The Kingdom of 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 in 1975, but the population was estimated to be more than 500,000 persons, many of whom were attributable to Moroccan immigration. The indigenous population is Sahrawi (“people of the desert” in Arabic), who also live in southern Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania.
The territory has three provinces. The Moroccan government sent troops and civilians into the northern two provinces after Spain withdrew 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 cease-fire 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 completed the construction of 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, which has not taken place. 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. The POLISARIO proposed a referendum in which full independence would be an option. Morocco proposed autonomy for the territory within the kingdom. Since 2007 there have been various unsuccessful attempts to broker a solution in face-to-face negotiations between representatives of the two sides under UN auspices. The latest round has been facilitated by the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, since 2009. After many rounds of informal talks between the two sides failed to yield results, Ross began a period of shuttle diplomacy, which yielded no evident progress by year’s end.
Morocco considered 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 2011 Morocco adopted a new constitution that it also applies to the territory.
Morocco administered the 85 percent of the territory it controlled. Principal human rights concerns in the territory were government restrictions on the civil liberties and political rights of proindependence advocates; limitations on the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association; and the use of arbitrary and prolonged detention to quell dissent.
Other human rights concerns were the same as those in the kingdom: citizens’ lack of the ability to change the constitutional provisions establishing the monarchical form of government, corruption in all branches of government, and widespread disregard for the rule of law by security forces. Authorities physically and verbally abused detainees during arrest and imprisonment and continued to deny recognition of proindependence associations. As a result these associations could not establish offices, recruit members, collect donations, or visit Saharan proindependence activists or POLISARIO separatists detained in facilities in Morocco.
Widespread impunity existed, and there were no prosecutions of human rights abusers. Sahrawi human rights organizations claimed that the majority of police and other officials accused of torture remained in positions of authority. There were no reports of investigations or punishment of abuse or corruption among police and security services.