Human Rights Watch World Report 2020 – Western Sahara


While there remained some space to criticize the government in Morocco-provided that any harsh criticism avoided the monarchy and other “red lines”-authorities continued to selectively target, prosecute, jail, and harass critics, and enforce various repressive laws, notably pertaining to individual liberties.

Western Sahara

The United Nations-sponsored process of negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front on self-determination for the Western Sahara, most of which is under de facto Moroccan control, remained stalled after the resignation in May of Horst Kohler, the envoy of the UN secretary-general. Kohler had not been replaced at time of writing. Morocco proposes a measure of autonomy under its rule but rejects a referendum on independence.

Moroccan authorities systematically prevent gatherings in the Western Sahara supporting Sahrawi self-determination, obstruct the work of some local human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including by blocking their legal registration, and on occasion beat activists and journalists in their custody and on the streets.

In 2019, 19 Sahrawi men remained in prison after they were convicted in unfair trials in 2013 and 2017 for the killing of 11 security force members, during clashes that erupted after authorities forcibly dismantled a large protest encampment in Gdeim Izik, Western Sahara, in 2010. Both courts relied almost entirely on their confessions to police to convict them, without seriously investigating claims that the defendants had signed their confessions under torture without being permitted to read them.

Authorities allowed Claude Mangin, an activist for Sahrawi rights and the French wife of prisoner Naama Asfari, a member of the “Gdeim Izik” group, to enter Morocco in February for the first time in 30 months to visit him. However, they prevented her from re-entering Morocco in July.

On July 8, a court in El Ayoun, Western Sahara, sentenced Nezha Khalidi, a member of Equipe Media, a collective of media activists who favor self-determination for Western Sahara, to a fine for exercising journalism without official credentials. Police arrested her while she was live-streaming a street scene and denouncing Moroccan “oppression.”

Key International Actors

In an attempt to comply with European Court of Justice rulings stating that trade agreements between European Union countries and Morocco can only apply to Western Sahara with “the consent of its people,” the European Commission and parliament conducted consultations with some elements of the population of Western Sahara. The Polisario Front refused to take part in the consultations.

In January and in February, claiming to have taken “all reasonable and feasible measures” in order to ascertain the concerned people’s consent, the EU Council and the European Parliament approved trade agreements with Morocco, which allow for the exploitation of Western Sahara’s agricultural and fisheries resources. In April, the Polisario announced legal actions against these decisions before the European Court of Justice.