Morocco claims the Western Sahara territory and administers Moroccan law through Moroccan institutions in the estimated 85 percent of the territory it controls. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario), an organization that has sought independence for the former Spanish territory since 1973, disputes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory.
There has been no census since the Spanish left the territory, but the population was estimated to be more than 500,000, many of whom were attributable to Moroccan in-migration. The indigenous population is Sahrawi, (literally “people of the desert” in Arabic) who also live in southern Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania.
The Moroccan government sent troops and civilians into the northern two provinces after Spain withdrew in 1975 and extended its administration to the third province after Mauritania renounced its claim in 1979. Moroccan and Polisario forces fought intermittently from 1975 until a 1991 ceasefire and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping contingent, the UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara, whose mandate does not include human rights monitoring. In the late 1980s, Morocco constructed an approximately 1,690-mile stone and sand wall known as the “berm” that effectively marks the limit of its administrative control.
In 1988 Morocco and the Polisario agreed to settle the sovereignty dispute by referendum. The parties did not resolve disagreements over voter eligibility and which options for self-determination (integration, independence, or something in between) should be on the ballot; consequently, a referendum has not taken place. Since 2007 there have been various attempts to broker a solution in face-to-face negotiations between representatives of the two sides under UN auspices, most recently facilitated by the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for the Western Sahara, Christopher Ross. Morocco has proposed autonomy for the territory within the kingdom; the Polisario has proposed a referendum in which full independence would be an option. During a ninth round of informal talks held March 11-13 in Manhassett, New York, each side maintained its position, as in previous rounds, unwilling to enter into negotiation.
Morocco considers the part of the territory that it administers to be an integral component of the kingdom with the same laws and structures conditioning the exercise of civil liberties and political and economic rights. Security forces reported to civilian authorities. Under the constitution ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI who presides over the Council of Ministers and approves members of the government recommended to him by the prime minister. In July 2011 Moroccans adopted a new constitution that was applied to the Western Sahara. (For additional information on developments in Morocco, see the 2012 Morocco Human Rights Report.) Nine parliamentarians were elected in November 2011 to represent the Western Sahara in the upper and lower houses of the Moroccan parliament.
The most important human rights problems specific to Western Sahara were Moroccan government restriction on proindependence views and associations; otherwise, overall human rights conditions in the territory converged with those in the kingdom. Several long-standing human rights problems related to proindependence activity, including limitations on the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, the use of arbitrary and prolonged detention to quell dissent, and physical and verbal abuse of detainees during arrests and imprisonment. Authorities also continued to deny formal registration to proindependence associations. As a result these associations were not able to establish offices, recruit members, collect donations, or visit imprisoned Saharan proindependence activists or Polisario separatists.
Widespread impunity existed, absent prosecutions of human rights abuses. Sahrawi human rights organizations claimed that the majority of police and other officials accused of torture remained in positions of authority. Widespread corruption continued among security forces and the judiciary.