The most human of rights
05/05/2009 - by: T.K
Recently, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1871, extending the mandate of the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) for another year. There was much talk before and after the passing of the resolution concerning the possibility of expanding MINURSO s responsibilities to include human rights monitoring in the parts of the Western Sahara currently under the control of the Kingdom of Morocco.
MINURSO is the only UN mission that does not include such activities, as the protection of human rights is one of the most basic and essential of UN doctrines. Unfortunately, France, because of its unyielding support of the Moroccan throne, prevented the inclusion of human rights monitoring in the new resolution, despite calls to do so from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the European Parliament, the Polisario Front, and a variety of other international organizations.
It is both a tragedy and travesty that the UN is not willing to ensure the protection of the Saharawis in the Occupied Territories in the face of well-documented cases of rape, forced disappearances, torture, violent suppression of peaceful protests, unjustified imprisonment, and even deaths at the hands of Moroccan police forces. Both the Human Rights Watch and the European Parliament s Ad-hoc Committee for the Western Sahara found ample cases of these atrocities in the few days they spent investigating human rights in the Western Sahara.
But there is another human rights violation that occurs at a more discrete level in the Western Saharan conflict, and it is one that is not sexy enough to receive coverage by human rights organizations or international news sources. It is perhaps one of the most fundamental of human rights.
Namely, it is the right to youth.
Despite cultural, religious, geographical, or historical differences, young people around the world share similar hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It is an infallible truth that young people desire to be entertained and to build a better future for themselves. For the tens of thousands of Saharawi youth living in the refugee camps outside of Tindouf, both of these are next to impossible.
Western parents often tell their children, "Enjoy your youth, it is the best time of your life."
Here, such advice seems painfully out of place.
"It s impossible for foreign visitors to understand," says Ilmommy, a 20-year-old living in the camp of February 27th. "People come for a week and then they leave, but we ve been here our whole lives."
Meet me at the
As you walk through the streets of the various camps, you can find groups of teens and 20-somethings huddled in the shade next to buildings, sharing an MP3 player or watching pop music videos on a portable DVD player. Friends will gather in a house to watch movies from Egypt, India, and the US, Spanish League football games, or the latest news from Aljazeera. There are a few musical groups, a pair of youth volunteer organizations (the Sumud Brigade and the Freedom and Peace Group), the national youth union (UJSARIO), and occasional celebrations and parties.
But beyond those meager activities, the young people are prevented from leading the lives that adolescents around the world dream of leading. There are no movie theaters, football fields, swimming pools, or places for young people to gather at night.
There are a pair of Internet cafes where, for a few hours a day, adolescents can go to download music, chat with friends from other countries, or read about developments in sports, news, pop culture, and politics, but most do not have the money to do so.
Further, because of the conditions here young Saharawis are unable to escape the watchful eyes of adults. While family cohesion is much stronger here than in many Western countries, what teen does not occasionally desire to leave his parents behind and have some private time with his or her friends or significant other?
Will work for…anything
Perhaps most frustrating for the teens and young adults is the inability to feel productive. The lucky ones are able to find work in cell phone or grocery stores, as taxi drivers, or as camel herders in the countryside. Such jobs, however, are scarce, and so primarily taken by the bread-winners in the households. In is an undeniable fact that young people have an instinctive desire to put their talents to work, to try to change the world around them, to feel that they are productive. Such cravings are motivated by their dreams of a better future and the joys and successes that it may bring.
Thousands of young Saharawis have traveled abroad to Algeria, Libya, Cuba, Spain, and other countries to study, as there are no universities here in the camps. Upon returning to Tindouf, the differences in the two lifestyles are painfully apparent. In a foreign university, the Saharawis are surrounded by young people like themselves, and, more importantly, opportunities. Here, it is difficult to see where their studies and work will take them.
"It is very frustrating," says Tata, a young Saharawi girl from Auserd who works as a reporter with UPES. "The young people here have nothing to do, and they are very frustrated. Very frustrated."
Perhaps most illustrative are the comments of Ana, a French girl studying in England, who has come to the camps to fulfill an international travel requirement for her degree.
"I feel so useless here," confessed Ana, after a week in the camps. "I don t know what I m supposed to be doing here. I don t know what I can do here."
Ana s feelings were completely understandable after 7 days. It is difficult to comprehend what it must feel like for a 22-year-old who has lived her whole life in the refugee camps.
And then there is the identity crisis. There is no doubt among the Saharawi people that they are distinct from the Moroccan population (though the Moroccan crown would has tried to convince both the international community and the Saharawis themselves otherwise), but the young people here have grown up without ever seeing their homeland. They have been raised in a country that is not their own, and their only knowledge of that land is through the stories of their parents and grandparents.
Adolescence is by nature a time of identity crisis, confusion, and soul-searching. Imagine, however, adding on top of the normal anxieties of youth a constant apprehension about whether or not you will ever return home. For this reason, along with the harsh conditions of the Saharan Desert and refugee life, young people are forced to lose their innocence at a very early age.
A few weeks ago, the day after a peaceful protest by over 2,000 Saharawis and foreign activists in front of the 2,500 km Moroccan wall ended in a tragic landmine explosion, a rally was held in the February 27th camp. The majority of the hundreds of participants were under the age of 25, and the expression of frustration was tangible.
"Through our struggle and our arms we will redeem the Western Sahara with our lives!" shouted the young people, among other chants.
Protests such as these are one of the few chances the young people have to express their frustration. As part of a unified independence movement, they know that it is necessary to follow the policies of the leaders of the Polisario Front, but after sitting idly in refugee camps as their adolescence passes them by, they are beginning to lose their patience.
"As you witnessed in the protest this morning, the young people are demanding that we return to arms," said Abdelkadar Talib Omar, the Prime Minister of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in an address after the protest.
"Almost all of the young people want to go to war," admits Ilmommy. "It s better than sitting around in the deserts and wasting our lives."
This simple quote sums up yet another horrible human rights violation in the Western Saharan conflict. These tens of thousands of young people would rather die in pursuit of freedom and a decent future than spend another year in the desert. Is it not the right of all human beings – especially young people – to have hopes and dreams that go beyond dying for one s country?
The Kingdom of Morocco has repeatedly tried to sell to the world the idea that the Polisario Front is trying to keep the Saharawis here against their will, an idea whose absurdity is immediately evident in the camps, where the leaders of the government work, eat, and sleep among the normal Saharawi citizens with no body guards or security. And frustrated as the young people are with their lives in the camps, their dedication to the Saharawi movement for independence surpasses even their own aspirations and desires.
"Of course we are all tired of living here," says Badr, the leader of the Sumud Brigades, "but the older generation knows the horrors of war, and we don t. If they think it is best we don t go to war, we must listen to them."
So by obedience, not by will, the young people continue spending their most fruitful years under the sweltering Saharan sun.
The time is now
The Western Saharan conflict has a simple solution – a democratic referendum on the political future of the territory, which must include the option of independence – but it has been complicated by the interests of major world powers. For the sake of international law, for the future legitimacy of the United Nations, for the Saharawis suffering beatings and torture in the Occupied Territories, it must be resolved now.
But also, the UN absolutely must find a way to enforce the Saharawis right to self-determination so that thousands of children, teens, and young adults can begin to live the youth that has been unjustly taken from them. They are innocent victims of the Moroccan occupation, and the UN and the international community must ensure their right to a decent adolescence.