By Madeleine Bair and Sidahmed Tfeil
Recent video footage from Western Sahara has captured the deadly nature of political violence in the region. In a territorial and ethnic conflict that has taken various turns since the former Spanish colony was annexed by neighboring Morocco in 1975, separatist protesters are demanding that Morocco recognize the sovereignty of Western Sahara, which the UN defines as a non-self-governing territory.
Morocco claims that Western Sahara is an integral part of the Moroccan kingdom and accuses the Sahrawi separatist movement of being a puppet used by neighboring Algeria.
The conflict concerning Western Sahara is the last item on the agenda of the UN’s Decolonization Committee. It is largely under the jurisdiction of the Moroccan government, which has been accused by separatists of systematically marginalizing and mistreating people in the region, particularly those involved in the Sahrawi separatist movement. Human Rights Watch has called for human rights monitoring in all areas of Western Sahara — those controlled by Morocco and those under Sahrawi leadership.
In recent years, separatist demonstrators and human rights defenders have documented police abuses during periods of protest. A series of videos that recently emerged from the area tell the story of a young protester who activists say was killed by Moroccan forces while calling for the autonomy of Western Sahara.
The video above shows a September 23 protest in Assa, a city in southern Morocco where many separatists live. The figure of 20-year-old activist Shin Rashid is circled so that viewers can see where he stood when a vehicle pulled up to the protest quickly before taking off. When the filmer and others approach Rashid, he is bleeding from a rubber bullet wound. According to the uploader and various reports, Rashid died from a rubber bullet wound. In a video apparently taken later that day, Rashid’s mother tells the cameraman her son had been protesting with friends. In her hands, she holds rubber bullets she says were used to kill her son. She calls on the international community to join her in calling for an independent investigation of the conduct of Moroccan authorities, whom she believes are responsible for her son’s death.
Shin Rashid was killed just weeks before UN envoy Christopher Ross visited Western Sahara in an attempt to resolve its long-disputed status. During Ross's visit, demonstrators surrounded a UN vehicle to draw attention to human rights violations and restrictions on free association and expression. Yet even then, authorities reportedly used violence to break up the demonstrations, resulting in several injured civilians, such as this man filmed in a hospital.
Western Sahara is a dangerous place for those filming protests. In practice, the Moroccan government restricts reports that would support or even document the independence movement or criticize King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Because of that risk, those who film social movements do not dare upload them to their own YouTube accounts, but rather send them to third parties, such as Al Khayma Press, Assa Presse and Equipe Media, which often operate outside of the Western Sahara or Morocco.
UN Envoy Ross presented his report to the Security Council a week ago and announced that he would return to the region soon to conduct separate bilateral talks with Morocco and the Polisario Front (which is recognized by the UN to represent the Sahrawi separatist movement).
Madeleine Bair is the curator of the Human Rights Channel, a project of the international human rights organization WITNESS. The Human Rights Channel curates and contextualizes verified video by citizens and activists around the world.
A version of this blog post originally appeared on WITNESS’ blog here.