UN human rights expert decries “clampdown” on human rights defenders

Morocco must stop targeting human rights defenders and journalists standing up for human rights in Western Sahara, and allow them to work without reprisals, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said today.

Published 01 July 2021

Above: Saharawi human rights defender Sultana Khaya calls on the Moroccan government to stop the siege of her home. Khaya is one of the Saharawis mentioned in the UN communiqué today. 

"I urge the Government of Morocco to cease targeting human rights defenders and journalists for their work, and to create an environment in which they can carry out such work without fear of retaliation,” Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said in a press release today. 

Lawlor highlighted the cases of human rights defenders Naâma Asfari and Khatri Dadda, who have been detained since 2010 and 2019 respectively, and are serving sentences of 30 and 20 years.

“Not only do human rights defenders working on issues related to human rights in Morocco and Western Sahara continue to be wrongfully criminalised for their legitimate activities, they receive disproportionately long prison sentences and whilst imprisoned, they are subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture,” said Lawlor.

"We welcome this strong and very timely statement by the special rapporteur," says Tone Sørfonn Moe, a Norwegian jurist representing three of the human rights defenders highlighted in the statement. “The safety, health and the lives of many Saharawi human rights defenders are at stake right now. My client, Sultana Khaya, is one of those being relentlessly attacked by Morocco' s police. The statement today signals to the imprisoned and persecuted human rights defenders that they are not forgotten can make a big difference. As long as France continues to block the UN mission in Western Sahara from reporting on human rights in the occupied country, the importance of the special rapporteurs is extremely important”, Moe stated. 

Lawlor also spoke out against “the systematic and relentless targeting of human rights defenders in retaliation for exercising their rights to freedom of association and expression to promote human rights in Western Sahara.

Clamping down on individuals and organisations that work for human rights – including those who engage with the UN – “is abominable and hurts society as a whole,” she added.

Mary Lawyer, the current Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders is currently an adjunct professor of Business and Human Rights in Trinity College Dublin. She was the founder of Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. 

Lawlor said she has received reports that human rights defenders working on issues related to human rights in Western Sahara have been subjected to “intimidation, harassment, death threats, criminalisation, physical and sexual assault, threats of rape and surveillance.” If these reports are confirmed,  “they amount to violations of international human rights law and standards, and fly in the face of the Moroccan Government’s commitment to the UN system as a whole.”

She highlighted the case of woman human rights defender Sultana Khaya and her family, who have been prevented since November 2020 from leaving their home in El Aaiún. Sultana Khaya is president of the League for the Defense of Human Rights and Protection of Natural Resources in Boujdour and works for women’s rights and the rights of self-determination in Western Sahara.

She has been repeatedly harassed by Moroccan authorities and lost an eye when attacked by a police officer in 2007. For the last seven months, police and security vehicles have blocked access to the house, preventing the family from leaving, and relatives have frequently been unable to deliver vital provisions. Any time she has tried to leave the house, Sultana Khaya has been threatened and physically attacked by officers. 

In May, the house was raided by Moroccan authorities twice within 48 hours. During the second raid on 12 May, Sultana Khaya and her sister, woman human rights defender Luara Khaya, were reportedly both physically and sexually assaulted by masked officers, and their brother was physically assaulted. A contingent of law enforcement officials continues to be stationed outside the house, without any legal explanation for their presence.

Sultana and Luara Khaya are both members of the Saharawi Organ against the Moroccan Occupation (ISACOM), an organisation founded in September 2020 to advocate the right of non-violent self-determination for people in Western Sahara and to work for the release of Saharawi political prisoners. 

Since it was founded, its members have been attacked and even tortured, and an investigation has been opened against the organisation by the Public Prosecutor in El Aaiún. 

Lawlor also expressed particular concern about the apparent use of violence and the threat of violence to prevent and obstruct women human rights defenders in their peaceful human rights activities.

Lawlor’s call was endorsed by Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Mr. Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and Ms. Melissa Upreti (Chair), Ms. Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Vice Chair), Ms. Elizabeth Broderick, Ms. Ivana Radačić, and Ms. Meskerem Geset Techane; Working Group on discrimination against women and girls.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN body requests Morocco to immediately release Western Sahara journalist

In a recent published decision of 1 April 2024, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention requested the immediate release of the young Saharawi journalist Khatri Dadda.

05 April 2024

The Wolf In Charge of the Lamb

The occupying power Morocco, which sabotages the work of the UN Human Rights Council in occupied Western Sahara, has begun its first session after being elected to preside the Council.  

29 February 2024

​​Morocco elected new president of the UN Human Rights Council

Today, Morocco was elected to chair the UN Human Rights Council. The result generated strong reactions.

10 January 2024

Morocco runs for presidency of UN Human Rights Council

"The credibility of the UN system is at stake", says the Norwegian Support Committee about this week's election of a new presidency of the Human Rights Council. Norwegian organizations are critical of the candidacy.

08 January 2024