On 19 December 2009, a 32-day standoff that had been playing out on the island of Lanzarote between the Moroccan government and the hunger-striking human rights activist, Aminatou Haidar, reached its dramatic conclusion. A day that had begun with Haidar's hospitalisation ended with the 42-year-old mother of two being flown home on a Spanish plane equipped with medical equipment. She had made no concessions, and her homecoming represented a significant victory for the Saharawi people, who have been struggling for self-determination in their native Western Sahara for more than three decades - and for the power of nonviolent protest.
Known as the 'African Gandhi', Aminatou Haidar staged her hunger strike very publicly in the Lanzarote airport terminal in protest at her unlawful deportation to the island by the Moroccan authorities. Flying back to Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara, from New York, where she had received the Train Foundation's Civil Courage human rights award, she had written her address on her landing card as 'Western Sahara' rather than 'Morocco'. As a Saharawi, she has never recognised Moroccan sovereignty over her native land, which has been occupied by Morocco in breach of international law for 34 years.
In the past Morocco has chosen to overlook her numerous landing-card protests, but on this occasion she was interrogated, stripped of her passport and expelled to Lanzarote, which lies less than 80 miles off the African coast.
Spain offered to give Haidar refugee status or Spanish citizenship so she could be allowed to return home, but she rejected both options on the grounds that she did not want to become 'a foreigner in her own land'. According to Human Rights Watch, her forced expulsion breached Article 12(4) of the international covenant on civil and political rights (ICCPR), ratified by Morocco, which makes it clear that no one can be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter their own country.
In addition, by preventing her return to Western Sahara, Spanish authorities may have breached both Spanish national law and Article 2 of Protocol 4 of the European convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Article 12 (2) of the ICCPR also stipulates that everyone shall be free to leave any country.
Morocco's hard line
Morocco took a firm line on the issue, with foreign minister Taieb Fassi Fihri insisting that Haidar had 'disowned her identity and her nationality' and 'must accept, on her own, the legal and moral consequences which result from this behaviour'. The Moroccan authorities also demanded that she offer an apology for questioning Morocco's claim to sovereignty over the former Spanish colony, a claim that has not been recognised by a single nation and was rejected by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Indeed it was the ICJ's decision in 1975 that precipitated the mass mobilisation known as the Green March, when hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians crossed into Western Sahara.
With Franco on his deathbed, the Spanish had hurriedly signed the Madrid Accords, in which they agreed to divide Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for continued fishing rights and partial ownership of their valuable phosphate mining interests. In February 1976, when the Spanish withdrew from Western Sahara, the Moroccans and Mauritanians occupied much of the territory, while the Western Saharan independence movement, the Polisario Front, declared the creation of an independent state. A 15-year war ensued between Polisario and the Moroccans, with the Mauritanians withdrawing in 1979. The fighting was brutal, with the Moroccans using their well-equipped army and air force to full effect but the Saharawis conducting an effective counter insurgency. In 1991 a ceasefire was declared and, under the terms of a UN agreement, a referendum for self-determination was promised.
Despite efforts by the international community, the referendum has been repeatedly obstructed by the Moroccans, who have remained in occupation of roughly three-quarters of Western Sahara. An estimated 165,000 Saharawis still live in exile in four large camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert, separated from their homeland by a 2,500-kilometre fortified barrier known as 'the wall'.
Haidar's deportation to Lanzarote was condemned by governments, civil society groups and human rights organisations across the world, and her hunger strike managed to raise awareness of the forgotten injustice perpetrated against her people. But as the weeks went on it seemed increasingly likely that her action might cost her life. In the early hours of 18 December, she was taken to Lanzarote general hospital after a bout of severe abdominal pain and vomiting blood. Doctors who examined her said she was severely dehydrated and expressed fears that she could be nearing an irreversible deterioration that could result in her death, even if she were to abandon the hunger strike.
Crackdown to backdown
Later the same day, news came through that the Moroccans had backed down from their demand that Haidar recognise their sovereignty over Western Sahara and apologise to Morocco's king for having questioned it. At around 10pm, Haidar was taken on stretcher to a waiting ambulance and driven from the hospital to the airport. She boarded the aircraft with her sister and her doctor. On her arrival in Laayone her passport was returned to her and she was taken home by relatives, including her two children, where she tasted her first food for more than a month. In an interview on her arrival she told journalists, 'I will never apologise to King Mohammed. I am waiting for him to apologise to the Sahawari people for their suffering and their torture.'
Ultimately, a combination of diplomatic pressure and the mobilisation of civil society groups around the world was responsible for persuading the Moroccans, normally inflexible on matters concerning Western Sahara, to allow Haidar to return home without making concessions. Morocco had come under increasing pressure with the involvement of UN general secretary Ban Ki-moon, France's president Nicolas Sarkozy and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Ironically, it had been Clinton's visit to Morocco in November, during which she appeared implicitly to endorse Morocco's 'autonomy' proposal for the Western Sahara, that might have encouraged the Moroccans to crack down on Saharawi activists, including Haidar.
After her visit, King Mohammed VI branded as 'traitors' anyone who questioned Moroccan sovereignty over its 'Saharan provinces', and days later Haidar was deported. Quiet diplomacy by the Obama administration avoided what might otherwise have been seen as a foreign policy embarrassment.
While Haidar's return is a significant victory, the dust will have to settle before independence campaigners can assess whether it has taken them any closer to the long-awaited referendum for self-determination in Western Sahara. While the increased level of awareness will undoubtedly push the matter up the international agenda, the bitterness of the dispute will not have done anything to create the atmosphere of trust and mutual respect that the UN special envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, had hoped to foster when he met the parties for talks-about-talks in August.
In addition, the personal health and safety of Aminatou Haidar is far from guaranteed. Doctors treating her remain concerned about permanent damage to her health as a result of her hunger strike and say it will be at least two months before she regains her strength and the 10 kilos she lost in weight. There are also fears that the Moroccan authorities might dish out some form of punishment now that Haidar is back under their control. Haidar has endured more than four years of imprisonment and torture in the past. Her situation and that of other human rights campaigners remains precarious.
Yet activists around the world can take strength from Aminatou Haidar's victory. It has shown that powerful governments, so used to using violence and repression to try to resolve conflicts, do not have a response to a solitary woman with determination in her heart and justice on her side, sitting in an airport terminal on a bench.
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist with a special interest in human rights. He is chair of the Free Western Sahara Network and spent time with Aminatou Haidar in Lanzarote