Britain’s Got a “Western Sahara Moment”

Charity Sandblast urges UK action on Moroccan human rights abuses

The increase of reports of violence and human rights abuses against Saharawis in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara has alarmed human rights organisations and activists all over the world. Gordon Brown’s infamous “Western Sahara moment” during Prime Minister’s Questions session on January 13, highlighted the general lack of awareness in Britain about the grave human rights problems afflicting the former Spanish colony. In protest, the UK charity Sandblast has launched an e-petition to 10 Downing Street seeking to mobilize British voices to call on Gordon Brown and his government to put more pressure on Morocco to respect universal human rights principles and stop its abuses against the Saharawi people.

In August 2009, a group of six young Saharawis, who were invited to attend the peace building dialogue programme, Talk Together, at Oxford, were prevented by Moroccan authorities from boarding the plane in Agadir. The “Oxford Six” subsequently experienced severe harassment, beatings and abductions. Then in October, seven well-known Saharawi human rights activists were abducted and arrested at Casablanca airport, upon their return from visiting relatives int he Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria. They are now on trial for treason in a military court and face possible life sentences or even execution. Amnesty International reports that the authorities have been using repressive legislation to force statements, are abusing prisoners and deny adequate legal representation. In November, leading human rights activists Aminatou Haidar was expelled to Lanzarote from her homeland for refusing to identify herself as a Moroccan national. Only after serious international pressure was she eventually allowed to return home 32 days later but has reportedly been under virtual house arrest ever since.

The recently published 2009 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report states “Morocco’s backtracking on rights became apparent to all during 2009. Developments in 2010 will reveal whether authorities intend to reinforce this negative trend or put the country back on a path of progress on rights.”

Sandblast’s e-petition urges the UK, as a leading EU member, to ensure that negotiations due to take place this coming April, on “advanced status” for Morocco in the EU, are suspended until it meets vital human rights criteria. Founding director Danielle Smith believes Britain’s role is crucial and that the voices of British civil society need to be heard loud and clear to ensure human rights and justice for the Saharawis.

Sandblast hopes to collect thousands of signatures by February 27 on the occasion of the anniversary of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, which was proclaimed 34 years ago and is recognised by over 70 countries worldwide. Sign the petition at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/saharawirights

About Sandblast:

Sandblast is an arts and human rights charity that aims to empower the displaced Saharawi refugees through the arts. Close to 200 000 Saharawis have been living as refugees since the 1975 Moroccan invasion of their country. Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in NW Africa. Despite the extreme hardship of their exile, the Saharawi refugee community has managed to build a vibrant, democratically run nation-in-exile, where women play a prominent role in a ll sectors of life, defying many Western preconceptions about Arab-Muslim societies. The Saharawis seek their independence in Western Sahara and have been waiting for the UN to implement the long promised referendum for their self-determination, originally scheduled for early 1992.

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