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.

http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2014/01/24/a-forgotten-human-rights-tragedy-2/