Western Sahara * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Western Sahara *

Western Sahara *

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Prospects for a long-awaited United Nations-sponsored referendum on the future of Western Sahara dimmed in 2001 as UN envoy James Baker proposed a plan to give the territory five years of limited autonomy within Morocco. The separatist Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario) rejected the plan and continued to call for a referendum. Tensions rose during the year, as Morocco took several opportunities to assert its authority over Western Sahara and Polisario leaders announced their willingness to retun to war.

Morocco and Mauritania partitioned Western Sahara in 1976 under a tripartite agreement with Spain, which had ruled the territory as a colony for 92 years. The Algerianbased Polisario opposed the partition with guerrilla units recruited largely from nomadic tribes indigenous to the region. The weaker of the two occupying forces, Mauritania signed a peace agreement with the Polisario in 1979, prompting Morocco to seize Mauritania's section of the territory.

The Polisario continued its guerrilla war against Morocco until 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire and set up the Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to oversee the details of an independence referendum. Since then, the referendum has been blocked by disputes over who will be allowed to vote. As MINURSO has worked to identify and register eligible voters, Morocco has been accused of padding voter lists with its own citizens in order to influence the referendum result.

With the referendum on hold and refugee and security issues still unsettled, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan sent Baker to mediate talks between Polisario and Moroccan officials in 1997. In June 2001, Baker proposed offering Sahrawis limited autonomy within Morocco for a period of five years. Sahrawis would gain control over their economic and social affairs and law enforcement, while leaving defense, foreign affairs, and currency to Morocco. The plan includes the establishment of an executive to run Western Sahara's internal affairs and an assembly elected by the current adult population of the territory. The relationship between the executive and the assembly would be determined through negotiations, and it is unclear what kind of permanent settlement would be reached after the five-year interim period. Morocco agreed to the plan, but the Polisario rejected it and accused Baker of plotting to prevent the referendum.

Polisario sentiments became inflamed in January 2001, when the French organizers of the annual Paris to Dakar (Senegal) motor rally sought to route the event through Western Sahara without obtaining permission from the Polisario. The Sahrawi foreign minister called the move an act of war and announced that the Polisario was no longer bound by the 1991 ceasefire because "Morocco does not want a referendum." The rally crossed Western Sahara without incident, but during the year, Polisario officials were angered by what they called provocative moves by Morocco, including Morocco's signing of deals with French and U.S. oil companies allowing for exploration off the coast of Western Sahara, and a visit by King Mohammad of Morocco to the territory in November. French President Jacques Chirac sparked further anger in December, when he publicly referred to Western Sahara as the "southern provinces of Morocco." Still, analysts call any resumption of the guerrilla war unlikely because of U.S. pressure on Algeria to withhold the necessary support to the Polisario. The United States has also threatened to cut funding to MINURSO if a settlement is not reached soon.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Sahrawis have never been allowed to elect their own government. The four provinces of Western Sahara have held local elections organized and controlled by the Moroccan government, and pro-Moroccan Sahrawis fill the seats reserved for Western Sahara in the Moroccan legislature. About 165,000 civilian Sahrawi refugees and Polisario rebels live in four refugee camps in the desert outside Tindouf, Algeria. Called the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the territory has its own constitution, army, police force, national anthem, flag, and embassies in several countries. In June 2001, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN World Food Organization urgently appealed for funds to feed Sahrawis in Tindouf, who are dependent on tenuous supplies from donors.

Sahrawis are subject to Moroccan law. Since inheriting the Moroccan throne in July 1999, King Mohammad has tried to win the support of Sahrawis. He established an advisory council on the territory and set up a fund to finance projects in Western Sahara aimed at easing unemployment and other social problems. He also fired his interior minister, a long-time loyalist of former King Hassan, who was responsible for the brutal administration of Western Sahara. Human rights groups report greater freedom from repression, but arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, and torture by Moroccan security forces continue. The legal maximum limit of 72 hours for incommunicado detention is not always respected. Amnesty International cites numerous cases of political prisoners detained for years following unfair trials, including that of Mohamed Daddach, a Sahrawi who has been in prison since 1979 for attempting to desert the Moroccan security forces, into which he had reportedly been forcibly enlisted. King Mohammad announced an amnesty for 56 Sahrawi prisoners.

Torture and other abuses by Polisario forces, including arbitrary killing, have been reported. However, verification of these reports is difficult because of scant access to areas under Polisario control. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Polisario holds 1,496 Moroccan prisoners of war in six centers in Tindouf, Algeria, and in Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara. Most of these prisoners have been held for at least 20 years. Four ICRC delegates visited 796 of the prisoners in May 2001 to assess health and living conditions. They called for the immediate release of the prisoners.

More than 900 people disappeared at the hands of Moroccan security forces between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s. Though the government has released hundreds of Sahrawis after keeping them for years in secret detention centers, some 450 more remain unaccounted for. Another 70 are known by international human rights groups to have died in detention, but their deaths have not been acknowledged by the government. According to Amnesty International, many of those formerly disappeared are denied compensation or means of redress for their treatment by the government and are often intimidated or re-arrested by security forces.

Freedoms of assembly, expression, and association are severely restricted in Western Sahara, where both criticism of the government and opposition activities are not tolerated. Political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and private media are virtually nonexistent, and suspected pro-independence activists and opponents of the government, including former political prisoners, are subject to surveillance and harassment. Beatings and ill-treatment of demonstrators have been reported. The BBC reported that clashes occurred when Moroccan security forces disrupted a sit-in demonstration in Smara, Western Sahara, in November. An unspecified number of police and demonstrators were reportedly injured, and several vehicles were burned. In November, Moroccan police arrested Nourredine Darif, a correspondent with the weekly al Amal Addimocrati in Smara. According to Reporters Sans Frontieres, Darif had apparently been beaten and his home ransacked.