Speech by Mr Llewellyn Landers, Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of the Republic of South Africa at the Side-Event on the Applicability of International Humanitarian Law in Western Sahara, on the margins of the High-Level Segment of the UNHRC Meetings, Geneva Switzerland, 28 February 2018
Ladies and gentlemen
We are here today to discuss the applicability of international humanitarian law in Western Sahara. This is particularly appropriate given the tragic passing exactly one week ago today of Mohamed Al-Ayoubi, a Sahrawi human rights activist, from injuries sustained under torture in custody. I request that we all stand now for a minute’s silence for Mohamed Al-Ayoubi and all Sahrawi victims of torture.
In our understanding, International Humanitarian Law has two streams, namely the Law of The Hague and the Law of Geneva. The former pertains to the duties and conduct of belligerents during war. The latter pertains to the treatment of civilians during armed conflict. It is this that concerns us today.
We need to recall some basic rules of International Humanitarian Law. It states, for example, that persons not taking part in hostilities shall be protected in all circumstances; that the wounded and the sick shall be cared for and protected by the party which has them in its power; and that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
One of the principles of International Humanitarian Law is that civilians be treated humanely at all times and are entitled to respect for their physical and mental integrity, their honour, family rights, religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. This principle has been affirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross as a norm of customary international law.
Notwithstanding these rules and principles, we are continually confronted with reports cataloguing the repression of protest action in the occupied territory; the prosecution of activists calling for Sahrawi self-determination or reporting human rights violations; the use of excessive force against Sahrawi protesters; restrictions of the right to peaceful assembly; the holding of protesters in so-called “preventive detention” for long periods; and torture of those in detention.
Mohamed Al-Ayoubi, to whom I referred earlier, was tortured in prison. He was originally detained on 8 November 2010 when the Gdeim Izik protest camp was dismantled by the military of the occupying power. He was tortured through beatings, sleep-deprivation and cigarette burns on his body. He was sexually abused, choked and held in solitary confinement. He was hospitalised in a critical condition for three months. In 2013 he was sentenced to 20 years in prison based on confessions extracted under torture in a trial that was described as unfair by various NGO’s and international observers. Conditions related to his torture included diabetes, kidney failure, hepatitis and a permanently dislocated shoulder. This situation directly contradicts International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law.
In addition to this case and the many like it, other serious violations of International Humanitarian Law include population transfers into the occupied territory; the plundering of the natural resources of Western Sahara; and the dispersion of Sahrawi prisoners in detention centres hundreds of kilometres from their families.
I am pleased to inform you that this past Friday, 23 February 2018, the High Court of South Africa, Eastern Cape Division, ruled finally that the cargo of phosphate on board the vessel NM Cherry Blossom that was impounded in Port Elizabeth last year is the property solely of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
South Africa remains unwavering in its support for the holding of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people. We shall continue to offer concrete support and solidarity for the programmes of the Polisario Front. We will continue to share our experiences in the peaceful settlement of conflict because any further delay in finding a lasting solution has consequences for peace and security in Africa.
We believe that the readmission of the Kingdom of Morocco to the African Union presents us with an opportunity to resolve the suffering of the Sahrawi people. We therefore echo the decision of the Assembly of the African Union taken during its 30th Ordinary Session held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 28 to 29 January 2018, calling on the two member states “to engage, without preconditions, in direct and serious talks facilitated by the AU and UN for the holding of a free and fair referendum for the people of Western Sahara”, and calling on the two parties “to fully cooperate with the AU High Representative for Western Sahara, former President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, and the Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Horst Köhler”.
In conclusion, Programme Director
This year we celebrate the birth centenary of Nelson Mandela, a freedom fighter who was the embodiment of human rights. In his statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Pretoria Supreme Court on 20 April 1964, Nelson Mandela stated: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
34 years later, in his final speech to the General Assembly as President of South Africa on 21 September 1998, Nelson Mandela stated: “We look forward to the resolution of the outstanding issues of Western Sahara and East-Timor, convinced that it is possible to take these matters off the world agenda on the basis of settlements that meet the interests of all the peoples concerned”.
Let us therefore work with renewed commitment and vigour to bring violations of International Humanitarian Law in Western Sahara to an end; let us work to relieve the suffering of the Sahrawi people and restore their human dignity; and let us take decisive steps to close the chapter on this last vestige of occupation and colonialism on the African continent.
I thank you.
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