Acceptance speech by Student Peace Prize 2009 laureate Elkouria Amidane, given at the prize ceremony, 27t of February 2009.
Published 28 February 2009
Dear fellow students, Ladies and Gentlemen
First, I want to say that I am so touched by your hospitality and the way you have received me here in Trondheim.
Thank you so much for it all.
I am extremely humble when I stand in front of you today. This is a moment, and this is a prize, that I believe I am sharing with all my fellow Sahrawi students, and with all my brothers and sisters from Western Sahara. Many of those Sahrawis have suffered and sacrificed much more than I have. Many Sahrawis have also worked harder than I, and for a longer time. So when I receive this prize, I dedicate it to the Sahrawi students and people.
It is now 33 years since the colonial power Spain left my home country Western Sahara. Instead of independence, we were occupied by Morocco. To this day, Morocco has still not established a single university in Western Sahara. For Sahrawis who want to study, we have to travel to Morocco. There, Sahrawi students suffer from various forms of discrimination.
First of all, we suffer the everyday-discrimination. We are a minority, and professors and many Moroccans make fun of our language, which is different from the Moroccan Arabic. Sometimes, many Sahrawis try to avoid even speaking their own language in public when they travel to Morocco, and if campus is stormed by the police, one can sometimes avoid being arrested if pretending to be Moroccan. We hesitate to wear our traditional clothes, and it is sometimes hard to find people willing to rent apartments to us Sahrawi students.
But also on the academic level we feel the discrimination. We are in effect excluded from several important studies. Often on oral exams, the Sahrawi students are asked whether Western Sahara is part of Morocco or not. If you answer wrong, you might fail. Due to the surveillance and obstructions from authorities, we find it impossible to establish our own Sahrawi student union.
What we demand is actually quite simple. We demand our rights at the university, and we demand our right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people.
I want to just say some very few sentences about what the Western Sahara conflict is all about.
Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco in 1975. The invasion was condemned by the United Nations, and it was brutal. Moroccan air forces bombed Sahrawi settlements, with napalm, and most people fled the country. To this day, a majority of my people still lives in refugee camps in Algeria. Some of the indigenous Sahrawis stayed behind, and live today in the occupied territories, just like me and my family.
Since 1960, when Western Sahara was part of Spain, the United Nations has demanded that a referendum must take place. More than one hundred United Nations resolutions say that the Sahrawi people has right to self-determination, meaning that we, the Sahrawis, should be able to decide for ourselves whether we want independence or not. There is even a United Nations operation in Western Sahara, to implement a referendum. But Morocco refuses to cooperate in arranging it.
And sadly, particularly France and the United States are close allies of Morocco, and they work to protect Morocco both in the United Nations and in the European Union. So while my people has the right on its side, Morocco has the power.
The Sahrawi students choose to work peacefully in defending our right for the referendum that the United Nations promised us. But despite of this, those who take part in peaceful demonstrations are far too often victims of human rights violations.
Important organisations have been very concerned over the human rights situation in Western Sahara. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is one of them. In 2006 they wrote that the Sahrawi people is not only denied their right to self-determination, but equally the right to express their views about the issue, to create associations defending their right and to hold assemblies to make their views known.
Human Rights Watch in December 2009 documented that there are arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, restrictions on associations and meetings, and police violence and harassment that goes unpunished.
In January this year, the organization Freedom House named the occupied parts of Western Sahara as one of the most repressive societies in the world, on the same level as Zimbabwe. Amnesty International regularly issues reports of unfair trials against Sahrawis.
Those who speak out for the Sahrawis' rights, are constantly under surveillance. Tuesday last week, the day before I left to Norway, Moroccan civilian police was hanging around my house. That is the most normal way of surveillance. But it also takes place in many other ways. It has even happened that when a Moroccan student I know was interrogated, the police played for him a conversation that they had recorded, of me speaking on the phone with him. Harassment and beatings are also a normal way of intelligence work. About two weeks ago, two of my friends, both teenage students, were beaten by the police during interrogations, and they were both asked about my programme here in Norway.
When the Sahrawi students manage to finish studies, and return home to Western Sahara, it is hard to get a job. And for those who get one, it is difficult to keep it if you want to be politically active. Many Sahrawis who receive foreign delegations to Western Sahara, are pressured by the police both before and after they receive visits. One of the pressure methods is by making sure that the Sahrawis are left without work, or that their post is moved to somewhere in Morocco. My sister lost her job last year after having met with a foreign delegation. Her boss was forced by the police to fire her. The two people in my small family who were important sources of income, both lost their jobs after pressure from the Moroccan authorities.
Western Sahara is a country rich in natural resources. We have a lot of phosphates, fish and possibly oil. The United Nations has stated that no natural resource activity can take place in Western Sahara if the Sahrawis are against it.
In spite of this, international companies work in Western Sahara together with the Moroccan authorities. The industries give income for the Moroccan regime, it provides jobs for Moroccan settlers, and it gives a sign of political legitimacy of the illegal occupation. None of these riches benefit the Sahrawi people. Only Morocco benefits from this. Sadly, companies from Norway have played an important role in this plundering.
The most serious Norwegian involvement is now in the oil industry. If Morocco finds oil in our land, I think that my peoples right to self-determination will be very difficult for us to achieve. But still, a company from Norway, called Fugro-Geoteam, is right now, at this very moment, looking for oil offshore our land. This can completely destroy our hopes for a free homeland in the future.
The Norwegian company Yara, which is sponsor of this festival, last year paid the Moroccan state 40 million kroners for phosphates that are stolen from us. Yara insists their imports have been legal, despite the fact that the UN say it is not. Yara have still not apologised for the trade and not compensated the Sahrawis.
It would of course be impossible to see Fugro-Geoteam or Yara cooperate with Israel on occupied Palestinian land. So one can wonder why they keep doing it in Western Sahara.
I want also to express my solidarity with the Moroccan people. The Moroccan government has made life very hard for us, but the Sahrawi people have sympathy for the Moroccans. Despite the impression that the Moroccan authorities want to give, there are huge human rights challenges in Morocco. One of the main problems is the lack of freedom of expression. Only during the last 3 years, there have been cases where Moroccan journalists, editors, bloggers, and even politicians, have been sentenced to fines and imprisonment for writing about topics which are illegal according to the Moroccan law.
One of the taboos is related to covering the Western Sahara issue. Basically all information that is written in Moroccan media and schoolbooks about Western Sahara, is wrong. We are all told Western Sahara is part of Morocco, which it has in fact never been. The International Court of Justice has made this point very clear.
I hope that Moroccans abroad, who live far away from the Moroccan media, will open their eyes, and accept the possibility that they on several topics might have been misled by the Moroccan government. We should cooperate in the struggle against oppression and lack of freedom in our countries. It is only through dialogue and cooperation that we can find true peace after the conflict is solved.
I also, of course, want to pass my warm greetings to all Sahrawis in Trondheim and in the rest of the world. Today, the 27th of February, is actually also the national day of the Western Sahara republic. I dream that one day we are able to give our vote in the referendum that the world promised us.
As I said, I am extremely humble when I receive this prize. I only see myself as one of the very many Sahrawis that are working to protect our rights. I therefore find it impossible for me to personally receive any prize money. Instead, I am now looking for a way to have it all given to other struggling Sahrawi pupils or students.
This prize has made it possible for me to speak for the Sahrawi cause to a large international audience. For that I am very grateful to the Student Peace Prize Committee, and to the organisers of the ISFiT festival. Perhaps, it can help to draw the attention to the Sahrawi political prisoners, to the more than 500 Saharawis who have "disappeared" in Moroccan prisons, to the humanitarian crisis in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, and to the international companies that help Morocco plunder Western Sahara.
I would finally like to extend a particular warm thank-you to the students in Norway. The support you have shown us, is so valuable. I remember a letter we saw from the Norwegian students to the Moroccan government in 2007, where you protested against police violence at the University of Marrakech. That really inspired us a lot.
You should know that the statements that your organisations have made over the years make us work even harder. The Sahrawi students are very grateful if you can continue doing this. I hope we can continue our struggle together in the future.
Thank you so much.