29 Mar, 2017
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Moroccan Occupation

Natural Resource Exploitation

The Western Sahara is home to immense phosphate reserves, rich fishing waters, and potential oil deposits. As it maintains de facto control of the urban and economic centers of the Western Sahara, Morocco benefits from the extraction of these natural resources. The Western Sahara is still considered a non-self-governing territory by the United Nations, and according to the UN Charter and the UN General Assembly’s Resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960, the administering power of such a territory is responsible for ensuring that any economic gains in its colony must directly benefit the people of that colony. In other words, so long as official sovereignty is not recognized, a country cannot exploit the natural resources of a non-self-governing territory without the consent of the indigenous people and without re-investing the fruits of such exploitation in the territory itself.

Over the past few decades, Morocco has greatly benefited from the resources under its control in the Western Sahara, most notably from phosphate extraction. The Western Sahara is home to the world’s second largest phosphate deposits, behind Morocco itself. As a critical component in mass-produced fertilizer, phosphate is becoming increasingly important as global food shortages persist. Today, despite protests by the Polisario leadership, Morocco continues to mine the Western Sahara’s phosphate resources, particularly from the mine of Bou Craa, which contributes 10% of Morocco’s total phosphate production.

The Western Sahara’s second most profitable natural resource is its coastal fishing waters – some of the richest on the continent. European boats have been caught fishing off the Western Sahara, which is illegal according to international law. The European Parliament has defended its economic activities there, citing a 2007 free trade agreement [FTA] between Morocco and the European Union. While not recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, the European Parliament argues that a 2004 legal opinion by UN Legal Counsel Hans Correll justifies the inclusion of Western Sahara waters, although Correll has since come out and argued that his opinion was misinterpreted by the EU. In contrast, the FTA signed between the U.S. and Morocco in 2004 explicitly excludes any economic activities originating in the Western Sahara from the terms of the agreement.

Finally, while exploration has not yet been possible, the presence of considerable oil reserves throughout West and North Africa suggests that the Western Sahara may be home to similar resources. Both the Polisario and Morocco have negotiated exploratory contracts with international firms and signed contracts that grant rights to the companies in the event that the conflict is resolved. Such agreements remain hypothetical, however, as no oil has been discovered, and the territorial dispute in Western Sahara continues to fester. Despite the efforts of the Polisario and international supporters of the Saharawi cause, phosphate mining and fishing in the Western Sahara continue without the input of the Saharawis. While secondary to its demand for self-determination, the Polisario Front thus includes Morocco’s illegal exploitation of the natural resources of the Western Sahara in its calls for the greater involvement of the international community.

Military Wall

In addition to a referendum on self-determination, the protection of human rights, and the cessation of natural resource exploitation, the Polisario Front leadership advocates the dismantling of the Moroccan military wall that divides the Western Sahara in two. The Saharawis refer to the Moroccan barrier as the Wall of Shame, not only because it divides the 160,000 Saharawi refugees in Algeria from their families and friends in the Moroccan-held territory, but also because it threatens the lives and livelihoods of the hundreds of Saharawi nomads that still wander through the Western Sahara’s deserts.

wallIn the 1970s, the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army (ALPS) achieved several military victories against Mauritanian and Moroccan troops. In 1980, however, Morocco began the construction of a long barrier of simple sand embankments meant to impede the movement of Saharawi soldiers. Between 1980 and 1987, five heavily fortified walls were added to the east and south, completely cutting off the Saharawi soldiers and refugees from their home cities, such as Laayoune and Smara. Today, the wall is 1,500 miles long – almost half the size of the Great Wall of China – and consists of alternating sand and rock walls and deep ditches.

Despite the signing of the 1991 ceasefire, both parties actively patrol their respective sides of the wall outside of the demilitarized zone on the east side of the wall, as stipulated in the truce. Along the western side of the berm, Morocco maintains over 120,000 troops reinforced by heavy military installations positioned every seven miles, which include radar, artillery, and tanks. In addition to troops and tanks, millions of landmines surround the wall. Though the exact number of mines on the eastern side of the wall is unknown, estimates range from one million to over 10 million, and the UN consistently ranks the Western Sahara as one of the 10 territories most contaminated by landmines and unexploded ordinances (UXOs).

For its part, the Polisario – which also was responsible for the laying of mines in the 1980s – refuses to publish the numbers of ALPS soldiers that currently patrol the wall, citing it as a matter of national security. The Saharawi Army operates in seven regions throughout the Western Sahara, but the numbers actively serving in each region are a closely guarded secret by the leadership, which has not ruled out a return to war.

Despite the grave dangers presented by Moroccan troops, millions of landmines, and inhospitable conditions, hundreds of Saharawis have made nighttime journeys across the wall to escape the Moroccan occupation and join their families and friends in the refugee camps outside Tindouf.

Moroccan Human Rights Abuses

Recent debate in the UN Security Council regarding the inclusion of a human rights monitoring component in the mandate of the UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara [MINURSO] has demonstrated the important role that human rights have taken in the conflict over the Western Sahara. Since the 1970s, the Moroccan security forces – which are tied closely to the Moroccan throne and run through the Ministry of Interior – have been accused of imprisoning, torturing, disappearing, and killing both Moroccans and Saharawis. Since the ascendance of King Mohammed VI to the throne, human rights protections have improved for Moroccans, though the same cannot be said for Saharawis living under de facto Moroccan control.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the European Parliament’s Ad-Hoc Commission on the Western Sahara, and the U.S. Department of State have all extensively documented the abuses occurring in the Moroccan-controlled areas of Western Sahara. The year 2009 was marked by several high profile cases. First, in August, Moroccan police prevented a group of seven Moroccan students and six Saharawi students from traveling to London to participate in a symposium organized by the British NGO Talk Together. One of the female Saharawi students was allegedly beaten and raped after being apprehended and was told that if she did not renounce her political views on Western Saharan independence, the video of her rape would be published online. Another would-be participant claims that he was taken out into the desert, stripped, beaten, and abandoned.


Later, in October, a group of seven Saharawi human rights activists were detained upon returning to Morocco after a trip to the Tindouf refugee camps. Although the UN arranges trips for Saharawi families between the camps and Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, the seven were accused of conspiring with an enemy of the Moroccan state and slated to be tried before a military tribunal. Six of the imprisoned remain in jail and have engaged in numerous hunger strikes to protest the nature of their arrest and the alleged mental and physical torture to which they have claimed to be subjected.

Finally, in the most high-profile case to date, renowned Saharawi activist Aminetu Haidar was detained upon entering Laayoune – the capital of the Western Sahara – when she filled in “Western Sahara” as her country of origin on a Moroccan customs form. Ms. Haidar was returning from a trip to the U.S., where she was awarded her third major human rights award. Her passport was confiscated, and she was deported from the country. She immediately engaged in a 32-day hunger strike in the Lanzarote airport in the Canary Islands, and was eventually allowed to return home to her family after pressure was put on Moroccan authorities by both European governments and the U.S. Department of State.

In the Western Sahara the Saharawis are prevented from speaking out in favor of self- determination or independence. Suspicion of association with the Polisario Front is enough to land a Saharawi in prison, where he or she faces the prospect of being beaten, raped, tortured, or otherwise mistreated. Visits from international journalists, human rights lawyers, or tourists to a Saharawi’s home often have also caused troubles with the occupying Moroccan authorities. Saharawi NGOs – such as the Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations (ASVDH) and the Association for the Families of Saharawi Prisoners and the Disappeared (AFAPREDESA) – are dedicated to protecting and defending their fellow Saharawis. These organizations have relatively few members, however, and their ability to highlight alleged widespread human rights abuses is limited.

Lastly as a result of the enduring conflict, tens of thousands of Saharawis are forced to live in inhospitable refugee camps under difficult conditions, while Saharawi youth have little opportunity for a brighter future and the Saharawi people are deprived of their internationally- recognized right to self-determination and freedom.