Yesterday I met with Mohamed Cheikh Ismaili, the brother of Mustapha Salma Ould Sidi Mouloud, a man whose human rights story I have been following for a number of years. Sidi Mouloud’s brother is part of a delegation from the Western Sahara meeting in Washington, D.C., with lawmakers, administration officials and other Americans hoping to bring attention to the humanitarian and developments problems in the Western Sahara. The delegation hopes to bring attention to the plight of Sidi Mouloud and to the needs of the Western Sahara more generally.
The violent separatist Polisario Front demands independence for the Western Sahara, while Morocco (backed by the United States and the United Nations) has offered an autonomy plan that allows for self-rule while maintaining ties to Morocco.
The Polisario holds tens of thousands of Sahrawis hostage in camps in Algeria, where they are warehoused with little or no international supervision. As I wrote in 2010:
This population consists of the elderly, women and children; they are deprived of freedom of movement. They are deprived of freedom of expression. . . .What do the Moroccans want? For starters, they have asked that outside groups be allowed to enter the camps, conduct a census, determine the refugees’ needs, and provide travel documents allowing them to move and exercise freedom of choice as to where they want to live. Algeria has denied this access, however, asserting its sovereignty over the camps. (Because the actual number of refugees is unknown, the Polisario and Algeria are able to inflate the number and, as one expert told me, “solicit and receive excessive humanitarian aid.”)
Briefly, Sidi Mouloud was a police chief for the Polisario. He was allowed to visit his family in Morocco and became outspoken in his opposition to the Polisario. I interviewed him in 2011, where he recounted his kidnapping, detention and torture by the Polisario, which refused to let him back to see his family or his family out to reunite with him. He sought refuge in Mauritania.
His brother on Wednesday told me about the events that followed, a Kafkaesque tale that typifies the United Nations’ less-than useful role in a human rights tragedy.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) is nominally in charge of refugees and is supposed to be charged with assisting them and their families. However, in Sidi Mouloud’s case, his brother told me, “His wife and family are asking for access to him, but there is no solution. Mauritania is not allowing him to stay.” The Polisario will not allow him back in the camps. “The UNHCR us responsible for finding a solution,” he said. But what have they done? “My brother was given three choices — Spain, Algeria and Mauritania. But Algeria refused to accept him. Spain never got a request from the UNHCR. Mauritania is only temporary.” His pleas to the UNCHR to be relocated and reunited with his family have gone unheeded. “There is no explanation. Now he is on a hunger strike, for 32 days.”
His family, meanwhile, was unbelievably told by the UNHCR to go to the Polisario’s Red Crescent for help, a bizarre suggestion given that the Polisario is holding Sidi Mouloud’s family in the camps. This week Sidi Mouloud was transported to the hospital, in serious condition because of his hunger strike.
Welcome to the world of the UNHCR and the Sahrawi people. Sidi Mouloud’s brother said U.S. officials have agreed to write to the UNHCR, but it is unclear whether that will break the logjam.
The problems of the Western Sahara go beyond humanitarian tragedies such as Sidi Mouloud. Dressed in colorful traditional garb but sporting fashionable lipstick, Rkia Derham, a female member of the Moroccan parliament who represents the region traveling with the delegation, tells me, “Morocco has put $147 billion into the Sahara since 1975, but it does not all show up. We would like to have high quality schools, more women in entrepreneurial positions.” While great progress has been made, she says an “all of the above” approve to development is what is required. “NGOs, business investment, trade — all of these together,” she says, are needed to develop the region.
Hajbouha Zoubir, also traveling with the group, is a businesswoman and founder of an association in Morocco seeking to promote women. She describes the major challenges arising from a region ranging from employment to family reunification to security. She calls it a “place on the move.” But she is also candid that this is a work in progress, made more difficult by the family separation at the heart of the stalemate over the Western Sahara.
If this all seems daunting, complicated and expensive, consider that Morocco is a success story when compared to other countries experiencing the “Arab Spring.” In Morocco, reforms peacefully instituted by the king to transition to a constitutional monarchy, reform the courts, upgrade the place of women and attend to human development have been underway for more than a decade. And still the tangled web of humanitarian, human rights, development, political and economic challenges make progress exceedingly slow. The U.N., as we’ve seen, is often less than helpful in attending to the most basic needs (e.g. family reunification). But the question remains whether the United States, and the West more generally, have the will and tenacity to help those trying to help themselves. For if it can’t be done in Morocco, then the prospects for success elsewhere in the Maghreb and the Middle East are virtually nonexistent.