4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Morocco, which makes it clear that no one can be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter their own country. In addition, by preventing her return to Western Sahara, Spanish authorities may have breached both Spanish national law and Article 2 of Protocol 4 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Article 12 (2) of the ICCPR also stipulates that everyone shall be free to leave any country.

A short-lived victory

On 4 December, perhaps after having been made aware of the legal situation, Spain laid on a private aircraft to carry Haidar back to Laayoune. As she boarded the plane together with cabinet chief Spanish Foreign Ministry, Agustin Santos, it seemed as if Haidar had won a significant victory. However, celebrations among Saharawis and campaigners around the world were short-lived when it emerged that the Spanish had not received any agreement from Morocco to allow her return. In a hastily organized press conference held soon after tearful supporters had watched Haider being stretchered back into the airport terminal, Santos claimed that Spain had attempted ‘to facilitate the exercise of her right to return to her country’ and could do no more. This statement was greeted with incredulity by the Spanish media, and the Zapatero Government has come under increasing internal and international pressure to do more to resolve the crisis. Indeed on Monday 14 December Hillary Clinton arrived in Madrid to discuss the issue with Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos. Last week UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke with the Moroccan Foreign Minister and urged him to readmit Haidar. The European Union has also urged Morocco to ‘meet its human rights obligations’.

The increasingly hardline attitude of Morocco was made very public on 4 November when King Mohammed VI stated that on the matter of Western Sahara ’one is either a patriot or a traitor’

Morocco has taken a firm line on the matter, with Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri insisting that Haidar had ‘disowned her identity and her nationality’ and ‘must accept, on her own, the legal and moral consequences which result from this behaviour’. They have also demanded that she offer an apology for questioning Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the former Spanish colony, a claim that has not been recognized by a single nation and was rejected by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Indeed it was the ICJ’s decision in 1975 that precipitated the mass mobilization known as the Green March whereby hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians crossed into Western Sahara. With Franco on his deathbed, the Spanish had hurriedly signed the Madrid Accords in which they agreed to divide Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for continued fishing rights and partial ownership of their valuable phosphate mining interests.

Still waiting

In February 1976, when the Spanish withdrew from Western Sahara, the Moroccans and Mauritanians occupied much of the territory and the Western Saharan independence movement, the Polisario Front, declared creation of an independent state. A 15-year war ensued between Polisario and the Moroccans, the Mauritanians withdrawing in 1979. The fighting was brutal, with the Moroccans using their well-equipped army and air force to full effect but the Saharawis conducting an effective counter insurgency. In 1991 a ceasefire was declared and under the terms of a UN agreement a referendum for self-determination was promised. Seventeen years later the Saharawi are still awaiting that referendum.

Despite efforts by the international community, the referendum has been repeatedly obstructed by the Moroccans who have remained in occupation of roughly three-quarters of Western Sahara. An estimated 165,000 Saharawis still live in exile in four large camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert, separated from their homeland by a 2,500 km fortified barrier known as ‘the wall’.

‘Western Sahara has had so many martyrs, they do not need another. Aminatou’s death would be a tragic loss to the world and its leaders must act together and act quickly to save her’

There have been many attempts to break the long-running diplomatic stalemate, but it has been the election of President Obama and the recent appointment of Christopher Ross as the new UN Special Envoy to Western Sahara that has given renewed hope to those hoping for a resolution of the conflict. In early August, representatives of both sides met in Austria for UN sponsored ‘talks about talks’ after which Mr Ross indicated that there was reason for cautious optimism. Since that time however, Morocco has been waging a vicious crackdown against Saharawi activists, of which Aminatou’s case is just the latest example. In October seven human rights defenders were arrested in Casablanca after returning from a visit to the refugee camps in the Algerian desert and are awaiting a sentence from a military court in Rabat which could include the death penalty. Some analysts believe that this escalation of repression is an attempt by the Moroccan authorities to scupper UN-sponsored negotiations before they even start. Indeed the increasingly hardline attitude of Morocco was made very public on 4 November when, in a speech that had echoes of George Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ State of the Union address, King Mohammed VI stated that on the matter of Western Sahara ’one is either a patriot or a traitor’.

Haidar’s deportation has been condemned by governments, civil society groups and human rights organizations across the world. Calls for her return have been made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Nobel Laureates, writer Jose Saramago and Timor-Leste President Ramos-Horta, as well as and hundreds of celebrities including Pedro Almodovar, Javier Bardem and Ken Loach, have spoken out on her behalf. The US State Department has issued statements and over 30 British MPs have signed a Motion condemning the Moroccan action. Tens of thousands of people have mobilized across the globe. Through her action Aminatou Haidar has single-handedly raised global awareness of the forgotten injustice perpetrated against her people, but the cost may be high. Imelda Gonzalez, one of many campaigners who travelled to Lanzarote to offer their support, is aware that Aminatou Haidar is irreplaceable. ‘Western Sahara has had so many martyrs, they do not need another. Her death would be a tragic loss to the world and its leaders must act together and act quickly to save Aminatou.’ As high-level discussions take place around the world, Aminatou Haidar is on the brink of death. Sadly, biology knows nothing of politics.

14 December 2009 A shorter version of this article appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free on 14 December.

Brian Eno needs no introduction.

Stefan Simanowitz is a campaigning journalist and Chair of the Free Western Sahara Network. He has recently returned from Lanzarote with a letter from Ms Haidar which was delivered to Gordon Brown by a delegation to Downing St on 10 December.#