2013 Tutu Fellow Catherine Constantinides has written an open letter to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the Chair of the African Union, about the plight of the Saharawi people and their homeland, Western Sahara. The letter was published publicly on the eve of an Extraordinary African Union meeting on Silencing the Guns. It calls for AU action on the illegal occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco and on the military attack by Morocco in violation of a UN ceasefire agreement on Saharawi civilians in November 2020.
Catherine is a board member of the Saharawi Commission for Human Rights as well as a human rights and climate activist.
President Ramaphosa used his opening remarks as AU Chair to put the issue on the table.
He said, “We equally express our grave concern about the current situation in Western Sahara, which demands that every effort is made to facilitate the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.” Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad, Zimbabwe’s President Mnangagwa and others also called for an end to colonization and a revival of the peace process. President Masisi of Botswana said “Africans can never enjoy real peace/security in Africa when a fellow member of the AU continues to endure long years of suffering, turmoil & oppression at the behest of another Member State.” In 2000, Morocco signed and ratified the AU Consitutive Act to put an end to the military occupation of Western Sahara, but the terms have not been implemented.
In her open letter on 4 December 2020 ahead of the summit, Catherine asked for an urgent an firm response to the military aggression and expansionist invasion by an AU member, Morocco, agaisnt a founding member, the Western Sahara.
The letter in full follows:
African leaders are set to meet on December 6th, for the 14th Extraordinary Summit of the African Union on “Silencing Guns”; when the sound of guns seems to make the news again in many parts of Africa, most recently in Western Sahara since the ceasefire agreement was violated by Morocco on 13th November 2020. I am writing to you President Ramaphosa, firstly to draw your attention to this critical situation and also to request your urgent and firm response as the Chair of the AU to this unacceptable situation that involves a military aggression and expansionist invasion from a member state of the AU: Morocco, against a Founding member of the same organisation.
The people of Western Sahara remain forgotten, put aside, asked for patience decade after decade and this unresolved conflict remains a scar on the conscious of Africa and the world leaders who have been seated at the table. The issue of Western Sahara remains firmly hushed into the silent background of both the United Nations and African Union where the status quo has been cemented in place because it serves an elite few who benefit from the occupation by the Moroccan regime.
Your Excellency, as you will recall, the Moroccan armed forces, once again, launched and declared an intentional military attack in violation of the UN ceasefire agreement. Moroccan military attacked a group of Saharawi civilians, who were peacefully demonstrating in a buffer zone, the non-militarized Saharawi territory of Guerguerat, in their own land asking for real peace and a real solution to the protracted-conflict in the last colony in Africa.
This new Moroccan armed attack against unarmed, peaceful Saharawi civilians and demonstrators in the buffer zone has never been condemned neither by the UN and its security Council, nor by the African Union and any of its decision-making organs. An attitude that continues within the same old approach by the two organisations that proved to be ineffective having abused the Saharawis, the region and the continent with a 30-year-old false promise of peace. This silence only served and serves emboldening Morocco in its illegal occupation and immense violations of all human and humanitarian laws in this last colony in Africa.
Three decades later and still a lack of political will from the international community to implement its own international legality, MINURSO, which was tasked to organise and monitor the referendum for the self-determination of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara has been reduced to a strange Mission whose task seemed to have shifted to “facilitating Moroccan traffic and trade” from an illegally occupied territory, through an illegal Breach, opened in a long-standing crime against humanity, which is the Moroccan military wall itself!
Following this new military attack and expansionist adventure through the use of force against a member state of the AU by another member state, the Saharawi government, in legitimate self-defence, declared the entire territory of Western Sahara “including its terrestrial, maritime and air spaces, a war zone”, thus advising all countries and economic operators to steer away from the territory.
This Saharawi response is indeed legitimate, inevitable and relevant since none else seems to have the will or courage to face Moroccan regime to stop it from violating the international law and the Constitutive Act of the AU itself, especially the principles of “respect of borders existing on achievement of independence,” “peaceful resolution of conflicts among member states of the Union”, in addition to the “prohibition of the use of force or threat to use force among Member States of the Union.”
Morocco is not only militarily aggressing the territory of a member state of the AU, it is also committing all sorts of human rights violations against Saharawi civilians with total impunity. Morocco is exercising intimidation, harassment, torture, forced house arrest, beating of activists and those that have taken to the streets to protest in support of the inalienable right to self-determination. Even kids are targeted by Moroccan police. A recent example is Saharawi 12 years old child, Hayat Diya, who was subjected to psychological and physical torture and sexual harassment by police agents who arrested her from her school on the 16th November 2020 in the occupied city, El-Aaiun. Her crime was wearing an apron carrying the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic flag!
Morocco also targets journalists and media activists. They are subject to security and harassment and in some cases they are detained and detained in prisons, because of the broad work of press constraints and human rights in the occupied territories in Western Sahara by the Moroccan security services.
The armed conflict in Western Sahara brings instability to the whole region and uncertainty to the future of the African Union that has so far kept silent in front of all these Moroccan violations, not only of the international legality but also of the AU Constitutive Act itself.
The Saharawi people have been patient, persistent, respectful of their engagements and of OAU-UN’s process and peace plan. Instead of been rewarded with a simple referendum on self-determination they have being stripped of 30 years of their lives, only to be dragged back into an armed conflict because Morocco has once again decided to break his engagements as it has always done with total impunity.
How is it that no African country sought it necessary to condemn Morocco’s behavior? What is the message we are sending to Saharawi people this way?
For all these reasons and many more, I am addressing your Excellency as the Chair of the African Union, and as the President of a nation that has led a bitter struggle against Apartheid, a crime against humanity and injustice, I implore you to push towards urgent action from the AU to end this unacceptable situation. To this end:
- The AU can no longer stand unhinged by this dangerous issue, which involves two African countries and puts in danger African systems and principles. All previous approaches proved not to be enough. Morocco has always managed to evade its responsibilities and violated its previous engagement. The AU should treat Morocco as it is; an occupier and a rebel to the African Union’s laws and principles and should adopt the needed measure to support the Saharawi Republic to regain its occupied zones and embody the slogan “African solutions for African problems.”
- AU should call for Morocco to immediately put an end to its expansionist and colonialist behaviour in Western Sahara, withdraw from the occupied territory and respect its internationally-recognised borders. Morocco’s violation of its neighbour borders is a direct violation of international law and of the core principle of the African Union Constitutive Act, mainly the respect of Borders.
- The African Union has adopted Summit Decisions in 2017 and 2018 calling on the UN General Assembly to set a date for the organization of a referendum allowing the Saharawi people to exercise their legitimate right to self-determination under African and international supervision.
- The African Union, created by our Founding Fathers to liberate Africa, cannot continue tolerating a colonialist and expansionist regime among its members, a regime that is blackmailing and corrupting other member countries to support colonialism and expansionism in Western Sahara. A call for order is needed to stand in the face of this dangerous tendency that threatens the very essence of the African Union, rule of law and good governance.
- The African Union should urgently and clearly stand against the Moroccan violations of the International Human Rights and Humanitarian laws in Western Sahara, and condemn these persisting forms of violence and inhumane and colonialist behaviour adopted by Morocco against Saharawi civilians in the occupied territories of Western Sahara.
- The AU should call on the UN and on the International Committee of the Red Cross to immediately intervene in the occupied territories of Western Sahara to protect and monitor the humanitarian and human rights situation of the Saharawi civilians in the occupied territories, being a war-zone now and as such it must be treated under the Geneva Fourth Convention.
- The AU and its relevant decision-making Organs have a duty towards the Saharawi political prisoners who have been arrested and sued before Moroccan military courts and are serving heavy and unjust imprisonment sentences, including life sentences. Morocco must release these prisoners and should stop violating Saharawi civilians’ rights to demonstrate and express their political views against the occupation of their countries.
- Morocco and few other parties always bring up the issue of Trade and interests as an argument to justify the occupation and violations, yet, the AU, has the duty to support economic co-operation not illegal plunder of resources and occupation. The African Union and South Africa must stand behind ending illegal exploitation of the natural resources of Western Sahara.
Morocco must accede to the legitimate demands and inalienable right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. The kingdom has no valid claim to the territory, Western Sahara remains under illegal military occupation by Morocco, a country that has repeatedly demonstrated its profound contempt for international law and the United Nations, and remains a brutal occupying power.
Let us be clear, this is a war for liberation, Polisario Front and the Saharawi Republic cannot be asked to return to a failed ceasefire agreement that did not serve the legitimate rights of the people of Western Sahara to freedom and took from them 30 years in vain. The time for action is now. This must be the final chapter in the fight for liberation, justice and freedom in the last colony in Africa!
Board Member of The Saharawi Commission for Human Rights
International Human Rights Defender and Climate Activist
Note - also, take a look at some of Catherine's activism about the plight of the Saharawi, including a marathon she participated in to raise awareness of the situation in the country.