12.02.09

Statement On Aminatou Haidar

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, I want to bring to the attention of Senators who may not already be aware, a situation that has been unfolding in Morocco and the Canary Islands.

Last year, I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Aminatou Haidar, called by some the “Saharawi Ghandi”, who received the 2008 human rights award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.  Ms. Haidar is a focus of attention again today because she is on a hunger strike in the Canary Islands after being summarily deported by the Moroccan Government on her way home to Western Sahara from the United States, where, coincidently, she had been to receive the “Civil Courage Prize” from the Train Foundation.

Ms. Haidar is no newcomer to difficulties with the Moroccan authorities.  She was first imprisoned in 1987 when she was a 20 year-old college student, after calling for a vote on independence for Western Sahara.  When she was released after four years, during which she was badly mistreated, she continued her advocacy for the right of the Saharawi people to choose their own future.

Arrested again in 2005 and separated from her two daughters, she led a group of 37 other Saharawi prisoners on a 51-day hunger strike for better prison conditions, investigations into allegations of torture, and the release of political prisoners.   

Since her 2006 release, she has continued her non-violent struggle, which has brought widespread attention to the cause of the Saharawi people.  The United Nations Security Council has repeatedly endorsed a referendum on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.

On November 13th, when Ms. Haidar arrived at the airport in El-Ayoun, she was detained by Moroccan authorities.  She was told that by insisting on writing her place of residence as “Western Sahara” on her immigration form, she was in effect waiving her Moroccan citizenship.  Her passport was taken, and she was forcibly put on a plane without travel documents to the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago located 60 miles west of the disputed border between Morocco and Western Sahara.

She remains there at the airport, separated from her daughters, in the 17th day of a hunger strike, and her health is reportedly rapidly deteriorating.  She has refused an offer of a Spanish passport, insisting that she will not be a “foreigner in her own country”, and the Moroccan Government refuses to reinstate her passport.  She is, in effect, a stateless person.

This is unacceptable.  Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Morocco has ratified, states in part, “Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own. . . . No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.”

The situation in Western Sahara is a difficult one for the Saharawi people and the Moroccan Government.  It is a protracted dispute in which the international community has invested a great deal to try to help resolve, without success.  I recall the time and energy former Secretary of State James Baker devoted to it.  The solution he proposed was rejected by the Moroccan Government.

Morocco and the United States are friends and allies, and I have commended the Moroccan Government for positive steps it has taken in the past to improve respect for human rights and civil liberties.  On a recent trip to North Africa, Secretary Clinton was complimentary of Morocco’s efforts to reach a peaceful solution in Western Sahara.  But the Saharawi people, including Aminatou Haidar, have passionately advocated for the right to self-determination, and the international community, including the U.N., has long supported a referendum on self-determination, which has thus far been blocked by the Moroccan Government.

I have no opinion on what the political status of Western Sahara should be, but I am disappointed that the Moroccan authorities have acted in this way because it only adds to the mistrust and further exacerbates a conflict that has proven hard enough to resolve.  Nothing positive will be achieved by denying the basic rights of someone of Ms. Haidar’s character and reputation, or restricting the right to travel of other residents of Western Sahara, as the Moroccan authorities have increasingly done in the last two months.

In the past, the United States has opposed proposals to extend the U.N.’s mandate in Western Sahara, currently limited to peacekeeping, to human rights monitoring.  The recent crackdown on Ms. Haidar and other Saharawis who continue to insist on a referendum on self-determination suggests that human rights monitoring is needed and should be seriously considered when the U.N. mission comes up for renewal in April.  I encourage the Department of State to review this question and to consult with the Congress about it.

Mr. President, I am confident that our relations with Morocco, already strong, will continue to deepen in the future.  We share many important interests.  But the United States was also instrumental in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and while we sometimes fall short ourselves, we will continue to strive to defend those whose fundamental rights are denied, wherever it occurs.

I appreciate the efforts the Department of State has made to try to help resolve this situation.  I urge the Moroccan Government to reconsider its decision to deport Ms. Haidar, which will not advance its interests in the conflict over Western Sahara.  It should return her passport, readmit her, and let her return to her home and family.

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