I first went to the Western Sahara in 2008 for the Sahara International Film Festival, the only one of its kind to take place in a refugee camp. I went there knowing only a little about the situation in that region, which has been largely forgotten by most countries' agendas and ignored by the media in general.
As is the case with everyone who visits that area, I returned shocked by Morocco's abuse of the Sahrawi people's rights. I only spent 10 days there. Since then, I have been trying to get involved with this issue, and made a movie ("Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony") to try to bring some attention to this largely forgotten situation.
Morocco is a strong strategic North African ally of both Europe and the United States. We know how the world works of course; we understand what is known as "real politik" -- that countries have to deal with other countries whose actions they disapprove of for a "greater economic or strategic interest" -- but I wonder if there shouldn't be something more important than economic and strategic reasons... some moral responsibility preventing us from keeping up relations with countries that violate human rights.
The Western Sahara was a colony of Spain until dictator General Franco died in 1975. Following that, we, a weak and unstable Spain, left the land to Morocco, who invaded it militarily. Morocco took military control of two thirds of the territory. This land, rich with phosphates and fishing banks, is an area now known as the occupied territories. A great part of the Sahrawi population fled to Algeria, where up to 300,000 people now live in refugee camps.
Franco's death was the end of a very dark period for Spain, and the last thing Spain wanted was more conflict with Morocco. Spain to this day has an administrative role in the Sahara, according to the U.N., and even more importantly has a strong ethical responsibility for what happens to the people there. Not only Spain, but Morocco's strongest allies, France and the United States, are also responsible as world leaders and members of the U.N. Security Council. Together, they must put an end to the Sahrawi people's suffering under the Moroccan occupation.
The United Nations envoy, Christopher Ross, has just returned from the region with a report documenting many human rights abuses by Moroccan occupying forces. He has put the two opposing parties -- the Moroccan government and the Sahrawi political arm, Polisario -- together in a bid to hold a referendum as determined by the U.N. peace plan signed by all parties including Morocco in 1991. Morocco instead has been talking about incorporating the occupied territories into a federal state, but the Sahrawi people don't want to be part of a state that invaded and abused them and forced them to give up their resources.
In the occupied territories, it is well proven that Morocco has been abusing the human rights of about 200,000 Sahrawi people. It it is forbidden for more than two or three people to gather in one place; they face widespread abuse in prison, and have no access to a fair trial. These people are living in darkness. Moroccan authorities don't allow any international witnesses or the media into the occupied territories, in an attempt to block any information regarding the human rights abuses in this area.
This month in particular is of great importance because Morocco will hold the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council, despite the fact that it is wrong to do so while the Sahrawi are still denied their human rights.
I fear this will delay the process of resolving this issue. Legally, the Western Sahara has justice on its side, in the way that 2+2=4, so everything that blocks progress must be overcome.
There is another reason to oppose these abuses: after all, the Arab Spring started in the Sahara. Everything is related, and unless this calms down, groups that don't belong in the Western Sahara will be drawn in, and extremism could arise, further complicating the situation.
Polisario and the Sahrawi themselves don't agree with Muslim extremists. They are an advanced society, made up of people who have proven their belief in peaceful resistance, international justice and in the U.N. After all, these people have resisted Morocco's abuses for 35 years with an enormous amount of patience and faith in the U.N. resolutions.
It is clear then that it is in Morocco's best interest, as much as the Sahrawi people, and the international community for this human rights drama to be resolved.
Every country that has a vote on the Security Council should be taking issue with this, supporting Ross in his efforts to bring the two parties together immediately, and putting pressure on the U.S., Spain and France -- the three countries that have the most to say and do about the Moroccan oppression of the Sahrawi people --to resolve this injustice in a fair way once and for all.
The situation is critical at this moment; the region's instability is increasing and the young Sahrawis are running out of patience and may resort to violence out of despair and frustration. It has been proven to be dramatically unfair for many years too many. We should not turn a blind eye to these abuses. No matter what our countries' commercial and geostrategic reasons are, should we continue to allow human rights violations in the name of money?
Editor's note: CNN invited the Moroccan government to give its response to Javier Bardem's article. This is a response by Khalfi Mustapha, Minister of Communication.
Javier Bardem's article presents a biased picture about the situation in the Sahara. It lacks balance and omits information about the Moroccan government's efforts to seek a lasting political solution to this chronic conflict. Furthermore, the article presents a succession of false information which I will briefly analyze in four points.
Firstly, the description of conditions in the Tindouf camps distorts reality and lacks balance. Human Rights Watch published in December 2008 a report on "Human Right in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf Refugee Camps" documenting cases of slavery and denial of rights of dissidents to freedom of expression or the right to return to their families in the camps. Following this report, human rights violations by Polisario emerged, including the case of Mustapha Ould Salma, former official of Polisario, who was denied re-entry to the camps after he criticized Polisario leaders and supported Morocco's autonomy plan, and the case of the Sahrawi artist Allal Najem El-Kareh who was subjected to ill-treatment and censorship because of his criticism of Polisario.
Furthermore, Bardem says U.N. envoy Christopher Ross "has just returned from the region with a report documenting many human rights abuses," but gives no details to back up this claim. Ross's declaration after his visit in fact contains no such allegations, instead, he states that "this conflict must be resolved and I believe that It can be resolved if there is a will to engage in real dialogue and compromise."
Maybe Bardem is unaware of successive Moroccan governments' efforts to promote human rights in the Sahara. In 2004, the Instance of Equity and Reconciliation (IER) received almost 5,000 demands from the Sahara of reparation for past human rights abuses and allocated $72 million to the claimants and for social programs for victims. In 2011 the National Human Rights Council, an independent human rights body, established in the Sahara region three regional commissions, made up of Sahrawi Moroccans, to monitor, examine, report and act on human rights violations like the 10 commissions in other parts of Morocco. This policy has been praised by the U.N. Security Council in its decision No. 1979 of April 27, 2011.
The Sahara is not closed to international human rights and other delegations. So far, 22 foreign missions have visited the Sahara, the latest a group of foreign journalists dispatched by the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF). Before them Juan Mendez, the U.N. Special Special Rapporteur on torture, declared in a press conference at the end of his mission, that "the culture of human rights is emerging but more needed."