The Western Sahara

The Western Sahara

Basic Data

Official Country Name: Western Sahara
Region (Map name): Africa
Population: 244,943

The Western Sahara

Language(s): Hassaniya Arabic,Moroccan Arabic
Literacy rate: N/A

The Western Sahara is located at the northwest bend of North Africa, just south of Morocco, west of Algeria, and northwest of Mauritania. Its northwestern border is the Atlantic coast. The Western Sahara is the only United Nations-declared non-self-governing territory remaining in Africa. Formerly known as the Spanish Sahara before independence movements swept the African continent beginning in the late 1950s, the territory became independent of Spain when the former European colonial power withdrew in 1975. Since then, it has been subject to contentious claims by Morocco, Mauritania, and the Frente Polisario (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro). Mauritania dropped its claims in 1979. At that point Morocco, which already had sent troops into the northern two-thirds of the territory, extended its control into the southern part as well. Armed conflict intermittently erupted between Morocco and the Polisario until a ceasefire was declared in 1991. At that time, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, known by its French acronym, MINURSO, was established and peacekeeping troops were sent to the region.

A UN-sponsored referendum was originally scheduled to take place in 1991 to allow the Sahrawis, the territory's indigenous peoples, to determine their political future. However, as of mid-2002, this referendum had yet to be held. Significant numbers of prisoners of war continued to be imprisoned by both Morocco and the Polisario. When the referendum does take place, the basic choices apparently will be either independent status for the Western Sahara as a separate country or integration with Morocco in a more permanent, legally sanctioned form. Numerous attempts to schedule the referendum have met with failure, primarily due to lack of agreement between Morocco and the Polisario as to exactly who should be allowed to vote. Because the Moroccan government has waged an active campaign to settle the Western Sahara's northern two-thirds in hopes of establishing a Moroccan claim, significant numbers of Moroccans now live within the Western Sahara. Additionally, tens of thousands of Sahrawis are living in camps outside the territory in Algeria, and to a lesser extent in Mauritania.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) recognized the Western Sahara as an independent country in 1984, named the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic as the civilian arm of the Polisario. However, the broader international community has not recognized the territory as an independent state, and the United Nations continues to view the region as a non-self-governing territory awaiting self-determination. Tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees currently live in camps in Algeria across the border, near Tindouf. The economy of the Western Sahara is extremely poor, as the country, primarily a desert expanse, has no particularly valuable natural resources. The chief export is fish. As the U.S. State Department noted in its human rights report for the Western Sahara for 2001, "The 15 percent of the territory outside of Moroccan control do not have any major population centers or economic activity beyond nomadic herding."

The U.S. State Department also noted, "Freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association remain very restricted in the Western Sahara. According to Amnesty International, Moroccan authorities continue to deny the registration of the independent newspaper Sawt Al-Janoub ."

As Amnesty International reported concerning media developments in 2001, "Restrictions on freedom of expression [in Morocco and the Western Sahara] continued to be imposed. Journalists were punished for work deemed to be critical of the authorities. Foreign journalists were expelled from the country, certain editions of foreign and domestic publications were banned and Moroccan journalists were sentenced to prison terms." It is rather unclear to what extent Amnesty International's comments refer to Morocco more generally and which pertain specifically to the Western Sahara. As Reporters without Borders noted in its annual report on Morocco for events in 2001, "during the year no fewer than nine newspapers—seven of them foreign—were censored for addressing topics such as the Western Sahara, corruption and especially the king in person." However, the Moroccan government has not restricted Internet sites that criticize the Moroccan position on the Western Sahara.

Amnesty International stated that the Polisario, too, had failed to respect freedom of expression in the area of Algeria surrounding the camps where Sahrawis are housed.

Regarding journalists operating in the Western Sahara, the U.S. State Department further observed, "The Moroccan Government limits access to the territory, and international human rights organizations and impartial journalists sometimes have experienced difficulty in securing admission." Moreover, at least one journalist was imprisoned in Morocco in 2001, Noureddine Darif, who had worked for the leftist weekly newspaper Al-Amal al Democrati . Darif had been in Western Sahara when he was arrested by local authorities in November 2001 at a hospital in Smara Province while trying to interview persons injured in demonstrations against the Moroccan government earlier that day. Taken to a police station, Darif allegedly was beaten and accused of "collusion with a foreign party" and instigating violence, then imprisoned at Ayoun Prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The British Broadcasting Corporation reported in mid-July 2002 that Moroccan officials had stepped up their attempts to stifle reporting on the issues surrounding the Western Sahara. In its Country Profile on Morocco, the BBC noted, "Newspaper editions have been confiscated and the top three managers at 2M TV were sacked for reporting an interview with the leader of the Polisario Front. Other outlets have been censored for libel, national security violations or vaguely defined 'offensive reporting."'

A radio station known as the National Radio of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic was set up in 1979 by the Polisario Front and broadcasts in Arabic and Spanish as well as on the Internet. One Arabic-language website regularly posting news about the Western Sahara is , with contacts located in Amman, Jordan; Beirut, Lebanon; and Tenduf (Algier), and Algeria. Also located in Tindouf, Algeria, is the Sahara Press Service (SPS), which offers information on the Western Sahara and provides contact information for itself through a website at . Both websites appear to be associated with the Polisario.

Until a referendum is held that will allow the people of the Western Sahara to determine their own political status, it appears unlikely that much of a media presence within the territory itself will be permitted. Once the Western Sahara's political future is decided, the course of development of the press and broadcast media will be significantly shaped by the choice of whether the territory becomes an independent country or a full-fledged, integrated region of Morocco. It appears likely that considerations of free speech and press freedom will bear heavily on the minds of those entitled to vote in that momentous and long-awaited referendum.

Significant Dates

  • 1976: Spain relinquishes its colonial claim over the Western Sahara.
  • 1979: Mauritania drops its claim on the southern portion of the Western Sahara.
  • 1991: UN Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara deploys peacekeeping forces to the region.
  • 2001: Nourredine Darif is imprisoned after interviewing persons injured in an anti-government demonstration in Smara Province, Western Sahara.
  • 2002: UN Mandate extended for another six months, keeping MINURSO alive through January 31, 2003 in hopes that a solution will be found to finally arrange the referendum by which the territory's future political status will be determined.


Amnesty International. "Morocco/Western Sahara." Amnesty International Report 2002 . London: Amnesty International, May 28, 2002. Available at!Open .

BBC Monitoring. "Country profile: Morocco." Reading, UK: British Broadcasting Corporation, July 17,2002. Available at .

BBC News. "Polisario blasts Morocco's Sahara claim." British Broadcasting Corporation, March 7, 2002. Available at .

BBC News. "UN to stay in Western Sahara." British Broadcasting Corporation, July 31, 2002. Available at .

BBC News. "World: Africa; Background: The forgotten conflict." British Broadcasting Corporation, January 27, 1999. Available at

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State. "Western Sahara." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001 . Washington, DC: Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State, March 4, 2002. Available at

Committee to Protect Journalists. "Morocco." Attacks on the Press in 2001: Africa 2001 . New York, NY: CPJ, 2002. Available at

Peace and Security Section, Department of Public Information. "United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara -MINURSO." United Nations, 2002. Available at .

Reporters without Borders. "Morocco annual Report 2002." Paris, France: Reporters sans frontiers, April 24, 2002. Available at

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks. "UN Mission Mandate Extended By Six Months." August 1,2002. All Africa Global Media ( ). Available at

UN News Service. "Annan names new Force Commander for UN's Western Sahara mission." July 22, 2002. Available at

UN News Service. "Security Council extends UN's Western Sahara mission through January 2003." July 30, 2002. Available at

UN News Service. "Security Council to continue talks on resolution to extend UN's Western Sahara mission." July 26, 2002. Available at

UN News Service. "Western Sahara: Annan hails release of 100 prisoners of war by Polisario." July 8, 2002. Available at

UN Security Council. "Security Council Extends MINURSO Mandate to 31 January 2003." Press Release SC/7474. Security Council 4594th Meeting (PM). July 30, 2002. Available at

Western Sahara Referendum Support Association. "Weekly News Update." July 27, 2002. Posted to the Internet on July 27, 2002 by All Africa Global Media ( ). Available at

Barbara A. Lakeberg-Dridi

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