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UN reports severe human rights abuses in Western Sahara

Most of Western Sahara is controlled by Morocco, and is considered a non-self-governing territory by the United Nations.
Hundreds march in central Madrid in support of Western Sahara on June 19, 2021 in Madrid, Spain.

A United Nations human rights body criticized Morocco on Thursday for alleged human rights abuses in Western Sahara. 

The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders said that those who document human rights in Morocco and the disputed North African territory are subject to state repression. 

“Not only do human rights defenders working on issues related to human rights in Morocco and Western Sahara continue to be wrongfully criminalised for their legitimate activities, they receive disproportionately long prison sentences,” said Mary Lawlor in a press release. “And whilst imprisoned, they are subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture.” 

The United Nations considers Western Sahara a non-self-governing territory. Morocco secured control over most of the territory following the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1975. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic also claims the territory, and is led by the Polisario Front. The self-proclaimed state only controls part of Western Sahara. Morocco’s neighbor Algeria is supportive of the Polisario Front, and there is a large Sahrawi refugee population in the country. 

In 2020, the United States under President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara, thus reversing years of US policy. Current President Joe Biden has said he is reviewing the recognition, but has yet to definitively comment on it. 

Lawlor spoke of a “systematic and relentless targeting” of people working to highlight human rights issues in Western Sahara, including some who engage with the UN. As evidence, she pointed to the case of Sultana Khaya, who has allegedly been prevented since November of last year from leaving her home in the Western Saharan city Laayoune. Khaya is president of the League for the Defense of Human Rights and Protection of Natural Resources, which works for Western Saharan self-determination. 

“For the last seven months, police and security vehicles have blocked access to the house, preventing the family from leaving, and relatives have frequently been unable to deliver vital provisions,” said Lawlor. 

The rapporteur added that Khaya and her sister Luara were sexually assaulted by Moroccan officers during a raid in May, among other transgressions. Lawlor further alleged that members of the Saharawi Organ against the Moroccan Occupation organization, founded in September 2020, have been attacked and tortured, as well as subjected to an investigation by public prosecutors in Laayoune.

Lawlor is not alone in her assessment. Human Rights Watch has also reported a crackdown on dissent in Western Sahara. 

The Moroccan government is determined in its position that the territory is theirs. In May, Morocco recalled its ambassador from Germany due to the European country’s “negative stance” on Western Sahara.