Western Sahara is a resource-rich territory in North Africa that hugs the Atlantic Coast, stretching between Morocco to the north and Mauritania to the south. Since 1975, eighty percent of the territory has been violently occupied by Morocco — its indigenous Sahrawi population subjected to enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest, torture, surveillance and other forms of repression.

Moroccan authorities exercise power arbitrarily in occupied Western Sahara through the use of police and military forces in order to control the activities of the indigenous Sahrawis and repress support for their right to self-determination. Sahrawis are subjected to systemic and systematic persecution by the Moroccan occupying forces, resulting in numerous human rights violations and violations of humanitarian law. 

For decades, Morocco has tried to ensure that there are no international witnesses to its human rights violations in Western Sahara. The UN peacekeeping force in Western Sahara, MINURSO, set up to oversee the promised referendum on self-determination, does not have human rights monitoring within its mandate, despite numerous calls by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In addition, there is a de facto Moroccan ban on international human rights monitors and media in the territory, resulting in a reporting blackhole, a term used by Reporters without Borders in an extensive report. Sahrawis who try to fill this void, including citizen journalists and human rights defenders, are particularly targeted for harassment, arbitrary arrest and judicial harassment.

Through images captured clandestinely at great risk to their lives, and via frequent reports through social media and other means, Sahrawis share information on these abuses and plead for help from the outside. Media activists sometimes must go into hiding or flee the territory after police raid their homes; others are arrested and imprisoned for years on false charges. A one-year review of over 100 citizen videos published in 2017 by our project Watching Western Sahara showed widespread non-violent protests claiming a wide range of rights taking place all over the territory, many of which were met with police violence and abuse.

Moroccan agents also regularly deploy gender violence to terrorise, intimidate, harass and silence women activists who are at the forefront of peaceful resistance.

Since early 2020 Morocco has also weaponized COVID-19, targeting Saharawi human rights defenders and political prisoners by using pre-existing COVID-19 legislation and rules to limit the movement of civilians or justify human rights abuses including house arrests and sieges.  

The end of the 29-year ceasefire

On 13 November 2020, Moroccan forces launched a military intervention in Guerguerat, a buffer zone in the Southwest corner of Western Sahara, targeting nonviolent Sahrawi protesters who had blocked a Morocco-built road in the zone since 20 October. The road, paved by Morocco in 2016 in contravention of the UN-sponsored ceasefire and military accords between Morocco and the Polisario Front, was a strategic route for Morocco to import and export goods, included those plundered from Western Sahara, towards Mauritania and West Africa, and the blockade had resulted in long lines of backed up traffic in both directions. The civilians were whisked to safety by Polisario vehicles and armed conflict resumed along the 2.700km separation wall between the Polisario and the Moroccan militaries.

On 13 November, corresponding with the end of the 29-year-long ceasefire, the occupied territories of Western Sahara witnessed a wave of military, gendarmerie, police and intelligence forces entering the cities, further strengthening the military siege that already existed.

Saharawi activists, journalists and human rights defenders found themselves effectively under house arrest, with their houses besieged by Morocco’s occupying forces. Houses of prominent activists were attacked by Moroccan forces throwing rocks and knocking on their doors, trying to enter, terrifying and intimidating the activists and dozens of people were arbitrarily arrested.

Since then, Morocco has maintained its ironclad repression against Sahrawis and international human rights monitors and journalists are prevented from entering.   

NomadsHRC and the Norwegian Support Committee issued several human rights reports in this period, as did Human Rights Watch, Front Line Defenders and Amnesty International.