Keeping the status quo in Western Sahara

On Thursday, the UN Security Council voted to maintain MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission established in Western Sahara in 1991, after the US backed down from a proposal that human rights monitoring be included in any new mandate. The following is an unpublished piece written in Laayoune, Western Sahara in December 2006 about human rights monitoring, or the lack thereof, in the disputed territory. Some of the specific details may have changed in the intervening years but, depressingly, the essence of the problem remains the same…

In Laayoune, a small city more than 1,000 km south of Casablanca, things are not always exactly as they may seem.

Last month, Moroccan identity was proudly on display all over town. On building after building, lone green stars danced on red backgrounds, driven by a desert wind. An even 40 flags on the local waterworks building alone.

Not to be outdone, pictures of King Mohammed VI fuelled the patriotic fervour. Instead of just hanging discreetly behind store counters, His Majesty’s likeness was now plastered on billboards all along the main streets and squares: looking dapper in a three-piece suit, sitting magisterially on his golden throne or striking a fine balance between Saddam menace and Top Gun glamour.

It was a time to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s independence from France and Laayoune looked more than happy to join in the party.

Except that this place was never French and is not necessarily Moroccan.

At least, not according to most maps, it is not. Not according to the African Union or close to 50 of the world’s countries either. And most emphatically not, according to the rebel Polisario Front which has fought for independence against Spain, Mauritania and Morocco at various times since its formation in 1973. By their reckoning, Laayoune is actually the main city and would-be capital of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a.k.a. Western Sahara. And Morocco is the illegal occupier of Africa’s last colony, eager to exploit the territory’s wealth of phosphates, offshore fishing and possibly oil.

Ridiculous, responds Morocco. This sandy strip of land the size of Great Britain is an integral part of the kingdom, only separated from the whole by the wheeling and dealing of imperialist Europe. It was 31 Novembers ago, as Morocco prepared to celebrate two decades of independence, that 350,000 unarmed civilians crossed the border into Spanish Sahara and righted an historical wrong by reclaiming the territory for the motherland. The Green March, as it was called, not only earned its own national holiday but is depicted today on the 100-dirham bill, complete with the green star of the national flag Escher-morphing into a dove: Morocco is peace.

This difference of opinion is why Western Sahara is home to Africa’s oldest UN peacekeeping mission. It is why, more than three decades into the dispute, 160,000 refugees are still waiting in camps across the border in southwestern Algeria. It is why a 2,000 km landmined sand wall, dividing Moroccan-controlled and rebel-held areas, keeps the people in those camps from seeing their families in towns like Laayoune, Smara and Dakhla. And it is why allegations of torture, police brutality, and a general lack of freedoms abound.

A number of international delegations, including one by the UN human rights agency (OHCHR), visited Western Sahara and the camps in the wake of a series of violent protests which took place in Laayoune and elsewhere in the territory in 2005. When the dust had settled, one man was dead and many more wounded and arrested. Some of the perceived ringleaders were sentenced to prison terms before benefiting from royal pardons. But other activists remain behind bars and there has been serious criticism of police action and the functioning of the justice system by both Moroccan and international NGOs as well as the authors of the confidential but leaked OHCHR report.

Morocco, in turn, accuses its critics of ignoring human rights violations committed by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front. Based in the refugee camps, the group functions as the government in exile of the SADR, the state which it proclaimed three months after the Green March. Morocco contends that the Polisario is mistreating refugees and holding them in the camps against their wil, a view supported by the somewhat controversial European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center.

While the OHCHR report’s authors direct most of their criticism at Morocco, they do point out that the Polisario enjoys a political monopoly in spite of the multiparty democracy enshrined in the SADR’s constitution. Moreover, civil society organizations are invariably affiliated with this single party and work in the camps is compulsory and unpaid. All of which is justified by the Polisario as the unfortunate but unavoidable result of life in exile. The report’s authors avoid judging the merits of this argument and simply call for further study of the situation in the camps where, according to a recent World Food Programme appeal, two-thirds of women are anaemic and one-third of children under five are chronically malnourished.

The main message of the OHCHR report is the need to respect the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination, which the UN General Assembly has recognized since the days of Spanish occupation. This concern underlay the establishment of MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission’s French acronym in which the ‘R’ stands for the referendum on the territory’s status that was supposed to be held in 1992. Fracesco Bastagli, the mission’s former head, recently blamed Morocco for blocking the peace process by refusing to risk a vote in favour of independence. He further denounced France’s unconditional support of Morocco and American ambivalence on the issue.

But in the world of realpolitik, Morocco is a precious gem as a moderate Arab nation occupying prime real estate along both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. And in a national address on the most recent anniversary of the Green March, the king argued that tampering with current borders could destabilize the region and create a weak microstate unable to control terrorists and traffickers. Given the disaster that was neighbouring Algeria in the 1990s and the belief of some experts that Africa will be al-Qaeda’s next stronghold, this line is likely not a hard sell in some very significant circles.

In the end, the UN Security Council voted unanimously at the end of October in favor of yet another mandate extension for a peacekeeping mission that has succeeded in upholding a ceasefire but failed to move the parties closer to dispute resolution. What is more, the latest resolution makes no mention of concerns over human rights abuses in the territory, a blow to those who ask that the monitoring of such rights be included in MINURSO’s mandate.

The king is currently reviewing a new proposal that would grant autonomy to the south within the framework of Moroccan sovereignty. For now the details remain shrouded in secrecy but the document should be presented to the UN Security Council within the next few months. What such autonomy will actually entail, in a country where virtually all power rests with the king, is not clear. But in any event, the Polisario wants outright independence. Period.

And so, another November has passed, marking one more year that Morocco has enjoyed independence and Western Sahara has not. In Laayoune, most of the flags have come down and the billboards of the king are gone, replaced by a Superman impersonator peddling financial services. But the thousands of Moroccan security forces, dressed in green or blue or plain clothes, have not gone anywhere. A handful of well-intentioned UN workers continue to drive about in shiny white Toyota 4Runners and Land Cruisers, unable to do anything about reports of disappearances and police brutality. The sand wall still stands. And on the other side, 160,000 undernourished refugees are left to wonder why nothing ever changes.

The Defining Fight of Our Lives

(The following Beyond Aid piece appeared in The Tyee last week with a different picture and a slightly altered title but is otherwise unchanged.) 

There is a saying where Vidalina Morales de Gámez comes from, that you can live without gold but you can’t live without a glass of water each day.

Where she comes from is El Salvador’s Cabañas region, which for much of the last decade has been the scene of a struggle between Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Corporation and those who oppose the planned El Dorado gold project they say threatens already scarce water supplies.

The National Roundtable against Metallic Mining in El Salvador (La Mesa) member found herself in Vancouver this past weekend, six years into her involvement in the fight, standing on the southwest corner of Dunsmuir and Howe, the place her opponents call home, demanding that they stay out of hers.

“For us, it’s so difficult to come here,” she told The Tyee just after megaphoning her message in Spanish to a crowd that organizers pegged at a little under 200. “But they come to our land with such ease and do what they want. It’s unbelievable.”

Taking the fight to Pacific Rim’s turf, even on a Saturday when the offices were closed, was a bittersweet experience for the 44 year-old mother of five. It was a release, she said, but there was also fear.

“I felt nervous because they are watching those of us who are on the frontlines. So there is fear because of what’s happened in our country.”

Among those happenings are the unsolved murders of three anti-mining activists, alleged death threats against others and a multi-million-dollar lawsuit brought before a World Bank arbitration panel by Pacific Rim against the government of El Salvador for refusing to issue the required environmental permits. That legal battle entered a new phase last week.

The buck stops here
Morales’s battle was just one of many providing the inspiration for Shout Out Against Mining Injustice, a two-day Vancouver event hosted by the Council of Canadians “aimed at exposing the appalling environmental and human rights abuses of Canadian mining companies.”

The list of speakers included representatives of mining-affected communities from Chile to Northern Ontario, as well as environmental and human rights activists, a member of parliament and a union boss.

As the name suggests, Shout Out Against Mining Injustice was not about finding a middle ground on which to meet mining companies. Instead, the focus was on building international solidarity among communities affected by Canadian mining projects, as well as with a wider set of environmental and human rights allies.

The day before the Pacific Rim protest, the event kicked off with a demonstration led by members of the Tsilhqot’in Nation outside the offices of Taseko Mines Limited, where the company hoping to establish the New Prosperity mine in B.C.’s Cariboo-Chilcotin region was holding its annual general meeting.

In addition to such direct action, there was much discussion of injustices ranging from alleged assassinations to the destruction of sacred indigenous sites. A recurring theme in such accounts, apart from the depiction of Canadian companies as ignoring the rights of poor and indigenous populations, was the sense — as with both El Dorado and New Prosperity — that even when a government initially says no to a project, the local population cannot rest easy.

Given that three-quarters of the world’s mining companies have their headquarters in Canada, Maude Barlow, the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, called the struggle for responsible mining “the defining fight of our lives.” And a number of panelists spoke of the ways, through investments and pensions, that average Canadians contribute to and benefit from mining profits.

“Your resources fund these companies, so you are co-responsible for legal action against them,” said Silvia Quilumbango, president of the Ecuadorean environmental group DECOIN, which recently helped bring an unsuccessful lawsuit in an Ontario court against the Toronto Stock Exchange for complicity in alleged human rights abuses by the now-delisted Copper Mesa Mining Corporation.

Effecting change
But of course, courts can only dispense justice as defined by the laws they are charged with upholding. And these laws, according to Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP’s Steven Shrybman, are increasingly stacked in favour of corporations.

The main culprit, as he sees it, is the vast and growing global architecture of “pernicious” international trade agreements that have emphasized corporate rights over responsibilities during the past two decades. A “patchwork” of about 3,000 such deals designed to “circumvent the domestic judicial process” has essentially created a de facto multilateral agreement on investment, despite that proposed pact’s apparent defeat back in 1998.

According to Shrybman, there are three potential pressure points for grassroots efforts to push for greater corporate accountability in the extractive sector: the companies, the federal government and the courts.

He advised “monkey-wrenching any dispute that you can,” citing his fellow panelists’ calls for a public campaign to shame Pacific Rim into dropping its lawsuit against the government of El Salvador.

But as a lawyer, he favours a “more systemic approach” than simply going after individual companies. Because he believes that courts can be affected by “noise” from the population, he thinks average Canadians can help “re-energize” domestic courts to take on corporate abuses committed abroad. He pointed to last week’s filing of a lawsuit by a group of Ecuadorans against Chevron in an Ontario court as a positive sign, even though neither plaintiff nor defendant is actually Canadian.

As for the government, Shrybman argued the ideal course of action would be for it to repudiate international trade agreements. But failing that, he sees Burnaby-New Westminster MP Peter Julian’s proposed bill C-323 as a step towards redressing “the grotesque imbalance between the rights of corporations and the rights of the state.”

Culture shift
Julian was also in attendance at the conference to discuss his bill, which is modeled on the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), an arcane 18th century law that has been resurrected in recent years by lawyers trying to hold corporations to financial account for their actions in other countries.

But Julian knows he is swimming against the tide with his proposal. With the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court set to re-hear arguments in a lawsuit brought by Nigerian plaintiffs against oil giant Shell, the ATCA itself could soon lose its new-found potential as a tool for punishing overseas corporate wrongdoing.

More immediately relevant to the Canadian context is the current make-up of parliament. Julian said he was “vilified” by Conservatives for his decision to attend Shout Out Against Mining Injustice. Indeed, in the House of Commons on Friday, Fort McMurray-Athabasca MP Brian Jean said Julian “should be ashamed of himself…Attacking the natural resources sector, he is attending a Council of Canadians conference that actually opposes the mining industry and Canadian companies around the world. The member for Burnaby-New Westminster is spending his weekend attacking trade and our resource sector.”

As a result of the prevailing political climate, Julian said he is not planning to push ahead with his bill “in the next few months,” as he sees little prospect of passing it at present. Nevertheless, he ended his speech with a short, big promise: “We will achieve mining justice in Canada.”

For that justice to extend to her tiny country, Morales believes Canadians may need to change more than their laws.

“In El Salvador, we don’t have the luxury of just going to the corner store or mall to buy what we need. We have to produce it,” she said, looking out a window onto Vancouver’s industrial waterfront, as though she needed a reminder of Canada’s fixation on economic growth. “I think that people here often don’t realize that or open their minds to seeing the world in a different way.”

The Walls of Port-au-Prince

The following is a short, unpublished piece I wrote immediately following the earthquake that hit Haiti two years ago today. My theme is walls because of the physical nature of the tragedy, but Port-au-Prince consists as much of music and injustice, resilience and frustration, as of bricks and mortar. May it come back stronger and fairer than it was, and every bit as brilliant.

When I first visited Haiti as a backpacking student eleven Boxing Days ago, my future wife and I arrived by bus after dark and went to bed without having seen the dimly lit capital. Lying awake in the sweltering, airless hotel room, I spent hours listening to the animals scurrying about and relaying their squeaked messages inside the walls that hugged the bed on three sides.

When we awoke to a sunny Sunday morning and went out for a look around, the first thing I remember noticing was how vocal the walls outside were as well. A giant Wu-Tang symbol. “Aristide or death” scrawled in Creole. Layers of stories.

A decade later, I was back in Haiti, as a journalist this time. And again the walls. As my fixer Lolo and I waited for a ride, I commented on how often I had seen the graffitied name of a certain candidate in the upcoming senatorial elections. “He must be really popular,” I said. “Do you think he’s going to win?” “Nah,” he answered dismissively, “he just pays a lot of people to write that stuff.”

Everywhere the walls talked. Pro-Aristide. Anti-Aristide. Pro-government. Anti-government. Moses. Che. Musicians. Gang leaders. Only Satan and the UN peacekeeping mission received universally bad reviews.

So many walls, even where there was no obvious reason for them. “Sometimes the rich buy up land and put up walls without building anything on it,” Lolo said as we drove through the northern outskirts on another sunny Sunday morning. “Just to keep the poor people from using it.”

The walls also kept people and secrets in. Those shopping or just passing through the heart of the city could forget that the national penitentiary’s blue-and-white walls concealed nearly 4,000 men in a space the UN deemed fit for 438. Inside the cells, rough drawings of women, guns and musical instruments did little to distract from the overcrowding and squalor. In the corridors, the walls displayed officially sanctioned murals and slogans. At the entrance of a three-storey ship-like structure out of whose many barred windows dangled the legs of those lacking the seniority for a mattress, “Welcome to Titanic” was splashed in bold red, green and black. Roro Pascal, the gentle-eyed 26 year-old prison artist, told me UN forces had arrested him four years earlier and he was still waiting to see a judge. “What did they bust you for,” I asked. “Murder,” he said and he smiled sheepishly.

The morning after the rains started up, a radio newscaster announced the storm had brought down a cemetery wall, killing a young girl.

Then, a few months after I left, the walls suddenly stopped telling stories and they tried to kill their city.

From the vaults: Religion and politics in Senegal

At the risk of deviating slightly from my mandate, I’ve decided to post an unpublished piece I wrote in 2007, shortly after covering Senegal’s last presidential election and one of the country’s major religious pilgrimages. I feel that the burning of a Jehovah’s Witness temple in suburban Dakar (in the very suburb where my narrative begins) over the weekend, as well as the recent controversy over proposed constitutional changes in the run-up to next year’s election, makes the piece timely again and I hope it can give a small insight into Senegal’s complex politico-religious culture.

But please do bear in mind the text is four years old, so the statistics at the very least are out of date. For an update on the interplay of politics and religion in Senegal, read this.

Dakar, Senegal – On the western edge of a city and a continent, a green-domed mausoleum sits just beyond the endless pounding of Atlantic breakers. “Sacred place. No sports allowed,” reads a sign in hand-painted French, staking out a little piece of sand for a 19th Century holy man to rest in peace. On either side of the shrine, teams of young boys chasing footballs mirror the ocean’s ebb and flow. A little further, Western tourists loll about in Speedos and bikinis, partially veiled only by a thin salt mist.

In this West African nation of 12 million, a secular constitution combines with intercommunal marriages and cultural traditions – most notably teranga, or hospitality – to foster tolerance and blur the lines separating the estimated 95-percent majority Muslims from the Christian and animist minorities.

“Everybody pretty much practices their religion without worrying about what others are doing,” said Abass Fall, a 40 year-old teacher, fresh from an annual pilgrimage which draws hundreds of thousands of devotees to the holy city of Tivaouane just northeast of the capital. “And during religious holidays, each community invites the other to join in the festivities.”

Senegal may have its share of problems – it ranks below Sudan, Haiti and Zimbabwe on the UN’s Human Development Index and has an estimated urban unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent – but religion is not a major fault line, according to a Western official in Dakar who spoke on condition of anonymity. While he did not know whether to attribute Senegalese tolerance to the influence of the country’s dominant brand of Islam – an unorthodox form in which charms and icons are widespread and the majority belong to mystical Sufi brotherhoods – or vice versa, he said there was no recent history of religious radicalism or fanaticism.

This apparent absence of radical Islam is good news in intelligence circles increasingly concerned northwestern Africa’s porous borders and vast unpoliced areas are ideal for recruiting and training terrorists. But Senegal’s own brand of Islam produces its own set of challenges.

Though a devout member of the Tijani brotherhood, Abdoul Aziz Kébé, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Civilization at Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University, fears the increasing political role of religion in the country may threaten the republican values of equality and legality. He believes Senegal is sliding towards a dangerous situation under President Abdoulaye Wade who was reelected for a five-year term earlier this year. His allegiance and submission to the head of the Mouride brotherhood – the most powerful Senegalese order both politically and economically but second to the Tijani in numbers – is typical of its adherents but when Wade behaves in this way, he is choosing religion over the very constitution that is intended to leave people free to worship as they choose.

“If the president submits to another power,” Kébé said, “he places all Senegalese people under the power of that authority, even if they don’t belong to that brotherhood.”

In the lead-up to last month’s parliamentary elections, a number of media voices condemned Wade’s open patronage of Mouride leaders who have the power to deliver huge numbers of votes to friendly politicians. The country’s much vaunted democracy – Senegal is the only West African nation never to have experienced a military coup – lost some of its lustre due to the opposition’s boycott of the vote. But in Kébé’s view, Wade’s favouring of one brotherhood over the others can have consequences long after election day.

“The impression that one group or another is the chosen people is very dangerous in a republic,” he warned. “It marks everyone else out as the damned.”

Still, it is not just Muslims who feel that Senegalese Islam is for the most part getting things right. Given the country’s demographic realities, Christians benefit from the maintenance of a secular, tolerant society. For now, they do not seem too worried about their lot.

“Fundamentalism gets drowned in Senegal’s culture of openness and respect for others,” said Reverend Gabriel Sarr who leads the congregation at Dakar’s oldest church. But despite the constitution and the fact that Easter Monday is a national holiday and street vendors peddle inflatable Santas and miniature Christmas trees every December, he guards against complacency. “Sometimes a small thing can undo a whole tradition of peace.”