Morocco claims the Western Sahara territory and administers Moroccan law through Moroccan institutions in the estimated 85 percent of the territory it controls. However, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario), an organization that has sought independence for the former Spanish territory since 1973, disputes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory.
There has been no census since the Spanish left the territory, but the population was estimated to be more than 500,000, many of whom were attributable to Moroccan in-migration. The indigenous population is Sahrawi, (literally “people of the desert” in Arabic) who also live in southern Morocco, in Algeria, and in Mauritania.
The Moroccan government sent troops and settlers into the northern two provinces after Spain withdrew in 1975 and extended its administration to the third province after Mauritania renounced its claim in 1979. Moroccan and Polisario forces fought intermittently from 1975 until a 1991 ceasefire and the deployment of a UN peacekeeping contingent, the UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara, whose mandate does not include human rights monitoring. In the late 1980s, Morocco constructed a 1,250-mile stone and sand wall known as the "berm" that effectively marks the limit of its administrative control.
In 1988 Morocco and the Polisario agreed to settle the sovereignty dispute by referendum. The parties did not resolve disagreements over voter eligibility and which options for self-determination (integration, independence, or something in between) should be on the ballot; consequently, a referendum never took place.
There have been several attempts to broker a solution since 2007 in face-to-face negotiations between representatives of the two sides under UN auspices. Morocco has proposed autonomy for the territory within the kingdom; the Polisario has proposed a referendum in which full independence would be an option. Meetings in January, March, June, and July under the auspices of Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary General for Western Sahara Christopher Ross did not yield significant progress toward a permanent solution.
Morocco considers the part of the territory that it administers to be an integral part of the kingdom with the same laws and structures conditioning the exercise of civil liberties and political and economic rights. Under the constitution, ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI who presides over the Council of Ministers and approves members of the government recommended to him by the prime minister. On July 1, Moroccans adopted a new constitution and on November 25, Morocco held legislative elections, which included Western Saharan provinces. (For additional information on political developments in Morocco, see the 2011 Morocco Human Rights Report.)
Apart from government action to restrict pro-independence views and associations, overall human rights conditions in the territory tended to converge with those in the kingdom. Several long-standing human rights issues that continue to be of concern were related to pro-independence activity, including limitations on the freedom of speech and assembly, the use of arbitrary detention to quell dissent, and physical and verbal abuse of detainees during arrests and imprisonment.
Widespread impunity existed, although the government prosecuted at least one official who committed abuses. Corruption continued among security forces and the judiciary. In addition, Sahrawis faced discrimination in the application of the laws on prison visitation rights and NGO registration.