Hearing of Petitioners on Western Sahara by the Special Political and Decolonization Committee, United Nations Fourth Committee October 10, 2012 New York, New York
Remarks by Suzanne Scholte, Seoul Peace Prize Laureate
President, Defense Forum Foundation & Chairman, US-Western Sahara Foundation
Thank you Your Excellency Mr. Nelson Messone and members of the Fourth Committee for this opportunity. I am here today expressly for the purpose of calling upon this Committee to uphold the right to self-determination and to help bring about the end of the illegal occupation and exploitation of Western Sahara by the Kingdom of Morocco. The failure of the UN to move forward on the long promised referendum is making the UN culpable in a number of ongoing tragic situations.
First, it has led to the continuing human rights abuses against the Sahrawis in Moroccan occupied Western Sahara. Hundreds of Sahrawis have been killed and have disappeared simply for peacefully advocating for their right to self-determination. At this moment twenty-three Sahrawis in the Moroccan prison of Sale are on a hunger strike in response to the inhumane conditions and ill treatment they have received. These prisoners have been subjected to physical and psychological torture since they were arrested in November 2010, and this abuse escalated in retaliation for the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendezâ€™s visit to Morocco and Western Sahara last month. Despite being civilians, the Moroccan authorities threaten to try these political prisoners before a military court subjecting them to the death penalty.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the World Organization Against Torture, Reporters without Borders, and the U.S. State Department have documented the ongoing violence against the Sahrawis in Moroccan occupied Western Sahara . The United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights has reported that Moroccoâ€™s human rights violations are a result of the ongoing denial of the Sahrawiâ€™s right to self-determination. Most recently, a delegation led by Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center visited Moroccan occupied Western Sahara. The delegation reported that they had â€œwitnessed the overwhelming presence of security forces and violations of the rights to life, liberty, personal integrity, freedom of expression, assembly, and associationâ€ and â€œintimidation and state sponsored violence against critics of the regime that violates the rule of law and respect for human rights and provides impunity for perpetrators.â€
A second tragic result in the delay of the referendum is that close to two hundred thousand Sahrawis have had to live in refugee camps in Algeria, where they have waited since 1991 -- for 21 years â€“ for the UN-promised vote on self-determination. The continued delay of the referendum has forced them to live as refugees in one of the most inhospitable places on earth â€“ the desert of deserts. A whole generation of children has never seen their homeland. Despite these harsh conditions, the Sahrawis have established a self-governing republic and established schools that have led them to become the most educated people group in Africa. They have become a strong member of the Africa Union and the Sahrawi Republic has been recognized by over 70 nations.
But perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of the Sahrawis is this fact: despite the horrific torture, cruel treatment and brutality that Sahrawi men, women and children have faced by the Moroccan authorities and despite the failure of the UN and the international community to uphold their own charters, principles, and promises, the Sahrawis continue to advocate for their rights through peaceful, non-violent manifestations, trusting in the justness of their cause, trusting in the rule of law, trusting in this institution. Furthermore, they have pledged to abide by any outcome of the referendum: to become Moroccoâ€™s good neighbors or to become Moroccoâ€™s good citizens: they just want a chance to vote.
Having visited the Sahrawi refugee camps a number of times, I continue to be in awe of what these remarkable people have accomplished in the most difficult of circumstances. I can only imagine-- that if they do choose independence -- the kind of country a Free Western Sahara will be. It will be a beacon of hope for not only Africa, but people of all religions and ethnicities who will see living proof that you can resolve conflicts pursuing peaceful means and the rule of law. This is why, as we see conflicts spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East where terror, violence and the destruction of human life are used to advance oneâ€™s objectives, there is not a more urgent time for this Committee to act and use its influence and uphold its mandate to see that self-determination is accomplished for the Western Sahara.