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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Western Sahara

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Western Sahara, 30 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa313c.html [accessed 20 September 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 diplomatic dispute. Morocco assumed administration of the northern three provinces of the Western Sahara after the withdrawal of Spanish forces in 1975 and of the southernmost province of Oued ed Dahab in 1979 when Mauritania renounced its claim to the area. Since unifying the territory, Morocco has undertaken a massive infrastructural and economic development program that has resulted in substantial growth in the region's cities.

Since 1973 the Polisario Front, an organization which Algeria has supported and which seeks independence for the Western Sahara, 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 1991.

At the request of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion in 1975 regarding the status of the Western Sahara. The Court held that Morocco was not entitled to exercise sovereignty over the territory. Rather, according to the Court, the people of the Western Sahara were entitled to self-determination. Morocco agreed in principle in 1981 to hold a referendum to determine the wishes of the population of the Western Sahara. Efforts by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to resolve the sovereignty question collapsed in 1984 when the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the civilian arm of the Polisario, was recognized at an OAU summit, prompting Morocco to withdraw from the OAU in protest.

In 1986 Morocco asked the United Nations to administer a referendum, and it has attempted to do so since that time. In 1987 a U.N. technical team visited the territory in order to determine the practical arrangements necessary for a referendum. On August 30, 1988, Morocco and the SADR accepted in principle the Secretary General's proposal for a referendum under U.N. and OAU auspices, and the Secretary General named a special representative to work out the details.

In 1991 the Secretary General presented a plan for a referendum in the Western Sahara in which the Sahrawis (Western Sahara natives) would decide between integration with Morocco and independence. The plan called for a cease-fire supervised by a U.N. Monitoring Force (MINURSO) to be followed within 20 weeks by a referendum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was to assist Sahrawi refugees living in Algeria to voluntarily repatriate to the Western Sahara. The 1974 Spanish census of the region was to serve as the basis for the voting list. Morocco challenged the accuracy and completeness of the list and presented to the United Nations a supplemental list containing more than 120,000 additional names.

On September 6, 1991, the cease-fire went into effect and initial MINURSO forces were deployed. Simultaneously, the UNHCR sent an international team to assist with the repatriation of Sahrawi refugees. The referendum, originally scheduled to take place in January 1992, was postponed pending attempts to resolve the contentious voter identification issue. The outgoing Secretary General thereupon proposed five voter eligibility criteria to the U.N. Security Council. The Security Council passed a resolution welcoming the proposal without endorsing it, and subsequent U.N. efforts have focused upon obtaining agreement by the parties to the criteria and their application.

In June 1993 the U.N. Secretary General proposed a compromise which would make more rigorous the documentation needed for a person to establish the residence or heredity required to qualify for voter eligibility under the earlier proposal. Neither the Moroccans nor the Polisario rejected the proposed compromise out of hand. Direct talks took place between the two sides in the city of Laayounne during July but no agreement was reached. The Moroccan Government favors broad-based criteria for the referendum which would include many whom they claim left the Western Sahara prior to being counted in the 1974 Spanish census or were born after 1974 to those qualified under the census. Claiming the risk of fraud, the Polisario favors more narrow criteria focused on those enumerated as in the territory during the 1974 census. In his report to the United Nations Security Council of November 24, 1993, the Secretary General stated that "while expressing reservations about the provisions relating to tribal links with the territory, Morocco acquiesced in the compromise." The Polisario is described by the Secretary General in that same report as having "... maintained its substantial reservations and proposals for amendments..." of the compromise.

Since 1977 the northern provinces of Laayoune, Smara, and Boujdour have participated in Moroccan elections. The southernmost province of Oued ed Dahab has also participated in the elections since 1983. Sahrawis fill all 10 of the seats allotted to the Western Sahara in the new Parliament. Three of the four governors of the region, who are appointed by the King of Morocco, are Sahrawis.

The civilian population in the approximately 85 percent of the Western Sahara under Moroccan control is subject to Moroccan law. U.N. observers and foreign human rights groups have reported that Sahrawis supportive of the Polisario Front often have more difficulty obtaining passports, that their political views are more closely monitored than those of residents of Morocco proper, and that they are more likely to be treated harshly by police and paramilitary authorities.

A number of Sahrawis who have returned to Morocco from Polisario camps near Tindouf, Algeria have complained that they and other Sahrawi's were tortured and mistreated in the camps. Other non-Sahrawi observers who have visited the camps say, however, that they have found no evidence of torture. Ibrahim Hakim, a former Polisario earlier who has defected to Morocco, alleges first-hand knowledge of such mistreatment. The Government of Morocco's Consultative Council on Human Rights established a working group to investigate ongoing allegations of Polisario misconduct in the Tindouf camps. For its part, the Polisario claims that the Moroccans have tortured suspected Polisario supporters.

After years of denying that Sahrawis were imprisoned in Morocco for Polisario-related military or political activity, the Government of Morocco released 300 such prisoners in 1991. Among those released were entire families and Sahrawis who had "disappeared" in the mid-1970's. The Moroccan Government has failed to conduct a public inquiry or to explain how and why these persons were held for up to 16 years in incommunicado detention without charge or trial. The Polisario claims that Morocco continues to hold more than 800 Sahrawis as political prisoners. The Government of Morocco formally denies that any Sahrawi noncombatants remain in Moroccan detention. Amnesty International expressed concern, however, that hundreds of Sahrawis arrested by Moroccan security forces between 1975 and 1988 remain "disappeared." Credible sources estimate that 68 Sahrawis remain in detention in Morocco and that between 2,500 and 3,000 Moroccan prisoners are being held by the Polisario near Tindouf. The Polisario has said it is prepared to release 200 Moroccan prisoners unconditionally, but Morocco, believing that the offer is predicated upon it's according Polisario greater legitimacy, has declined to take up the matter directly with the Polisario Front.

The UNHCR, using figures provided by the Government of Algeria, estimates that approximately 165,000 refugees reside in camps near Tindouf, Algeria. Sahrawis recently returned to Morocco from the camps estimate, however, that no more than 80,000 refugees inhabit the camps. They believe that 40,000 to 50,000 of those are Sahrawis, the remainder coming from other countries in the region. The Government of Morocco alleges that the Sahrawis are held in the Tindouf camps against their will. The Polisario denies this allegation.

Freedom of movement within the Western Sahara is limited in militarily sensitive areas. While travel is nominally unrestricted elsewhere, travelers inside and outside the cities are reportedly subjected to arbitrary questioning, detainment, and, at times, abuse by the security forces.

The same labor laws that apply in Morocco apply in the Moroccan-controlled areas of the Western Sahara, and enforcement is equivalent to that in Morocco proper. Within the Western Sahara there is little organized labor activity. Since salaries in both the private and public sectors are significantly higher than those in Morocco, wage demands are not an issue. Unemployment has also not been a problem because of the Government's investment in the region and a program of bringing young people voluntarily out of the region to work in Morocco. Outside the territory controlled by Morocco, the Polisario established a labor wing called the Sario Federation of Labor (UGTSARIO), which in the past reportedly enjoyed close relations with a few Arab and African national labor centers. The UGTSARIO does not engage in customary trade union activities in the Polisario-controlled areas.

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