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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Western Sahara

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Western Sahara, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa1a34.html [accessed 23 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
The sovereignty of the Western Sahara remains the subject of a dispute between the Government of Morocco and the Polisario, an organization seeking independence for the region. The Moroccan Government assumed administration of the Western Sahara's northern three provinces after Spain withdrew from the area in 1975, and it extended its administration to the province of Oued ed Dahab in 1979 after Mauritania renounced its claim to it. After unifying the Western Sahara, the Moroccan Government undertook a massive economic development program that has resulted in substantial growth in the region's towns.

Since 1973 the Polisario has challenged successively the claims of Spain and Morocco to the territory. Moroccan and Polisario forces have fought intermittently since 1975, although there have been no significant clashes since a 1991 cease-fire and deployment to the area of a United Nations contingent, known by its French initials, MINURSO.

In 1975 the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion on the status of the Western Sahara. The Court held that Morocco was not entitled to sovereignty over the territory. According to the Court, the people of the Western Sahara, the Sahrawis, are entitled to self-determination. Efforts by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to resolve the sovereignty question collapsed in 1984 when the OAU recognized the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, the civilian arm of the Polisario. Morocco withdrew from the OAU in protest.

In 1988 Morocco and the Polisario accepted the United Nations' plan for a referendum that would allow the Sahrawis to decide between integration with Morocco or independence for the region. The referendum was scheduled for January 1992 but was postponed because the parties could not agree on a common list of eligible voters. The United Nations continues to seek a compromise on the voter issue. In August MINURSO personnel began to hold oral hearings for voter applicants in Laayoune and Tindouf, Algeria. At such hearings, applicants may present evidence of identification and residence, as well as oral testimony from tribal elders on the bona fides of the applicant's claim to voter eligibility.

Since 1977 the Saharan provinces of Laayoune, Smara, and Boujdour have participated in Moroccan elections. The southern province of Oued ed Dahab has participated in Moroccan elections since 1983. Sahrawis fill all 10 seats allotted to the Western Sahara in the Moroccan Parliament.

The civilian population in the 85 percent of the Western Sahara under Moroccan administration is subject to Moroccan law. U.N. observers and foreign human rights groups report that Sahrawis have difficulty obtaining Moroccan passports, that the Government monitors the political views of Sahrawis more closely than those of Moroccan citizens, and that the police and paramilitary authorities react especially harshly against those suspected of supporting the Polisario.

Sahrawis who returned to Morocco from refugee camps administered by the Polisario have presented strong circumstantial evidence that they were tortured by Polisario security officers in the camps. However, there were no reports that camp residents were tortured in 1994.

After years of denying that Sahrawis were imprisoned in Morocco for Polisario-related military or political activity, the Government released 300 such prisoners in 1991. Entire families and Sahrawis who had "disappeared" in the mid-1970's were among those released. The Government has failed to conduct a public inquiry or to explain how and why those released were held for up to 16 years in incommunicado detention without charge or trial. The Polisario claims that the Government continues to hold more than 800 Sahrawis as political prisoners. The Government formally denies that any Sahrawi noncombatants remain in detention. However, in announcing an amnesty for political prisoners in July, King Hassan declared that any prisoner who questions Morocco's sovereignty over the Western Sahara would not be eligible for amnesty. Observers interpreted the King's remarks as implying that the Government still holds some Sahrawi nationalists in prison.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Morocco holds 69 Sahrawi combatants as prisoners of war (POW's), and the Polisario holds betweem 2,500 and 3,000 Moroccan POWs. In 1994 ICRC representatives visited both groups of prisoners but had not released any reports at year's end. The Polisario has separated out 200 Moroccan soldiers and offered them for repatriation along with another group of 25 POW's reportedly in need of medical attention. The Government of Morocco, believing that the offer is predicated on according the Polisario greater legitimacy, has not officially responded to them.

Freedom of movement within the Western Sahara is limited in militarily sensitive areas. Elsewhere, security forces subject travelers to arbitrary questioning, detention, and abuse. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, using figures provided by the Government of Algeria, estimates that approximately 165,000 refugees live in the camps near Tindouf, Algeria. However, the Moroccan Government maintains that no more than 80,000 refugees inhabit the camps. The Government alleges that the residents are held in the camps against their will, an allegation denied by the Polisario.

There is little organized labor activity in the Western Sahara. The same labor laws that apply in Morocco are applied in the Moroccan-controlled areas of the Western Sahara. Moroccan unions are present in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara but are relatively moribund. The 15 percent of the territory outside Moroccan control does not have any population centers or economic activity beyond nomadic herding. The Polisario-sponsored labor union, the Sario Federation of Labor (UGTSARIO), does not have any activities in the Western Sahara.

There were no strikes, other job actions, or collective bargaining agreements in 1994. Most union members are employees of the Government or state-owned organizations. They are paid 85 percent more than their counterparts outside the Western Sahara. Workers in the Western Sahara are exempt from income and value-added taxes and receive subsidies on such commodities as flour, oil, sugar, fuels, and utilities.

Moroccan law prohibits forced labor, which does not appear to exist in the Western Sahara. Regulations on the minimum age of employment are the same as in Morocco. Child labor appears to be less common in the Western Sahara than in Morocco, primarily because of the absence of industries most likely to employ children, such as rug knotting and garment making. A government work program for adults, the Promotion Nationale, provides families with enough income so that children need not be hired out as domestic servants Children in the few remaining nomadic groups presumably work as shepherds along with other group members. Adult unemployment in the Western Sahara is below 5 percent. The minimum wage and maximum hours for work are the same as in Morocco. In practice, however, employees in some fish-processing plants may work as much as 12 hours per day, 6 days per week, well beyond the 10-hour day, 48-hour week maximum allowed by Moroccan law. Occupational health and safety standards in Western Sahara are those enforced in Morocco. They are rudimentary, except for a prohibition on the employment of women in dangerous occupations.

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