WESTERN SAHARA HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES, 1994
AUTHOR: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
DATE: FEBRUARY 1995
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
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
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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