Landscape of Western Sahara

Western Sahara Landscape. UN Photos/Evan Schneider

WILPF attended a very touching and moving side event on the Human Rights situation in Western Sahara last week at the Human Rights Council. The event presented numerous reports and statistics on human rights violations taking place against the people of Western Sahara.


For more than thirty years, the territory of Western Sahara has been disputed between Morocco and the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Polisario Front), a national movement catering to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara since Spanish decolonisation in 1975. This has entailed an armed conflict with horrendous humanitarian consequences.


Carlos Beristain, a medical psychologist as well as author of numerous books written on human rights violations in Western Sahara, opened the discussion by providing a summary of his studies that analysed 265 cases in the region based on fieldwork and truth commission analysis. His reports included cases of bombing, prisons of war, women and children, arbitrary detentions, and symbolic cases of dismantling a camp.

Beristain stated that few people address “the drama of women” in Western Sahara, a term he improvised at the discussion.

Through the tragic examples he gave, a woman who was tortured during nine-months of pregnancy in prison, was later separated from her new born directly after giving birth. This resulted in her having severe psychological disorders.

Beristain shared another moving story reflecting the tremendous humanitarian consequences of the use of landmines in Western Sahara. It was the story of a woman describing an escape with her husband in the night, fleeing toward the Moroccan border as the camp’s police chased them through a thicket of landmines. Beristain analyses that there is a high percentage of women victims in this conflict simply because, according to their opponents, they are ‘Sahrawi’ women who were born in the ‘wrong’ place. Their participation in demonstrations, peaceful protests and other events increases their risk of detention.

What WILPF found equally interesting is that some women are targeted because of their blood relationships with the Polisario Front members; whether they are the mothers, wives, sisters or daughters of these authorities.

Women of Western Sahara

Women of Western Sahara. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

One cannot help but notice that women are held responsible for things they cannot possibly control. Their very humanity is violated.

According to Beristain, violence against women in refugee camps also has severe consequences in their psychological health. He states that four out of ten women (and men) in refugee camps have been raped. Refugee women have also experienced miscarriages in prisons or have been separated form their children and families.


Mohamed Salem Lakhal, from the Collective of Human Rights Defenders in Western Sahara (CODESA) stated how the violations committed by the Moroccan regime are not mediated and are unknown by most of the public.

Despite the success of the mandate of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Western Sahara in maintaining a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the situation in Western Sahara is no closer to being resolved now than it was in 1991. According to Mohamed Salem Lakhal, although there is a cease fire, “no peace process exists”. Generations of children are born in this war context and disappearances of more than 400 persons have not been clarified in a manner that is satisfying to the victims’ families.


To conclude, Beristain mentioned that in order to evaluate the human rights situation in Western Sahara, a peace process should be reached. He states that “we need to know the impact of war on the very victims to be on the way to peace”. He further stated that there has been no recognition of the refugees in Algeria, who are seen as a humanitarian problem but not one of human rights.

The war also has an impact on the younger generations. Children are seen in demonstrations in the Sahrawi intifada.

We encourage you to share with us your views on the Human Rights situation in Western Sahara. As always we welcome your thoughts and opinions!