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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1998 - Western Sahara

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 26 February 1999
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1998 - Western Sahara, 26 February 1999, available at: [accessed 17 December 2017]
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 Front, an organization seeking independence for the region. The Moroccan Government sent troops and settlers into the northern two-thirds of the Western Sahara after Spain withdrew from the area in 1975, and extended its administration over the southern province of Oued Ed Dahab after Mauritania renounced its claim in 1979. The Moroccan Government has undertaken a sizable economic development program in the Western Sahara as part of its long-term efforts to strengthen Moroccan claims to the territory.

Since 1973 the Polisario Front has challenged the claims of Spain, Mauritania, and Morocco to the territory. Moroccan and Polisario forces fought intermittently from 1975 until the 1991 ceasefire and deployment to the area of a United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping 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 while some of the region's tribes had historical ties to Morocco, the ties were insufficient to establish "any tie of territorial sovereignty" between the Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco. The Court added that it had not found "legal ties" that would trigger the applicable U.N. General Assembly Resolution regarding the decolonization of the territory, and, in particular, the principle of self-determination for its people. Most Sahrawis (as most persons living in the territory are called) live in the area controlled by Morocco, but there is a sizable refugee population near the border with Morocco, in Algeria, and, to a lesser extent, in Mauritania. The bulk of the Sahrawi population lives within the area delineated by a Moroccan-constructed berm, which encloses most of the territory.

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 Front. Morocco withdrew from the OAU in protest.

In 1988 Morocco and the Polisario Front accepted the U.N. plan for a referendum that would allow the Sahrawis to decide between integration with Morocco or independence for the territory. The referendum was scheduled for January 1992, but was postponed because the parties were unable to agree on a common list of eligible voters--despite the previous acceptance by both parties of an updated version of the Spanish census of 1974 as the base for voter eligibility. A complicated formula for determining voter eligibility was ultimately devised, and in August 1994, MINURSO personnel began to hold identification sessions for voter applicants.

The voter identification process ended in December 1995 and, after several fruitless efforts to persuade the two parties to cooperate, the U.N. Security Council formally suspended the identification process in May 1996. The U.N. and friendly governments have continued to urge the two parties to seek a political solution to the conflict. In March 1997, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker as his personal envoy to examine options for a peaceful settlement. Baker visited the region, and negotiations between the Moroccan Government and the Polisario began in May 1997. In September 1997, representatives of Morocco and the Polisario met in Houston in the United States, and consented to a series of compromise agreements on the 1991 U.N. Settlement Plan to hold a referendum under U.N. auspices. According to the Houston Accords, the identification of potential voters, the referendum campaign, and the vote was to take place by December. In August MINURSO completed identification of voters in all non-contested tribal groupings. In November the U.N. Secretary General visited the region to examine ways at achieving compromise on several contested elements of the settlement plan in order to move the referendum process forward. After his consultations, the Secretary General proposed a series of measures in December to both parties. The U.N. continues to maintain a presence in the Western Sahara and in Tindouf, Algeria, pending the outcome of talks on the Secretary Generalâs proposal.

Since 1977 the Saharan provinces of Laayoune, Smara, and Boujdour have participated in local elections organized and controlled by the Moroccan Government. The southern province of Oued Ed Dahab has participated in Moroccan-controlled elections since 1983. Sahrawis whose political views are aligned with the Moroccan Government fill all the seats allotted to the Western Sahara in the Moroccan Parliament.

The civilian population living in the Western Sahara under Moroccan administration is subject to Moroccan law. U.N. observers and foreign human rights groups maintain 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 independence and the Polisario Front. The Moroccan Government limits access to the territory, and international human rights organizations and impartial journalists have sometimes experienced difficulty in securing admission.

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. Entire families and Sahrawis who had disappeared in the mid-1970's were among those released. The Government of Morocco has failed to conduct a public inquiry or to explain why those released spent up to 16 years in incommunicado detention without charge or trial.

There are a number of other Sahrawis who remain imprisoned for peaceful protests supporting Saharan independence. There are credible reports that 10 Sahrawis were arrested, beaten, and kept in seclusion by Moroccan authorities in May 1996 following demonstrations in several cities of the Western Sahara in support of Sahrawi independence. These 10 demonstrators have reportedly been sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from 18 months to 7 years.

Kelthoum el-Ouanat and five other Sahrawis were released in May 1996. El-Ouanat had been sentenced to a 20-year term after being arrested in October 1992, following a demonstration in Smara. Prior to her trial, she had been held in secret detention for up to 10 months during which time she reportedly was beaten, tortured, and sexually abused. In June 1995, eight Sahrawi youths, arrested for demonstrating for Sahrawi independence the previous month, were given 20-year sentences. The King later commuted these sentences to one year, and the eight were released in July 1996, 14 months after having been taken into custody. The youths report that the Moroccan police continue to monitor them closely.

The Polisario Front claims that the Moroccan Government continues to hold several hundred Sahrawis as political prisoners and approximately 300 prisoners of war (POW's). The Government formally denies that any Sahrawi noncombatants remain in detention. In October 1996, Morocco released 66 Sahrawi combatants, who were flown to the Tindouf area of Algeria under International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) auspices. They were accompanied by foreign diplomats. The Government claims that 30,000 Sahrawi refugees are detained against their will by the Polisario in camps around Tindouf, Algeria. The Polisario denies this charge. There are credible reports that the number of refugees in Tindouf far exceeds 30,000, but the allegation that they wish to leave remains unsubstantiated.

The ICRC reports that the Polisario holds approximately 1,900 Moroccan POWâs. A group of 185 POW's was repatriated to Morocco in a humanitarian airlift conducted under ICRC auspices in November 1995. In April 1997 Polisario leaders offered to release 85 Moroccan POWâs as a good will gesture during U.N. envoy Bakerâs first meetings in Tindouf, but Morocco and the Polisario jave not agreed to the conditions of their release.

Both the Moroccan Government and the Polisario Front refuse to repatriate the remaining POW's, claiming that the U.N. settlement plan calls for the release of POW's only after the identification process is complete.

Freedom of movement within the Western Sahara is limited in militarily sensitive areas. Elsewhere, security forces subject travelers to arbitrary questioning and detention.

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 not active. The 15 percent of the territory outside Moroccan control does not have any major population centers or economic activity beyond nomadic herding. The Polisario-sponsored labor union, the Sario Federation of Labor, is not active in the Western Sahara.

There were no strikes other job actions or collective bargaining agreements during the year. Most union members are employees of the Moroccan Government or state-owned organizations. Moroccan citizens are paid 85 percent more than their counterparts outside the Western Sahara as an inducement to live there. Workers in the Western Sahara are exempt from income and value-added taxes and receive subsidies on such commodities as flour, oil, sugar, fuel, 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 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 a sufficient level of income so that children need not work as domestic servants. Children in the few remaining nomadic groups presumably work as shepherds along with other group members.

The minimum wage and maximum hours of work are the same as in Morocco. However, in practice workers in some fish processing plants may work as many as 12 hours per day, 6 days per week, well beyond the 10-hour day, 48-hour week maximum stipulated in Moroccan law. Occupational health and safety standards are the same as those enforced in Morocco. They are rudimentary, except for a prohibition on the employment of women in dangerous occupations.


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