Human rights are celebrated with restraint in Western Sahara

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 70 years ago. Human rights have been important to many people over the years, but are also under pressure in many places. Not least in Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave all people the right to seek happiness as equals, and the right to fight for freedom and peace against oppressive systems.

“The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,” the declaration states, written as it was in the shadow of the horrors of the colonial era, the Nazis and World War II.

70 years later, the declaration is still a kind of global super-ego, a collective conscience of a world that has not become a better place for billions of people who live in poverty and oppression.

Western Sahara is a litmus test
While we appropriately celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights treaties and the UN system that administers it, we must also remember that they are not without their problems in practice.

Ironically, the prime minister of racially divided South Africa, Jan Smuts, had written the preamble to the Universal Declaration. A man who was wholeheartedly committed to racial segregation and white supremacy, and who had invented the concept of apartheid over 30 years before his successor began to implement it in 1948.

Apartheid has been relegated to the trash bin of world history. But if we fast-forward 70 years and look at Africa’s last colony Western Sahara as a kind of litmus test of human rights and the UN system that administers them, neither the World Declaration nor the UN has succeeded on their own terms.

No freedom, equality or fraternity
The Universal Declaration in principle guarantees all people the right to a life of equality, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and equality of the law and social security, and protects them against arbitrary detention and torture or other inhuman treatment.

”No distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty”, Article 2 clearly states, and Article 13 further says that “everyone has the right to … return to his country.”

But this does not apply to Western Sahara in practice. A so-called Non-Self-Governing Territory where half of the Saharawi population – over 180,000 people – cannot return home and where many have lived in refugee camps in the desert in neighbouring Algeria since 1975.

A colony where freedom of speech and assembly is largely non-existent for the country’s native people, who are subjected to serious discrimination by and in relation to the Moroccan settlers.

An occupied country, where those who peacefully demonstrate for independence and social justice are beaten up, detained, tortured and given long prison sentences.

UN responsibility
Western Sahara is still occupied, to a large degree because the UN and the international community do not act on the words of the Universal Declaration and other human rights treaties, many of the Saharawis believe.

“The UN has a very clear responsibility to play a key role in the resolution of this 43- years conflict. The current stalemate cannot continue. It wholly undermines the credibility of the UN, highlighting a complete failure to organise a free and fair referendum on self-determination and to protect basic human rights. The UN, EU and AU have an opportunity to take a proactive approach in order to resolve this overdue conflict”, says Western Sahara’s Liberation Movement Polisario’s Representative in Denmark, Mohamed Limam Mohamed Ali.

We will celebrate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration, as they do in our neighbouring countries, but we will judge human rights treaties like the Universal Declaration on how they manage to protect the people of Western Sahara, and thus on their strengths as well as weaknesses, he adds.

Human rights must also apply in Western Sahara
There is no doubt that Morocco is acting in violation of human rights treaties such as the Universal Declaration in Western Sahara.

The International Court rejected Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara in 1975, shortly before the Moroccan air force, Moroccan soldiers and over 300,000 civilian Moroccans invaded the country. And since then Morocco, together with the EU and an array of companies, have plundered Western Sahara’s natural resources in violation of the Geneva Convention and the UN Charter.

Over 100 resolutions in the UN Security Council and General Assembly and several UN opinions have clearly stated that the occupation is a violation of international law and should be stopped.

It is therefore long overdue that the UN, EU, AU, international companies and NGOs, as well as you and I, ensure that human rights also apply to the people of Western Sahara.

The Saharawis have fought against the Moroccan colonial power and its plundering of their land and natural resources for over 40 years. First with the barrel of a gun, and in the last 27 years through the UN, the EU courts and by trying to stop multinational companies from selling tomatoes, fish, phosphate, salt, sand and wind power from Western Sahara (that are often labeled as being “from Morocco”).

Let us help them win this battle, in the name of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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