Western Sahara Human Rights Practices, 1995

Author: U.S. Department of State

Date: March 1996


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 assumed administration of the northern two-thirds of the Western Sahara after Spain withdrew from the area in 1975, and it extended its administration to Oued Ed Dahab after Mauritania renounced its claim to it in 1979. The Moroccan Government has undertaken a sizable economic development program in the part of the Western Sahara under its control.
Since 1973 the Polisario Front has challenged successively the claims of Spain, Mauritania, and Morocco to the territory. Moroccan and Polisario forces had fought intermittently from 1975 to the 1991 cease-fire and deployment to the area of a United Nations 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 the region's tribes had historical ties to Morocco, the ties were not enough to warrant recognition of Moroccan sovereignty. According to the Court, the people of the Western Sahara, called Sahrawis, are entitled to self-determination. Most Sahrawis live in the area administered by Morocco, but there is a sizable refugee population near the Western Saharan border, 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 the territory's land.
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 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 were unable to agree on a common list of eligible voters. A complicated formula for determining voter eligibility was ultimately devised, and in August 1994 MINURSO personnel began to hold identification sessions for voter applicants. At such hearings, applicants must present evidence of identity and residence; tribal elders may present testimony on the bona fides of an applicant's claim.
The voter identification process has been halted numerous times because of the refusal of one party or the other to participate in the proceedings. Matters were further delayed in June when the Polisario Front withdrew from the identification process for several weeks. This action was taken to protest 20-year sentences handed down to eight Sahrawi youths arrested following demonstrations in Laayoune demanding Saharan independence. The sentences were later commuted to 1 year, leading the Polisario Front to rejoin the identification process. In an October report, Human Rights Watch alleged that the Moroccan Government has obstructed the U.N.-sponsored referendum and that the United Nations has exercised inadequate control over the process.
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 living in 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 independence and the Polisario Front.
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.
There were reports of over 20 disappearances during the year, most occurring in May following demonstrations in Laayoune advocating Saharan independence. The disappeared were presumably arrested following the demonstrations. Eight Sahrawi youths were arrested during the demonstrations and put on trial for "threatening the security of the State" (see Section 1.e. of the Morocco report).
The Polisario Front claims that the Government continues to hold several hundred Sahrawis as political prisoners. The Government formally denies that any Sahrawi noncombatants remain in detention. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Morocco holds 66 Sahrawi combatants, and 6 civilians, as prisoners of war (POWs).
The ICRC also reports that the Polisario holds approximately 2,000 Moroccan POWs. In November a group of 185 of them were repatriated to Morocco in a humanitarian airlift conducted under ICRC auspices. The Moroccan Government had earlier refused to accept these POWs.
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 moribund. 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, not active in the Western Sahara.
There were no strikes, other job actions, or collective bargaining agreements in 1995. 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, 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 enough income 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 of work are the same as in Morocco. In practice, however, workers 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 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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