Western Sahara

Negotiations between Morocco and Western Sahara, and a possible new US position vis-à-vis Western Sahara, have marked the past year. At the same time, human rights abuses against the Sahrawi population continue.

Western Sahara is divided in two. The majority is occupied by Morocco, while a minority is controlled by the Sahrawi liberation movement Polisario. The UN and the world community recognize Polisario as a legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. Both Polisario and the administration of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – which is a full member of the African Union (AU) – have its main base all the way west in Algeria. The majority of the estimated 165,000 refugees also live there. The population of occupied Western Sahara is difficult to get an overview of, but it is believed that there are more Moroccan settlers than indigenous Sahrawis, and there are in addition a large number of Moroccan soldiers and police forces.

Morocco’s partners

As a country in Africa listed on Abbreviation Finder, Morocco is increasingly stepping up its exploitation of natural resources in the occupied territories, in cooperation with international companies, despite the UN having stated that such activities are in breach of international law.

In 2009, the search for oil expanded beyond the coast of the territory. Once again, a Norwegian seismic company – this time the Fugro Geoteam from Skøyen – did the investigations.

Norway is also involved in fishing. The Sjøvik group from Møre og Romsdal pays Morocco’s Ministry of Fisheries to obtain fishing licenses in the occupied areas. Saharawis have demonstrated against the Norwegian commitment, which still continues. Hundreds of Moroccan settlers will be employed in the Sjøvik group’s onshore reception facility.

Also in the phosphate industry are Norwegian interests. It was revealed last year that the Government Pension Fund invests in companies that account for two-thirds of all phosphate purchases from the Bou Craa mine in Western Sahara.

Finally, it is also worth noting that until recently tomatoes grown by settlers in Western Sahara have been sold in Norwegian stores, labeled “Morocco”. When it was discovered by the news service Norwatch, Coop stopped imports into Norway.


Negotiations between Morocco and Polisario are organized by UN Special Envoy Christopher Ross, former US ambassador to Algeria. Following the Houston negotiations, initiated in 1997 by former Secretary of State and Special Envoy James Baker III, this is the first time the UN has pushed Polisario and Morocco into direct negotiations. Negotiations resumed in August 2009 after more than a year’s pause. Following negotiations in Vienna in August 2009, both Morocco’s foreign minister and Polisario’s secretary general welcomed new negotiations in December 2009. The AU summit on August 31 passed a resolution highlighting “the urgent need to carry out the referendum as quickly as possible.”

The problem, however, is that Morocco does not want a referendum that is really about self-determination, as understood by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in its 1975 Opinion on Western Sahara (“free and genuine expression of the will of the people of the territory”). In the statement, either full independence or various forms of integration with another state are listed as possible, in accordance with resolutions 1514 and 1541 of the UN General Assembly. The “free and genuine expression of the will of the people” can be identified through a referendum. In Resolution 45/21 of 1990, the UN General Assembly unanimously agreed that “Western Sahara is a matter of decolonization that must be completed on the basis of the Western Saharan people exercising their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.”

The principles enshrined in Security Council Resolution 1871 of April 30, 2009 are that it should be a “just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that ensures self-determination for Western Sahara people,” and the parties are asked to “step into a more intensive and substantial negotiation phase. ”

It is relevant here to recall that the people for whom self-determination works are all inhabiting the territory as of December 31, 1999. It includes an estimated 200,000 Moroccan settlers, according to the Peace Plan for Self-Determination for Western Sahara People, which was supported by a unanimous Security Council in Resolution 1495 of 2003.

On July 3, US President Barack Obama sent a letter to King Mohammed VI of Morocco. In the letter, Obama reiterates that a solution must come as a result of a “UN-led negotiation, which (s) is a suitable forum to reach a mutually acceptable solution.” (World Tribune July 9, 2009). Anonymous diplomatic sources were quoted as saying that a new US policy would be designed. The letter made no reference to Morocco’s proposal to integrate Western Sahara as part of the kingdom, as former President George Bush had suggested he would support.

Human rights

The human rights situation in Western Sahara remained critical in 2009. The UN Force in Western Sahara, MINURSO, is the only UN force in the world that does not have the mandate to observe and report on human rights abuses. Thus, the UN personnel, as a silent witness to all the abuses that take place in the area, stand to the great frustration of the Sahrawi. A proposal in the Security Council to include human rights as part of the MINURSO mandate was blocked by Morocco’s closest ally, France.

A 216-page Human Rights Watch report published in December 2008 described how Sahrawis working for self-determination are being violated freedom of speech, association and assembly. Showing the West Saharan flag publicly is enough to be arrested, and torture of arrested people occurs. Amnesty International writes in its 2009 review of Morocco and Western Sahara that a “culture of impunity” for abusers continues to apply.

On October 8, 2009, seven Sahrawi human rights activists were arrested when they arrived in Casablanca by plane from Algeria. According to Amnesty International, the seven could be charged with treason for their work.

On November 14, another human rights activist, Aminatou Haidar, was rejected as she arrived at El Aaiun airport, after receiving a prize for her work in the United States. Haidar was returned to Lanzarote, where she carried out a 32-day hunger strike until she succeeded in getting permission to enter Western Sahara. By then, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already intervened. The reason for the episode was that she had refused to cross for “Morocco” in the country heading when she first entered Western Sahara.

A dozen Sahrawi human rights activists were deprived of their passports during 2009. This included Sidi Mohammed Daddach, who received the Rafto Prize in Bergen in 2002.

Country facts:

Area: 266 000 km2 (30th largest)

Population: 497 000

Population density per km2: 1.9

Urban population: 81 percent

Largest city: El Aaiún – approx. 200 000

GDP per capita: Not stated

Economic growth: Not stated

HDI location: Not specified