Morocco has a long history of human rights abuses, occupation, and exploitation of Indigenous people. It is a monarchy, and has been under an authoritarian government since 1961, when King Hassan II ascended to the throne. Hassan’s reign was described as “appalling” by the BBC. The period between 1961 and the early 1990s was known in Morocco as the Years of Lead, due to Hassan’s authoritarian clampdown after he was crowned King of Morocco.
During his reign, dissidents were killed, arrested, tortured and kidnapped, and freedom of the press was repressed. Among those casualties were Mehdi Ben Barka, considered the father of the Moroccan left, who was assassinated by the governments of France and Morocco with the help of the Israeli Mossad, and Abraham Serfaty, an activist from the Moroccan Jewish community who stood up to Hassan and was jailed for 32 years.
Thousands of protesters were killed by the state in cities like Casablanca and Marrakech. Hassan’s government also maintained a secret mountain prison called Tazmamart, where cells were cramped, isolated and infested, and prisoners were starved and abused.
King Mohammed VI took over the throne after the death of Hassan, his father, in 1999. The human rights situation has only slightly improved under his reign. Criticism of the king is prohibited, torture is widespread and prison conditions remain poor. Journalists are also routinely harassed and jailed, and the government targets small, independent news outlets with heavy fines, bankrupting them.
Furthermore, Morocco cooperated with the Central Intelligence Agency and M16 in the process of extraordinary rendition, in which people who were accused of terrorist activity in the years after 9/11 were kidnapped off of the streets in places like the United States, Canada, Britain and Italy, and sent to countries such as Syria, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Yemen and of course, Morocco, where they were interrogated by the CIA as well as the intelligence forces of local governments and subject to torture and abuse.
Morocco has a bad record when it comes to Indigenous communities, too. The indigenous Berbers, who still make up about 60% of the Moroccan population, have had their culture, language, and names suppressed by the dominant Arab culture. The wealth and literacy gap between Arabs and Berbers in Morocco is stark, and the Moroccan government has a history of heavy-handed military responses to Berbers demanding human rights.
Another Indigenous population that has been oppressed by the Moroccan government is the Sahrawis, who live in the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), also known as Western Sahara.
To understand how the occupation of the SADR started, we have to go back to 1976, when Spain relinquished control over the Spanish Sahara. Spain promised a referendum on independence, but instead signed the Madrid Pact, handing the territory over to Morocco and Mauritania after Spain withdrew.
Around the same time, the Polisario Front, the armed socialist liberation front that believes in the liberation of the SADR, experienced a revival, and began to fight against the occupation. Mauritania withdrew in 1979, but Morocco remained and took over the territory.
Half of the Sahrawi population fled to Algeria after the Moroccan invasion, and to this day, the Sahrawis maintain a de-facto capital at the refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria. Conflict broke out between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government, and in 1987, Morocco completed a wall that separated the 80% of the territory that Morocco controls from the 20% controlled by the SADR.
The SADR is rich in oil, fish and phosphates, and Moroccan and multinational companies exploit those resources. Even the sand from the Sahrawi coast is stolen and shipped overseas to build vacation resorts in wealthy countries. The United States and Morocco have always been close, with Morocco being the first country to recognize our nation’s independence, and these ties have remained even as the human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Morocco.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Former President Gerald Ford conspired to rig the U.N. Security Council vote against the Sahrawis, President Jimmy Carter provided Morocco with weapons and military aid, President Ronald Reagan supported King Hassan during the end of the Years of Lead, and President George W. Bush strengthened our military ties with Morocco during the War on Terror.
Although there has been an official ceasefire between Morocco and the SADR since 1991, the conflict has continued, Morocco has continued to sabotage the possibility of independence referendums, and the Moroccan state continues to arrest, harass and kidnap Sahrawi activists. In 2018, Democracy Now! reporter Amy Goodman traveled to the SADR, where she was harassed by security forces and witnessed protesters being violently repressed, including one woman who was violently sexually assaulted by a soldier.
On Dec. 10, 2020, Trump officially recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the SADR, in return for King Mohammed VI recognizing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. According to Hamdi Toubali, a Sahrawi student, journalist and activist, the Moroccan government broke the ceasefire on Nov. 13, 2020, after opening fire on unarmed protesters in Guerguerat, SADR. These events have led to the conflict boiling over in recent years.
After the fighting broke out, government repression against the Sahrawis, which was already bad, increased significantly. Protests have been met with excessive violence. Kidnappings, arrests, and arbitrary searches and seizures have become more and more commonplace, and opponents of the government are sent to horrendous prisons on trumped up charges.
The United States and the West have the power to end this occupation by cutting off military aid and refusing to trade products stolen from Sahrawis. Biden can reverse Trump’s betrayal of the Sahrawis, but whether he chooses to do so or not remains to be seen.