By late 2005, it appeared unlikely that the Western Sahara would succeed in its bid to gain independence from Morocco. The Moroccan government, while striking a more conciliatory tone in its public statements, remained adamant about its sovereignty over the region. For its part, the Polisario Front, the main group leading the Western Sahara"s drive for independence, also took small steps toward reconciliation with Morocco with the release of the 400 or so remaining Moroccan prisoners of war. Visits between family members on both sides of the divide, which had been started in 2004 but were then discontinued for much of the year, were restarted.
Spain colonized Western Sahara for over 90 years. In 1975, Spanish troops withdrew from the territory after a violent two-year conflict with the Polisario Front. Morocco and Mauritania both claimed the phosphate-rich region, and in 1976, the two countries, in an agreement with Spain, partitioned the territory, with Mauritania receiving the southern third. At the same time, the Polisario declared an independent state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and began to fight foreign troops.
When Mauritania renounced its claim to the southern portion of the region in 1979, Moroccan troops moved in and essentially annexed the entire territory.
For 12 years, Moroccan and Polisario troops exchanged fire intermittently. In 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between the two groups that called for a referendum on independence, which was to be supervised by the newly created Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). However, the referendum has been continuously postponed for almost 14 years, with disagreement about who is eligible to participate in the poll.
Since annexation of the Western Sahara, Morocco has moved to assert its control by encouraging Moroccans to move to the region, providing financial incentives and rewards for doing so. The Moroccan authorities have also encouraged Sahrawis to move to Morocco. While some Sahrawi prisoners have been released in recent years, Moroccan authorities still detain and try Sahrawi activists.
In 2004, the Polisario accepted the UN Security Council's so-called Baker plan, which called for a four- or five-year period of autonomy after which there would be a referendum on integration into Morocco, continued autonomy, or outright independence. However, Morocco rejected the plan, prompting James Baker to resign as UN envoy. While the conflict seemed intractable, the Security Council voted to maintain MINURSO in late October 2005, and a new UN envoy, Peter van Walsum, was appointed. The mandate of MINURSO was extended by the Security Council to April 2006.
Late in 2004, the confidence-building measures promoted by MINURSO and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) earlier that year were suspended after disagreements between the Polisario and Moroccan authorities. However, in November 2005, the measures were reintroduced, and programs such as family visits were restarted. Sahrawis who had family members in the Moroccan-controlled part of the Western Sahara visited family members in Tindouf and vice versa. The beneficiaries of the program are flown on UN planes and accompanied by MINURSO civilian police officers. Also in November, on the thirtieth anniversary of Morocco's annexation of the territory, King Muhammad VI said that Morocco supports a negotiated solution to the issue of the status of Western Sahara, which could result in autonomy for Morocco's "southern provinces," but only within the framework of the sovereignty of the kingdom.
In August, the Polisario announced their agreement to release the remaining 400 Moroccan prisoners of war in their custody. The prisoners were repatriated under the auspices of the International Red Cross. The Polisario claims that Morocco refuses to release over 100 prisoners and supporters, but the Moroccan authorities are steadfast in their denial that they are holding many Sahrawi fighters and claim that the numbers are inflated by the Sahrawi and their supporters.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Citizens of the Western Sahara cannot change their government democratically. Moroccan authorities organize local elections, and Sahrawis who believe in self-determination are excluded from Morocco's parliament.
Moroccan authorities tightly control press access to Western Sahara. Journalists are welcome if they travel accompanied by government officials. However, Moroccan and foreign journalists who want to cover the region independently can face numerous hurdles. Moroccan authorities summarily expel reporters from the region. During protests in Laayoune in May, authorities expelled several reporters and prevented others from entering the city. Even Moroccan journalists who defy Morocco's position on the Western Sahara face legal harassment. Virtually no internet access or private media outlets exist in the poverty-stricken region.
Almost all Sahrawis are Sunni Muslims, and Moroccan authorities, who are also by and large Sunni Muslims, generally respect freedom of worship.
Freedom to assemble or to form political organizations is restricted. In May, Moroccan authorities arrested dozens of Sahrawis after anti-Moroccan riots and demonstrations in Laayoune. Thirty-two of the detainees went on a hunger strike in October to protest their detention. Throughout the year, several other demonstrations were held against Moroccan control of the area, which resulted in detentions, beating, and other forms of harassment by Moroccan authorities. The trials of eight Sahrawi activists were scheduled for December 2005.
Sahrawis living in areas under Moroccan control are subject to Moroccan labor laws, but little organized labor activity exists in the area.
Sahrawis who reside in areas under Moroccan government control are subject to Moroccan laws and regulations. For decades, Sahrawis who have defied the Moroccan government have been arrested, killed, "disappeared," and tortured.
Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have for years criticized the Moroccan authorities regarding their conduct in the Western Sahara. At year's end, the Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER), the first truth commission in the Middle East, submitted its final report to King Muhammad VI; the report detailed the contents of the commission's public hearings and investigations into the disappeared. The IER's work covered the period 1956-1999, most of the reign of King Hassan II. Yet the only public hearing scheduled to take place in the Western Sahara was canceled, and only a tiny fraction of the cases described by witnesses and victims related to the Western Sahara.
Moroccan authorities and the Polisario restrict freedom of movement in areas where potential conflict can occur.
As in Morocco, Sahrawi women are subject to legal and cultural discrimination, particularly in poorer, more rural areas where illiteracy is high.