Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Friday, December 19, 2008
Population of Polisario-Run Refugee Camps Remain Vulnerable
The repression has eased somewhat, and today dissidents are testing the red lines. But Moroccan authorities - to their credit - ask us to judge them not against their own past record, but against their international human rights engagements. By that standard, they have a long way to go.Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch
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(Rabat, December 19, 2008) - Morocco violates the rights to expression, association, and assembly in Western Sahara, Human Rights Watch said in a new report issued today, revealing stark limits to the progress that Morocco has made in protecting human rights overall. Human rights conditions have also improved in the Sahrawi refugee camps managed by the Polisario Front in Algeria, although the Polisario marginalizes those who directly oppose its leadership.
Human Rights Watch called on both Morocco and Polisario to take specific steps to improve the human rights situation in the territories under their de facto control, and on the United Nations Security Council to ensure regular human rights monitoring in both Western Sahara and Tindouf.
"The repression has eased somewhat, and today dissidents are testing the red lines," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But Moroccan authorities - to their credit - ask us to judge them not against their own past record, but against their international human rights engagements. By that standard, they have a long way to go."
The 216-page report, "Human Rights in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf Refugee Camps," focuses on the present-day situation rather than on past abuses. Human Rights Watch documents how Morocco uses a combination of repressive laws, police violence, and unfair trials to punish Sahrawis who advocate peacefully in favor of independence or full self-determination for the disputed Western Sahara.
"The Western Sahara is an international problem that has been on the back burner for decades," said Whitson. "But through this conflict, the world can also understand and address the broader human rights challenges that remain for Morocco."
In Western Sahara, Moroccan authorities consider all opposition to their rule of the disputed territory as illegal attacks on Morocco's "territorial integrity," and use this as a basis to ban or disperse peaceful demonstrations and to deny legal recognition to human rights organizations. The problem goes well beyond repressive laws, however: police beat peaceful pro-independence demonstrators and sometimes torture persons in their custody, Human Rights Watch said. Citizens file formal complaints about police abuse that the justice system routinely dismisses without conducting serious investigations, reinforcing a climate of impunity for the police.
While Sahrawi demonstrations sometimes involve acts of protester violence that Moroccan authorities have a responsibility to prevent and punish, this cannot justify blanket bans on peaceful assemblies. Moroccan courts have convicted Sahrawi human rights activists of inciting or participating in violence based on dubious evidence, in trials that were patently unfair.
In preparing this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed scores of people living in Western Sahara as well as present and former residents of the Tindouf refugee camps. Both Moroccan and Polisario authorities received the Human Rights Watch delegation, imposed no significant obstacles on its work, and provided extensive answers to questions from Human Rights Watch that are reflected in the report.
In the Tindouf refugee camps, the Polisario Front allows refugees to criticize its management of daily affairs, but effectively marginalizes those who directly oppose its leadership. Residents are able to leave the camps if they wish to, including to resettle in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. The fact that most take the main road to Mauritania rather than a clandestine route shows their confidence in being allowed to travel. Yet, those headed to Western Sahara tend to hide their plans, fearing both official obstacles and the disapproval of other camp residents if their final destination becomes known.
The population of the camps remains vulnerable to abuses due to the camps' isolated location, the lack of any regular independent human rights monitoring and reporting, and Algeria's claim that the Polisario, rather than Algeria itself, is responsible for protecting the human rights of the camps' residents.
"The refugees in Tindouf have, for more than 30 years, lived in exile from their homeland, governed by a liberation movement in an environment that is physically harsh and isolated," said Whitson. "Regardless of the current state of affairs, both the Polisario and the host country, Algeria, have responsibilities to ensure that the rights of these vulnerable refugees are protected."
Human Rights Watch said that the UN Security Council should ensure that the UN presence in the region includes regular human rights monitoring. Virtually all UN peacekeeping missions around the world include a human rights component and, with MINURSO forces operating in a peacekeeper capacity in Western Sahara, this region should be no exception. In this, France and the United States, as the permanent Security Council members with the strongest interests in this region, have a critical role to play.
Among its many recommendations, Human Rights Watch urges Morocco to:
- Revise or abolish laws that criminalize speech and political or associative activities deemed affronts to Morocco's "territorial integrity" and that are used to suppress nonviolent advocacy in favor of Sahrawi political rights;
- End impunity for police abuses by ensuring serious investigations into civilian complaints and, where warranted, charges or disciplinary measures against abusive agents;
- Allow independent human rights associations to follow the procedure for obtaining legal recognition; and
- Ensure that courts reach verdicts based on the impartial weighing of all relevant evidence. Judges and prosecutors should give effect to suspects' right under Moroccan law to demand medical examinations, and reject as evidence any statement that is established to have been made as a result of police torture.
Human Rights Watch urges the Polisario Front to:
- Take pro-active measures so that all camp residents know that they are free to leave the camps, including to settle in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara;
- Ensure that camp residents are free to challenge peacefully the leadership of the Polisario Front and to advocate options for Western Sahara other than independence; and
- Eliminate or restrict broadly worded articles of the Polisario penal code that, for example, criminalize the printing of publications or participating in demonstrations deemed "likely to disturb the public order."
Morocco has ruled Western Sahara de facto since its troops moved in following Spain's withdrawal from its former colony in 1976. Morocco officially refers to the region as its "southern provinces," but the United Nations does not recognize Moroccan sovereignty.
Morocco opposed as unworkable a UN-brokered plan for a referendum on the territory's future and has proposed autonomy for the Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. Morocco has made clear, however, that the plan envisages no rollback of laws criminalizing "attacks on territorial integrity." Thus, Moroccan-granted autonomy will not give Sahrawis their right to demand independence or a referendum to decide the region's future.
"Sahrawis differ on how to resolve the conflict," said Whitson. "But wherever they live, authorities must allow them peacefully to express and act on behalf of those views. Any proposed solution for the Western Sahara that does not guarantee these rights is no solution at all."
Human Rights Watch takes no position on the issue of independence for Western Sahara or on Morocco's proposal for regional autonomy.
Monday, December 15, 2008
God Help Us.
Reuters Catholics pray in Saint Pierre Cathedral in Rabat, Morocco
A new breed of undercover Christian missionary is turning to Muslim North Africa in the search for new converts, alarming Islamic leaders who say they prey on the weak and threaten public order.
Missionary groups say the number of Moroccan Christians has grown to 1,500 from 100 in a decade and that Algerian Christians number several thousand, although no official figures exist.
They say their message is reaching thousands more, thanks partly to satellite TV and the internet.
The Koran states no-one can be forced to follow one religion, but many Muslims believe that to abandon Islam is to shun family, tribe and nation and bring shame upon relatives.
"Many Muslims told me 'If I find you I will kill you'," said Amin, a young man from northern Morocco who did not want to give his full name for fear of reprisals.
Amin said he became aware of Jesus Christ after dreaming that a figure dressed in a white robe approached him in a forest and handed him a Bible.
"When I told my father I had become a Christian he just stared at me without speaking. Then he said: 'From now on, you are not my son. Go to those people, let them feed you and give you a home - we'll see who cares for you'," said Amin.
He left town, stopped his studies and now lives from translation work offered by a Christian missionary group.
Mission groups in North Africa range from broad alliances such as Partners International and Co-operative Baptist Fellowship to small Baptist and Pentecostal churches based in the Americas and Europe, according to their websites.
Their activity is growing as churches turn their focus to places where the Christian message is rarely heard, said Dana Robert, world Christianity professor at Boston University.
"With the internet and the increase in travel, you have a democratisation of missions where anyone who feels like it can go anywhere they want," said Robert.
"The new breed of missionary doesn't have the same historical training as the older established denominations, nor necessarily the cultural training, so there's a bull-in-a-china-shop effect."
Converts recount stories of persecution as evidence of the risks they run.
These are impossible to verify, but one said he heard a newly converted Moroccan was thrown from a balcony in a shopping mall by two acquaintances, leaving him paralysed.
Another said people of a town in eastern Morocco threatened to decapitate a convert unless he renounced his faith.
Islamic leaders say missionaries exploit people with a weak understanding of their religion, target the poor and the sick and try to win over North Africa's Berbers by telling them Islam was imposed on them by Arabs.
"These are unethical methods," said Mohammed Yssef, general secretary of the Superior Council of Ulemas, Morocco's highest religious authority.
"Islam is the religion of God. It is neither Arab nor Berber.
"When people respond positively (to missionaries), it is when they don't have their full freedom," said Yssef.
"Once they recover their normal health and situation, they recover their ability to decide."
The missionaries deny exploiting the weak.
They say their clandestine status means they have to set up businesses or language schools at which converts are sometimes employed.
"Three years ago I began praying about parts of the world that had not taken up the Gospel," said Tyler, a member of an Ohio Baptist church who set up Project North Africa in Morocco.
He said that his work could be disrupted if he gave his surname.
"The goal is to give a clear presentation of the Gospel and address things people might have been told - for example that the Bible is corrupt or that we worship three gods."
He said he was preparing the ground for colleagues, mostly from South America, who would learn Morocco's dialect and seek to set up small businesses to fund the group's evangelical work.
The convert Amin said hundreds of Moroccan Christians gather every year in Sale near the capital Rabat to celebrate Christmas, protected by police.
But the meeting is an exception and indigenous Christians say they worship alone and in secret.
Christian communities existed in North Africa until Arabs arrived from the east from the eighth century, and most of the local population adopted Islam.
Attempts to re-Christianise the area were a failure that came to be symbolised by Frenchman Charles de Foucault, who tried to establish a Christian community in the Algerian desert.
His example of abject poverty failed to inspire the local Tuareg to convert, and Muslim insurgents shot him dead in 1916.
French settlers built striking churches in Casablanca, Rabat, Algiers and Tunis to symbolise their imperial civilising mission but congregations dispersed after independence.
Morocco's government says it practises religious tolerance but the Christian presence is low-key.
St. Peter's Cathedral in Rabat does not ring its bells and churchgoers are all foreign.
Moroccan Christians worshipping there would risk arrest and Archbishop Vincent Landel said he would not baptise a Moroccan convert as it is against the law.
He said US-funded missionaries had made life harder for the Roman Catholic Church in North Africa.
"It upsets everything because all these evangelical converts lack restraint and discretion - they do any old thing," he said.
"And to Muslims there's no difference between a Catholic, an evangelist or a Protestant, so in their minds the head of all the Christians must be the Catholic Archbishop."
One way to heaven
Outside the cities, the visible Christian presence is limited to small communities from Roman Catholic orders that lead charitable work including medical and wealth-creating projects, but avoid preaching.
They rely on smooth relations with the authorities, but in Algeria the climate has soured in recent months after a series of trials against local Protestants accused of proselytism.
The constitution of Algeria, the birthplace of St Augustine, a Berber, allows freedom of conscience but a 2006 law strictly regulates how religions can be practised and forbids attempts to convert Muslims.
"We shouldn't kill one another in the name of religion," Algerian Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdellah Ghlamallah told Liberte newspaper.
"That people come from the US and France to spread ideas contrary to national unity, that's the danger."
A Christian community that employs 70 women making embroidered Berber ceremonial clothes in Algeria's restive region of Kabylie works towards cohabitation among religions.
"We are in the service of beauty which is a quality of God, and that is also mentioned in the Koran," said Sister Elizabeth Herkommer, who runs the project.
Missionaries like Tyler take a more radical line.
"If there is just one way to heaven, it is my responsibility to show it," he said.
"If you had the cure to the AIDS virus, would you not want to take it to the people?"
Thursday, December 11, 2008
A lot has been said and written about the Murchidat, and everyone has an opinion about them.
Here is another interesting piece to add to the conversation. It appeared today on NPR's The World, the link is right here, the summary is pasted below.
Morocco's King Mohammed VI has a new approach for countering Islamic extremism in his country. He's begun enlisting women to be religious guides who preach tolerance and the rejection of violence.
Friday, December 5, 2008
National Public Radio ( NPR ) report on the "controversial" map of Morocco McDonald's put in Happy Meals. Here is the link. It would be nice to get a good article about the viewpoints of the people of the Western Sahara themselves on this subject.
McDonald's Happy Meal Map Redraws Morocco
Morning Edition, December 2, 2008 · A Moroccan subsidiary of McDonald's is apologizing for a map included with a toy in Happy Meals. A small map of Morocco did not include Western Sahara which Morocco annexed in 1975. The region was torn apart by a war and currently is under a UN-brokered ceasefire. Moroccans claim Western Sahara as their region, and when they saw it missing from the map they complained.