Western Sahara Human Rights Defender wins 2008 RFK Human Rights Award

Aminatou Haidar to be presented with RFK Human Rights Award for her campaign for the self-determination of Western Sahara and against government abuses and disappearances of prisoners of conscious. The ceremony will take place in Washington, D.C the morning of November 13th, in the Russell Senate Office Building’s Caucus Room.

Washington DC, September 16th, 2008— Aminatou Haidar is the 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate. Ms. Haidar is being recognized for her courageous campaign for self-determination of Western Sahara from its occupation by Morocco and against forced disappearances and abuses of prisoners of conscious. Regularly referred to as the “Sahrawi Gandhi,” Ms. Haidar is one of Western Sahara’s most prominent human rights defenders.

“For me, as an individual, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award represents a great honor. As a Sahrawi human rights activist, I consider it recognition that the cause of the Sahrawi people is just and legitimate and that our non-violent resistance is noble and righteous, in spite of the risks and the intimidation of the Moroccan authorities,” said Aminatou Haidar. “The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award will provide constructive support to the struggle of the Sahrawi people for liberty and human dignity.”

“I congratulate Aminatou Haidar for receiving this honor. All who care about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law for the people of the Western Sahara are inspired by her extradorinary courage, dedication and skilled work on their behalf,” said Senator Edward Kennedy. Senator Kennedy has been an outspoken champion of Western Sahara in the U.S. Senate for over two decades.

Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy will present Ms. Haidar with the 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award in a public ceremony sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy the morning of November 13th, 2008 in the Russell Senate Office Building’s Caucus Room. Stay tuned to www.rfkmemorial.org for details.

Aminatou Haidar has shown extraordinary courage and heroic leadership for human rights in Western Sahara, one of the forgotten corners of the world and the last colony in Africa. Her nonviolent struggle for the freedom and dignity of her people reflects the kind of leadership that Robert Kennedy most admired, and that his brother, Ted Kennedy, has long supported,” said John Shattuck, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, current CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, and RFK Human Rights Award Judge.

Once a Spanish colony, Western Sahara has been under strict military control by the Kingdom of Morocco since its invasion in 1975. The region has experienced an extended conflict between Moroccan military and the Sahrawi (“Saharawi”) independence group, the Polisario Front. In response to the International Court of Justice’s rejection of Morocco’s claims of sovereignty in the region, the Polisario Front, in 1976, proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as Western Sahara’s legitimate government in exile.

In 1988, the kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed to settle the dispute through a UN-administered referendum that would allow the people of Western Sahara to choose between independence or integration with Morocco. The vote still has not been held. A UN-administered ceasefire has been in place since 1991. In 2007, the United Nations began facilitating peace talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front, but talks have stalled over disagreements including who qualifies to participate in the potential referendum and whether full independence is an option for Sahrawis

>Ms. Haidar is part of a younger generation of Sahrawi leaders working through non-violent means to organizing peaceful demonstrations in support of the referendum and to denounce the human rights abuses on both sides of the conflict. Her peaceful efforts have been met with increased police aggression and brutality. In 1987, at the age of 21, Ms. Haidar was one of 700 peaceful protestors arrested for participating in a rally in support of a referendum. Later she was “disappeared” without charge or trial and held in secret detention centers for four years, where she and 17 other Sahrawi women were tortured. In 2005, the Moroccan police detained and beat her after another peaceful demonstration. She was released after 7 months, thanks to international pressure from groups like Amnesty International and the European Parliament.

Since then Ms. Haidar has traveled the globe to expose the Moroccan military’s heavy-handed approach and to advocate for the Sahrawi people’s right to self determination. Her efforts helped change the Moroccan government’s violent tactics for dispersing pro-independence demonstrations. Unfortunately, the torture and harassment of Sahrawi human rights defenders continue behind closed doors.

“The RFK Human Rights Award not only recognizes a courageous human rights defender but marks the beginning of the RFK Center’s long-term partnership with Ms. Haidar and our commitment to work closely with her to realize the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people,” said Monika Kalra Varma, Director of the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights.

For 40 years, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial has worked for a more peaceful and just world. The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award was established in 1984 to honor courageous and innovative human rights defenders throughout the world. There have been 38 RFK Human Rights Laureates from 22 countries to date. The award includes a cash prize of $30,000 and on-going legal, advocacy and technical support through a partnership with the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights. Award winners are selected by an independent panel of human rights experts, which this year included: John Shattuck; Gay McDougall, U.N. Independent Expert on Minority Issues; Ambassador Bill vanden Heuvel, RFK Memorial Board Member and Of Counsel with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan; Makau Mutua, Dean of Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York; Sushma Raman, President of Southern California