Naomi Dann

A few words from Spanish actor Javier Bardem this week incited a diplomatic row that threatens to challenge the tight bond between France and Morocco. At a press conference in Paris last month, Bardem attributed a controversial statement to the French Ambassador to the United Nations, Gérard Araud. He cites Araud, in reference to reports of human rights violations,* as saying “Morocco is like a mistress who you sleep with every night, who you don’t particularly love, but you have to defend. In other words, you avert your eyes.” Morocco reacted like a petulant child, claiming that these words were “hurtful” and “insulting.” Coupled with the strong reaction in Morocco to torture charges filed in France against Moroccan domestic intelligence official Abdellatif Hammoudi, the normally chummy relationship between France and its former colony has had a rough week. French President François Hollande called King Mohammed IV to reassure Morocco of their friendship, but the rift lingers.

The French paper Le Monde, which reported the offensive comment, misleadingly characterized the conflict over the Western Sahara as one between France and Algeria, a common discursive trope that effectively strips agency from the Sahrawi community that has been fighting for its independence for decades. The Western Sahara is a disputed territory that has been under Moroccan occupation since 1975. The Polisario Front, a Sahrawi independence movement, fought a war against Morocco until 1991, when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire and initiated plans for a referendum vote for self-determination that has never taken place.  Sahrawi families have been divided for nearly 40 years between the Moroccan-controlled territory and refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria by war, violence, political stalemate and a 2,700-km sand wall fortified by electronic surveillance, mines and Moroccan troops.

Bardem was in Paris to promote his documentary Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony, a film that aims to bring to light the suffering and human rights violations experienced by the people of Western Sahara. The film focuses on the human rights abuses inflicted on pro-independence activists in the Moroccan-occupied territory, as well as the conditions of life in the refugee camps. Present to speak at the screening of the event was also Aminatou Haidar, a prominent Sahrawi human rights activist and former political prisoner who was recognized by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in 2009 for her work in the occupied territory. 

I had met Mr. Bardem and Ms. Haidar at a screening of the film at the United Nations last year in March. They responded intelligently and rationally to aggressive and angry commentary from a group of Moroccan parliamentarians who showed up to derail the question and answer session before walking out as the film was screened.  The status of the Western Sahara territory is an extremely heated and controversial subject that receives little attention in the United States, despite this country’s long-standing military and diplomatic support for Morocco’s de facto administration of the territory. Despite its rhetoric of freedom and human rights, the United States, like France, has continued to turn a blind eye to ongoing human rights abuses in this region and Morocco’s violations of international law.

Last year, in an unprecedented move, the U.S. proposed the addition of a human rights monitoring mechanism to the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara (MINURSO). France vetoed the addition, despite the fact that this is the only UN peacekeeping mission without such a mechanism. The MINURSO mandate is up for renewal again in April 2014. One can only hope that this incident will cause some French leaders to rethink their previously unchallenged support for Morocco’s occupation and ongoing human rights violations. As one commentator noted, “If Morocco is France’s mistress, what is Western Sahara? The word abuse comes to mind.”

*UN Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez on Torture:
2013 State Department Human Rights Report on Western Sahara:
Human Rights Watch:

Naomi Dann is a senior Peace and Justice Studies major at Vassar College. She is interested in representations of violence and conflict, nonviolent approaches to addressing injustices, and interrogating normative modes of understanding identities, conflicts and the possibilities of political activism.