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.
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. 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 constitution that it also applies to the territory. During the year Morocco began to implement its “advanced regionalization” plan, devolving certain budgetary and decision-making powers to locally elected bodies, including in the provinces of Western Sahara. This also allowed for the direct election of certain local and regional government officials for the first time. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces. For more details, see the 2015 Morocco Human Rights Report.
There has been no census since the Spanish left the territory in 1975. Observers estimated the population to be more than 500,000 persons, many of whom were attributable to Moroccan immigration; local observers estimated the indigenous, ethnic Sahrawis constituted approximately 25 percent of the population. Sahrawis (“people of the desert” in Arabic) also live in southern Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania.
The territory has three provinces. In 1975 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 (MINURSO), whose mandate does not include human rights monitoring. In the late 1980s, Morocco completed the construction of a stone and sand wall approximately 1,690 miles long 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 yet taken place. The parties did not resolve disagreements about voter eligibility and which options for self-determination the ballot should include--integration, independence, or something in between. 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. Since 2009 the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, has facilitated the negotiations. 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 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 pro-independence 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 internationally recognized territories of Morocco: citizens’ lack of the ability to change the constitutional provisions establishing the monarchical form of government, security forces’ reported torture and ill-treatment of persons arrested and imprisoned; the use of arbitrary and prolonged detention to quell dissent; corruption in all branches of government, harassment of journalists and human rights activists focusing on issues sensitive to the Moroccan 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 to pro-independence associations. Because of these restrictions, associations could not establish offices, recruit members, collect donations, or visit Saharan pro-independence activists or POLISARIO separatists detained in facilities in Morocco.
Widespread impunity existed. 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 within the government in Western Sahara.