Freedom in the World
Western Sahara *
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The proindependence Polisario Front and the Moroccan government in 2007 held two rounds of direct talks in the United States about Western Sahara’s fate. The Moroccan government also proposed a plan for Sahrawi autonomy but remained steadfast in its refusal to entertain the idea of independence. The two U.S. meetings did not produce any concrete results, and additional talks were planned for early 2008. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground for Sahrawis remained largely unchanged.
Western Sahara was ruled by Spain for nearly a century until Spanish troops withdrew in 1976, following a bloody guerrilla conflict with the pro-independence Polisario Front. Mauritania and Morocco both ignored the Polisario’s aspirations and claimed the resource-rich region for themselves, agreeing to a partition in which Morocco received the northern two-thirds. However, Polisario proclaimed an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and continued its guerrilla campaign. Mauritania renounced its claim to the region in 1979, and Morocco filled the vacuum by annexing the entire territory.
Moroccan and Polisario forces engaged in a low-intensity conflict until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991. The agreement called for the residents of Western Sahara to vote in a referendum on independence the following year, to be supervised by the newly established UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). However, the vote never took place, with the two sides disagreeing about who was eligible to participate.
Morocco tried to bolster its annexation by offering financial incentives for Moroccans to move to Western Sahara and for Sahrawis to move to Morocco. The Moroccan ruler repeatedly visited the territory and made declarative speeches about its historical connection to his kingdom. Morocco has also used more coercive measures to assert its control, engaging in forced resettlements of Sahrawis and detaining pro-independence activists. The Moroccan government’s conduct in recent years has been less oppressive, but its human rights record with regard to the Western Sahara occupation remains poor.
In 2004, the Polisario accepted the UN Security Council’s Baker II plan (named after UN special envoy and former U.S. secretary of state James Baker), which called for up to five years of autonomy followed by a referendum on the territory’s status. However, Morocco rejected the plan, and Baker himself has said that Morocco is not interested in implementing any plan that could eventually lead to independence.
Morocco in 2007 offered an autonomy plan as an alternative to the scuttled Baker proposal, apparently attempting to demonstrate its willingness to compromise. However, the Moroccan government continued to rule out independence, even as the Polisario remained committed to an eventual referendum on the question. Because of this impasse, the two sides failed to make substantial progress in two rounds of talks in the United States during the year. Additional negotiations were planned for early 2008.
As the occupying force in Western Sahara, Morocco controls local elections and works to ensure that independence-minded leaders are excluded from both the local political process and the Moroccan Parliament.
Western Sahara is not listed separately on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, but corruption is believed to be at least as much of a problem as it is in Morocco.
According to the Moroccan constitution, the press is free, but in practice this is not the case. There is little in the way of independent Sahrawi media. Moroccan authorities are sensitive to critical reporting that contradicts the state’s position on Western Sahara, and will expel or detain Sahrawi, Moroccan, and foreign reporters who cross the line. Online media and independent satellite broadcasts are largely unavailable to the impoverished population.
Nearly all Sahrawis are Sunni Muslims, as are most Moroccans, and Moroccan authorities generally do not impede their freedom of worship. There are no major universities or institutions of higher learning in Western Sahara.
Sahrawis are not permitted to form independent political organizations, and their freedom of assembly is greatly restricted. Moroccan authorities regularly use force when quelling demonstrations and riots in Sahrawi towns and villages. In 2007, there were fewer cases of violent crackdowns on demonstrators. Sahrawis are technically subject to Moroccan labor laws, but there is little organized labor activity in the poverty-stricken region.
Particularly during the 1961–99 reign of Morocco’s King Hassan II, Sahrawis who opposed the regime were summarily detained, killed, tortured, and “disappeared” by the thousands. While the situation has improved since the 1991 ceasefire and the coronation of King Mohamed VI, pro-independence Sahrawis are still are detained, harassed, threatened, and in some cases tortured.
International human rights groups have criticized Morocco’s human rights record in Western Sahara for decades. A highly critical September 2006 report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—intended to be distributed only to Algeria, Morocco, and the Polisario—was leaked to the press that October. The human rights situation in the territory tends to worsen during periods of increased demonstrations against Moroccan rule, as was the case in 2005. For their part, the Polisario have also been accused of disregarding human rights.
Morocco and the Polisario both restrict free movement in potential conflict areas. Morocco has been accused using force and financial incentives to alter the composition of Western Sahara’s population.
Sahrawi women face much of the same cultural and legal discrimination as Moroccan women. Conditions are generally worse for women living in rural areas, where poverty and illiteracy rates are higher.