In a letter to the OHCHR, Sahrawi NGOs argue that anti-Moroccan politics shape the human rights approach of Algeria and Polisario in Western Sahara.
Rabat – The latest in a string of blows to the Polisario Front and Algeria, 925 Sahrawi human rights NGOs have denounced the human rights approach of the separatist group and its key backer.
After weeks of European politicians and international experts increasingly condemning Polisario’s dealings in the Tindouf camps of western Algeria, Sahrawi human rights groups on the ground are taking a stand.
Maghreb Arab Press quoted a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet (OHCHR) in which the NGOs detail their support for Morocco and grievances with Algeria and Polisario.
“As Sahrawi organizations operating freely on their soil and in their country, Morocco, we underline the normal nature of the human rights situation in the Moroccan Sahara,” the letter reads.
“What is certain is that we are working in a promising and evolving context and that we also have an area of freedom governed by an evolving, credible, legal, and institutional framework,” it adds.
The Sahrawi NGOs emphasized Morocco’s Autonomy Plan as “a solution that can put an end to this artificial conflict between brothers and safeguard our dignity and our freedom.”
The letter calls on the high commissioner to communicate their observations to the Human Rights Council and the UN secretary-general.
The Sahrawi NGOs state in the letter that they are engaged in “close and constructive interaction” with Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (CNDH). The groups stressed that CNDH complies with the Paris Principles, which are the international minimum standards for effective, credible national human rights institutions.
The CNDH’s regional commissions working in Western Sahara “accompany and support our work to enable all citizens to fully enjoy all their rights,” the Sahrawi NGOs continue in the letter.
The human rights groups went on to underline their positive interactions with national, local, and regional officials. These officials exude a sincere determination to promote and protect human rights in Western Sahara, the letter adds.
Polisario and Algeria have adopted a “contradictory” approach to the issue of human rights in Western Sahara, the letter to the UN commissioner argues.
The Sahrawi NGOs believe human rights have become a political tool for Polisario to deploy in pursuit of its separatist agenda.
Polisario and Algiers espouse anti-Moroccan propaganda while condemning the situation of human rights in Western Sahara, particularly in Tindouf. However, the NGOs point out, both Algeria and Polisario refuse to provide the data necessary to conduct a true analysis of human rights in the refugee camps.
“Do we have to believe that Algeria and the Polisario are more aware than us, the NGOs working on the ground and living with the Sahrawi population, of the human rights situation in the Moroccan Sahara?” the letter asks.
“Is it reasonable to accept, in return, that the population held in the Tindouf camps can fully enjoy all their rights and freedoms?” it continues.
“The attitude of Algeria and Polisario on the issue of human rights is mainly motivated by considerations of propaganda and political pressure in the context of the regional conflict over the Moroccan Sahara,” the Sahrawi NGOs assert.
Parties to the conflict in Western Sahara, such as Algeria, “do not hesitate to increase the attempts to destabilize our southern provinces,” the letter regrets.
The anomaly of Tindouf
Polisario’s tight reign over the Tindouf camps, where it keeps “thousands of people isolated from the outside world for more than 45 years,” is an “anomaly,” the Sahrawi NGOs stress.
The population living in the Tindouf camps “are left at the mercy of a non-governmental entity that exercises its control over these people with impunity, through armed militias.”
A “vulnerable” population “stuck in a no man’s land” where most independent international organizations are barred entry, Sahrawis in the Tindouf camps face a constant threat of human rights violations.
Survivors of such violations have shone the spotlight on extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, torture, and rape. Men, women, and children have suffered at the hands of separatist militias in Western Sahara, the Sahrawi NGOs argue.
Algeria’s justification for the “illegal renunciation of its jurisdiction” to Polisario is “legally and morally unacceptable” they continue. Under international law, Algeria has a responsibility to ensure the protection of human rights throughout its territory. This responsibility, the NGOs underline, belongs solely to the State, not non-State actors such as the Polisario Front.
The truth on the ground
“The truth on the ground cannot be measured by the scale of the propaganda or by the spread of allegations which are promoted within international human rights mechanisms in order to influence, or rather to mislead public opinion” on the situation in the Tindouf camps, the Sahrawi NGOs underline.
Several former Polisario members have come forward in recent years to denounce the separatist group’s human rights infractions in Tindouf.
In June, Hamada El Bihi, a former Polisario member, said that over his 40 years spent in the Tindouf camps, he witnessed the oppression and arbitrary arrests of Polisario opponents and human rights activists.
He revealed that only 20% of the population in the Tindouf camps is Sahrawi. The remaining 80% hail from various countries throughout Saharan Africa. Polisario, however, inflates the Sahrawi population of the Tindouf camps to “perpetuate this conflict and obtain more aid from donor countries and international organizations.”
The Polisario Front then embezzles the international aid to shore up its arms, a practice that has been ongoing for years but only recently began to make international headlines.
Aid diversion in Tindouf
In 2015, a report by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) exposed Polisario’s exploitation of EU humanitarian aid.
The EU granted €105 million for the benefit of the Tindouf camps’ population between 1994 and 2004. The OLAF report found that instead of using the aid to help those in need, Polisario used the funds to purchase arms.
Despite this exploitation being common knowledge for years, the separatist group continues to support its military with embezzled humanitarian aid.
In the face of the EU’s inaction, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are continuing to sound the alarm on the crimes of Polisario and Algeria. MEPs unveiled a draft resolution on July 9 calling for an audit of the European aid to the Tindouf camps.
The Taxpayers’ Association of Europe has also urged the European Commission to respond to the ongoing embezzlement. The federation of 29 national European taxpayers’ associations is calling on the Commission to launch an investigation into the diverted humanitarian aid.
“We urge the Commission to ensure that the Algerian or Sahrawi individuals incriminated by the OLAF report no longer have access to aid funded by [EU] taxpayers,” said the director of the association’s Brussels’ office, Walter Grupp, in July.