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Letter to Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, concerning visit Morocco

20, December 2018

Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume
Special Rapporteur on
contemporary forms of racism,
racial discrimination, xenophobia
and related intolerance
Palais des Nations
CH-1211 Geneva 10
Switzerland

SUBJECT: visit to Morocco to assess racism, discrimination

Dear Ms. Tendayi Achiume,

On December 12th 2018 the United Nations Human Rights Consul (UNHRC) announced your visit to Morocco, a visit that will take place from 13 to 21 December 2018 to examine the country’s efforts to eliminate racial inequality and discrimination. We* are very pleased with
your visit to Morocco to discuss and examine those important themes in a country where it’s urgently needed. As the news item indicates, your visit will include the cities Rabat, Tangier, Tétouan, Agadir, and Casablanca. Unfortunately, none of these cities are located in the Rif
region where discrimination and racism are the most common.

ccording to the Moroccan news source Hespress several advocates for the Amazigh people and human rights organizations in Morocco highly recommended Al Hoceima and Nador, two cities in the Rif region to be visited by the special rapporteur, due its historical and very
bad relationship between the central Arab government and the indigenous inhabitants of the Rif region the Imazighen also known as ‘Berbers’. Unfortunately, we read in the same news source you’ve decided not to visit the two cities in the Rif region. We consider this as a very unwise and harmful decision, we would like to comment more on this point.

The Rif region and its inhabitants experience racism, discrimination, oppression and marginalization by the Arab government for decades. The recent example can be found in the Hirak movement, a movement which can be compared to the Arab spring. During the Hirak
movement many young men, elderly and women were mistreated by the authorities. They were beaten, some of them were killed, others were raped and discriminated for being an Amazigh and demanding social-economical rights. The Rifians in the city of Al Hoceima where
the Hirak movement started, were not able to demonstrate nor to speak up against the injustice of the authorities. Even the women were not able to held a march on the international women’s day. Those who tried to demonstrate were beaten up by the police and
have been arrested.

Not to mention on the 24th of November 1958 when the city of Al Hoceima was declared by the Moroccan authorities as a military zone. Entering the city of Al-Hoceima involves passing highly militarized checkpoints, which makes segregation and disparities justified through
ethnic rhetoric.

We urge you as the special rapporteur to involve the city of Al Hoceima and Nador in your mission. We believe this is the only way to do justice to your observations and recommendations about Morocco’s efforts on Racism and discrimination.

Respectfully,

*Letter singned by: Anzuf; Marokkaanse Vrouwen Vereniging Nederland; The Hague Peace Projects; Syphax Foundation; GroenLinks Amsterdam; New Urban Collective; Bij1; Humanistisch Verbond; SP Amsterdam.

See here the letter in pdf.

A Tribute to Nasser Zefzafi and the Rif

Officially, Nasser Zefzafi was convicted for separatism; documents of his jailing condemn him for being a terrorist, apparently opposed to Islam and the foundation of the Moroccan state. The protestors in the streets tell a different story. They tell a story of a peaceful protest, led by a man whose primary demand is equality for an oppressed minority confined to the Rif region of northern Morocco.

The following article dwells on the people of the Rif (Riffians) and the recent nomination of Nasser Zefzafi for the European Sakharov Prize. It honours the work of the Sakharov Nasser Workgroup linked to the Hague Peace Projects in lobbying for his nomination, and hopes to spread awareness on the importance of speaking up, especially in current times.

 

When the fisherman Mohcine Fikri was crushed to death by a garbage truck in the Moroccan city of Al-Hoceima while trying to retrieve fish that had been confiscated, the population of the Rif area organized what has come to be known as “Hirak” (“the movement”, in Arabic), the seven-month protests between 2016 and 2017 had long been called for. In the wake of the moment, the leader of the movement, Nasser Zefzafi, raised his voice to the population of Morocco:

“What has happened to Fikri also affects us; if we keep quiet today, it will continue. That is why we must go out to stop this.”

What Zefzafi said has now turned to become essential to his own story, and communities at home as well as abroad are raising their voices to change his fate.

 

What are the issues in the Rif?

For a brief period in history from 1921 to 1926, the Rif exercised sovereignty over its own region – its independence, however, was harshly contested by its neighbouring Morocco as well as the colonial powers France and Spain. Arguably, the problems of the region stem from the conflict that followed: the application of poisonous gas by colonial forces, the remnants of which are by some researchers considered the cause for recurring cancer.

Through its separation from the rest of the country, the Rif is slowly dying out. The somewhat inhabitable nature of the Rif has in the past deterred investments, and hence tourism has focussed majorly on regions such as Casablanca and Marrakesh. As public interest in the Rif decreases, so do state efforts to connect the population to the rest of the country, albeit such connection is urgently needed to provide the population with viable job opportunities, cancer treatment as well as other healthcare facilities and access to state institutions. Currently, even entering or exiting the main city Al-Hoceima involves passing highly militarized checkpoints. Given the Rif is inhabited by native Berbers or Amazigh people, segregation and disparities are justified through ethnic rhetoric.

 

Why are prison sentences being issued against the protestors?

As an economic role model in Northern Africa with a relatively stable political situation, the Moroccan government is under pressure. It is under pressure not just to satisfy demand of economic partners such as the European Union, but also to uphold the image of an Islamic country that does everything to satisfy the needs of its population. Essentially, Morocco is afraid of its population presenting the legitimacy of the government in a bad light – the peaceful nature of the Hirak led by Nasser Zefzafi, however, served as a role model for further movements all around the country. Morocco is facing the same phenomenon that is spreading across the world: while parent generations still favour accepting the world as it is just to get by, youth is increasingly unafraid. To the government, facing the innumerable demands of the people seems an unsurmountable task – therefore, the strategy that has proven viable is framing the protests as a public risk that should not be copied across the country.

Fifty-three activists of the Hirak leaders have been sentenced to prison terms ranging between one and twenty years, with more trials ongoing. As protestors assemble in crowded spaces to voice their frustration, Nasser Zefzafi, as the voice behind Hirak, has appealed his sentence of twenty years, with the prosecution  claiming that taking his case to a higher court level will increase the likelihood of a lighter and more appropriate sentence. The appeal case was bound to launch in September 2018, but has dragged on until November.

 

What will become of Nasser Zefzafi, and what role do the people of Europe play?

In 2017, Kati Piri of the Dutch social democrats (PvdA) rallied to raise awareness for Nasser Zefzafi amidst his arrest and to nominate him for the renowned Sakharov Prize for Human Rights and Freedom of Thought. The Prize is awarded once a year, in the past to nominees such as Nelson Mandela, Denis Mukwege and Kofi Annan. In order to nominate a candidate, at least forty Members of the European Parliament must sign a nomination proposal, following which the nomination will pass through various stages of examination. Unfortunately, this first attempt by Kati Piri failed in its early stages due to little knowledge of Zefzafi’s existence by the most Members of European Parliament. In January 2018, what came to be the Workgroup Sakharov Nasser resumed the task of spreading awareness among Members of the European Parliament to bring him onto the list of nominees, and although the Prize was ultimately awarded to the Ukrainian activist Oleg Sentsov, the nomination itself has already shed light in the darkness.

The nomination is even more valuable in the light of Zefzafi’s appeal trial. As an economic partner of Morocco, the European Union enjoys a significant amount of leverage over the future of Zefzafi and the Rif community. When Moroccans living abroad communicated their outrage over the arrest of Zefzafi to Members of the European Parliament in 2017, the threat of more negative backlash contributed to courts’ decisions to hand out sentences of twenty years at most, when even longer and graver terms could have been possible. Of course, the European Union as an economic institution is neither in a position nor willing to focus all its efforts on Morocco, Zefzafi and the people of the Rif. Nor is it, despite the existence of the Prize, its primary role to engage in the promotion global human rights. In fact, the necessity of keeping Morocco a stable trade partner has led to certain groups of the European Parliament such as the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Liberals (ALDE) viewing Zefzafi’s nomination with a critical eye, warning of the consequences that could arise. However, the success of popular lobby in having Zefzafi listed as a nominee shows that with enough willpower, even sentences abroad can be mitigated – with this knowledge and in the context of the appeals case, the citizens of Europe can not miss the chance to continue rallying, lobbying and working towards the reduction of Zefzafi’s sentence. In the light of tightened security and severe restrictions of liberty in the Rif, the population of the Rif depends on the support.

 

 

Background

The Workgroup Sakharov Nasser is composed of motivated volunteers and is loosely linked with the Hague Peace Projects. Although the Rif is largely shut off from international media, and few researchers or journalists can gain access to the area, the Workgroup through social media and personal contacts has insight into the local chaos. In January 2018, the Workgroup began establishing contacts within the European Parliament and succeeded in gathering enough signatures of Members of Parliament for Nasser Zefzafi to be one of the three finalists for the Sakharov Prize. Apart from lobbying, the Workgroup passes on information about the situation to other members of the Moroccan diaspora community and raises awareness among Dutch society for the cause. For more information on the current protests and a historical perspective, the group recommends the book Popular Hirak in the Rif.