Human Rights Related to Habitat (Housing, Land, Population Transfer, Natural Resources)
in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara
Housing rights and their violation are at the center of conflicts and military occupations that seek to replace Indigenous Peoples from their land and self-determination unit. Morocco’s 47-year-old invasion and effective control of Western Sahara have accompanied gross violations of human rights, in particular the human right to adequate housing (HRAH) amid the occupier’s practice of land dispossession, forced eviction, house demolition and plunder of natural resources.
These acts persist in the context legally defined as occupation through an administration that the Kingdom of Morocco (KoM) erected over the territory immediately after its 1975 invasion. A typical colonial pattern prevails in Western Sahara, whereby KoM commits the serious crime of population transfer, which International Military Tribunals already prosecuted in the wake of World War II. Cited below are instances and recommendations toward implementing international norms to remedy these violations, including full reparation of individual and collective Sahrawi victims, as is their right and entitlement.
Among the devices KoM occupation authorities use to dispossess Sahrawis of their lands and homes is the violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) prohibition against an occupier altering the legal system of an occupied territory. That core violation denies private property and traditional tenure to tribal grarat lands. Grarat holdings are known for their palm groves or desert trees such as acacia, which double as natural storage of scarce water for agriculture and drinking. With their alien rules in force, Moroccan occupation authorities also demolish Sahrawi homes and shelters, grab lands and carry out the push and pull aspect of population transfer with purpose and effect of denying self-determination.
Dispossession, Destruction and Forced Eviction
The following cases illustrate the pattern of losses, costs and damages that the Sahrawi people have incurred under KoM’s policy violating their HRAH.
To facilitate effective control, KoM has evicted Sahrawi nomads and Bedouins from their ancestral land into the cities and forced them to leave their natural desert habitat, where they had freely dwelt for centuries. In the 1970s–80s.
Many individual Sahrawis have fallen victim to multiple land and house confiscations and destruction. In 1976, occupation forces confiscated and seized 4ha from Sidi Omar Duih at Lamrayyat, 3 km east al-`Ayun, plus another 8ha at Lamghaymim in 1997. Moroccan authorities also seized his land holdings at Gaflat-5, east al-`Ayun, and his house in Colomina Erdess (Essaada Quarter) in 2008.
In a November 2011 aggression on Brarik Stayallou northwest of al-`Ayun, KoM authorities demolished 42 Spanish colonial-era Sahrawi huts used as shelter from summer heat. The occupiers’ Rapid Intervention Unit (RIU) then attacked the protesting Saharawi victims without consideration to older persons, women and children present. The victims filed many complaints to all local and Moroccan institutions, but to no avail, despite their diligent follow-up.
In 2015, after similar forced evictions and destruction of brick Sahrawi houses at a grayer 15 km north of al-`Ayun. Occupation forces confiscated the land, where they built a training center for RIU agents.
The Moroccan occupation has criminalized Sahrawis pitching tents by the seashore, permitting tents only in the desert on condition that they be temporary and not form a cluster. This restriction followed the autumn 2010 Gdeim Izik events, in which thousands of Sahrawis joined a weeks-long protest camp on the outskirts of al-`Ayun, denouncing Morocco’s social and economic exclusion of the Saharawi people in their own country. On 8 November 2010, Moroccan troops stormed and incinerated the camp, arresting hundreds in the immediate aftermath. While most were released over time, occupation authorities condemned 25 men to severe sentences.
On 26 September 2018, occupation authorities confiscated Sahrawi land in Edaoura, 40 km north of al-`Ayun, forcing indigenous inhabitants to leave. Moroccan gendarmes also forced the Sahrawi families to cede their land-tenure rights to the Moroccan National Agency for Land Conservation, Cadaster and Cartography in favor of Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy for a planned solar-power-generation project.
In August 2021, KoM helicopters, gendarmerie, auxiliary battalions and law-enforcement agents besieged protesters about 100 km east of al-`Ayun, in the Khattari area, on the route to Smara City. Others have been protesting the Moroccan dispossession of their lands north of al-`Ayun, all the way to Daoura village, which area is guarded by the same occupation forces.
In the southern city of Dakhla, Sahrawis have lost many hectares of land in the Argoub area, which Moroccan occupiers falsely claim as terra nullius. In April 2021, local landowners staged sit-ins at the Dakhla Land Registry to assert their legitimate tenure of those lands, inherited over centuries from their ancestors.
On 18 September 2021, Moroccan bulldozers, trucks and excavators surrounded Tadkhast, southwest of al-`Ayun, and proceeded to demolish 100 Sahrawi permanent and seasonal dwellings. Four days later, Moroccan forces similarly under helicopter monitoring attacked and demolished the six Sahrawi family homes at Brareik Ethamban, southwest of al-`Ayun. This was the third time that occupation forces had demolished the Boutabaa family home built since 1960.
KoM occupiers also have razed Sahrawi houses in the northwest of al-`Ayun, near the seashore, and in the desert to the northeast. Morocco’s occupation gendarmerie has beaten and prosecuted Sahrawis who protested the demolitions. Helpless against this demolition, some inhabitants fled with their children to al-`Ayun.
In January 2022, at nearby Swayhla and Puerto Rico, Moroccan gendarmerie and auxiliary forces evicted tens of local Sahrawi landowners, forbidding them from erecting tents or any physical presence there, declaring it a “restricted area.”
Meanwhile, of a Moroccan official named “Said Ouassou” ordered occupation forces to seize the homes of Mohamed Brahim Sidi Ahmed, Sahrawi activist Hmad Hammad, and Mokhtar Elaoui, as well as land belonging to Eddah Laaroussi Brahim Maatallah, west of al-`Ayun. Occupation authorities then turned over the homes and lands to Moroccan investors and settlers.
On 1 February 2022, Moroccan forces demolished 23 modest Sahrawi homes without warning in Amgriou (Tarfaya Province), preventing inhabitants to collect their belongings. The occupation authorities then enabled Moroccan settlers to remain there and profit from algae harvesting and plunder the abundant fisheries.
Despite local Sahrawi landowners demonstrating and filing lawsuits in local courts, Moroccan authorities have taken no action to cease or remedy theses cruel violations. Many Sahrawi protesters and landowners are dispersed in the desert, claiming their land rights and opposing Moroccan state-led attempts to register their lands in the name of Moroccan settlers and institutions.
With Morocco’s irredentist political culture, sovereignty over Western Sahara cannot be realized without physically removing and/or demographically neutralizing the Saharawi people. The so-called Green March introduced some 350–360,000 Moroccan citizens, 15% of whom worked for the Moroccan army and/or were part of a KoM Ministry of the Interior plan to replace and forcibly transfer the Sahrawis from their homeland to neighboring countries, deporting some to Morocco’s interior cities, while starving and/or physically eliminating those who remained.Many Sahrawis were forced to flee to the refugee camps in neighboring Algeria, while others sought refuge in Mauritania. Others could escape to the Canary Islands. The Moroccan army then forcibly conscripted some Sahrawis, mostly into service in Moroccan territory.
Morocco’s 1975 invasion forced and continuously enforced displacement of some 200,000 Sahrawi refugees, denying rights of return and family reunification. They parallel the coerced and incentivized policy of implanting Moroccan settlers in an integrated population-transfer policy with its purpose and effect of demographic manipulation ahead of any UN-mandated referendum among to determine the country’s future political status. The combined results have reduced the Indigenous Sahrawi population to one-third of the total in Moroccan-occupied Sahrawi territory. Many of the associated violations may be considered international crimes of state, whether with state authority, consent, or by proxy.
Estimates of settler numbers vary. By 1985, some surveys indicated Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara had doubled the country’s population. In the 1990s, KoM transferred some 170,000 of its own population, anticipating the UN-supported referendum on final status would include illegal settlers. Currently, illegal Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara are estimated at over 300,000.
Beyond the 1975 Moroccan state-organized Green March invasion, KoM also pursues subtler form of population transfer, incentivizing settlers with tax and customs exemptions, subsidizing housing and raw materials, and facilitating all fields of investment denied to their Indigenous counterparts. Such royal enterprises as the Phos Boucraa phosphate mine, which KoM seized in 1975, exemplifies how illicit exploitation of Sahrawi natural resources finances the occupation. At least 77% of Morocco’s revenue from the current EU Fisheries Agreement is spent in occupied Western Sahara, including funding illegal Moroccan settler housing.
We recommend that the Council and the High Commissioner investigate human rights deprivation in Western Sahara, and that the SR on adequate housing build on previous reporting violence and conflict affecting HRAH in the occupied Sahrawi territory.
Photo: Demonstration in Bilbao, March 2021, protesting the Siemens and Gamesa corporation’s exploitation of land and natural resources in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Source: Western Sahara Resources Watch (WSRW).
 The international law definition of the term “occupation” refers to a “period following invasion and preceding the cessation of hostilities” that “imposes more onerous duties on an Occupying Power than on a party to an international armed conflict” (Prosecutor v Naletilić and Martinović, International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Case No.IT-98-34-T (2003), 73, para. 214, http://www.icty.org/sid/8274).
Determining the start of an occupation is essentially a question of fact [Lord Arnold Duncan McNair and Sir Arthur Watts, The Legal Effects of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, fourth edition, 1966), pp. 377–78; and Georg Schwarzenberger, International law as Applied by International Courts and Tribunals, Vol. II: “The Law of Armed Conflict” (London: Stevens & Sons, 1968), p. 324], which must be distinguished from invasion: “Invasion is the marching or riding of troops—or the flying of military aircraft—into enemy country. Occupation is invasion plus taking possession of enemy country for the purpose of holding it, at any rate temporarily. The difference between mere invasion and occupation becomes apparent from the fact that an occupant sets up some kind of administration, whereas the mere invader does not [Hersch Lauterpacht, “Disputes, war and neutrality,” in Lassa Francis Lawrence Oppenheim, International law: a treatise, Vol. II: (London: Longman, 7th edition, 1952) p. 434; see also Re Lepore, Annual Digest of Public International Law Cases, Vol. 13, p. 354 (Supreme Military Tribunal, Italy: 1946), p. 355; “Disability pension case,” International Law Reports, Vol. 90 (Federal Social Court, F.R. Germany: 1985), p. 403; and Gerhard von Glahn, The Occupation of Enemy Territory: A Commentary on the Law and Practice of Belligerent Occupation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1957), pp. 28–29].
This distinction flows from The Hague Regulations, as customary international law, which provide a definition of occupation upon which, on the whole, the Fourth Geneva Convention relies (Article 6 conveys a wider meaning than in The Hague Regulations (Article 42): “So far as individuals are concerned, the application of the Fourth Geneva Convention does not depend upon the existence of a state of occupation within the meaning of Article 42 ... The relations between the civilian population of a territory and troops advancing into that territory, whether fighting or not, are governed by the present Convention. There is no intermediate period between what might be termed the invasion phase and the inauguration of a stable regime of occupation. Even a patrol which penetrates into enemy territory without any intention of staying there must respect the Convention in its dealings with the civilians it meets.” Jean Pictet, ed., Commentary to Geneva Convention IV Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (Geneva: ICRC, 1958), pp. 59–60; see also Guénaël Mettraux, International Crimes and the ad hoc Tribunals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 64–71; and Prosecutor v Naletilić and Martinović, supra. pp. 74–75, paras. 219–21]. “Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised” [Prosecutor v. Naletilic and Martinovic, p. 73, para. 215, www.un.org/icty/naletilic/trialc/judgement/naltj030331-e.pdf. The customary nature of The Hague Regulations was declared by the International Criminal Tribunal at Nuremberg in the Trial of German Major War Criminals, Cmd. 6964 (1946) 65. Numerous other courts have affirmed the customary status of The Hague Regulations; see, for example, Krupp case (United States Military Tribunal at Nuremberg), Annual Digest of Public International Law Cases, Vol. 15, pp. 620, 622 (later retitled International Law Reports, which title now applies to the entire series) R. v Finta, 1 S.C.R. 701 (Canadian High Court of Justice), International Law Reports, Vol. 82, p. 439; Affo v IDF Commander in the West Bank (Israel High Court), International Law Reports, Vol., 83, p. 163; Polyukhovich v. Commonwealth of Australia (Australian High Court), International Law Reports. Vol. 91, p. 123; Theodor Meron, Human Rights and Humanitarian Norms as Customary Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 38–40.]
The most-fundamental principles of international law and world order affirm that “It is the right and duty of all States, individually and collectively, to eliminate colonialism, apartheid, racial discrimination, neocolonialism and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation and domination, and the economic and social consequences thereof, as a prerequisite for development” [Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, GA Res. 3281(xxix), UN GAOR, 29th Session, Supplement No. 31 (1974), p. 50, Article 16, at: https://legal.un.org/avl/ha/cerds/cerds.html].
 Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Hague, 18 October 1907, Article 43. https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/en/ihl-treaties/hague-conv-iv-1907.
 Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 4: “the right to housing,” 13 December 1991, contained in document E/1992/23, at: http://www.hlrn.org/img/documents/GC4.pdf; CESCR General Comment No. 7: “forced eviction,” 20 May 1997, contained in document E/1998/22, Annex IV, at: http://www.hlrn.org/img/documents/GC7.pdf.
 Lotfi Hajji and Patrick Baudouin, Sahara Occidental : Les affrontements du 8 novembre 2010 à Laâyoune : Escalade dans un conflit qui s’éternise (Paris : La Fédération internationale des droit de l’homme (FIDH) et l’Organisation marocaine des droits de l’homme (OMDH), March 2011), https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/MarocLaayoune557f.pdf.
 Personal interview with Sidi Omar Duih, February 2018.
 Victims’ petition letters on file.
 Eyewitness testimony; “Confiscation et accaparation de grarats au Sahara Occidental occupé,” Équipe Média (10 June 2022), https://emsahara.com/?p=839&lang=fr.
 Western Sahara Resources Watch (WSRW), “Soon 10 years of wrongful imprisonment: release Gdeim Izik group now,” 8 September 2020, https://wsrw.org/en/news/soon-10-years-of-wrongful-imprisonment-release-gdeim-izik-group-now.
 Greenwashing Occupation: How Morocco’s renewable energy projects in occupied Western Sahara prolong the conflict over the last colony in Africa (WSRW, October 2021), pp. 11, 13, 19, 29, https://vest-sahara.s3.amazonaws.com/wsrw/feature-images/File/399/615d3ac8c4c0d_Greenwashing_Web.pdf; Daniel Stemler, “Morocco Pushes Huge Renewables Agenda In Disputed Western Sahara,” Oil Price (19 November 2016), https://oilprice.com/Alternative-Energy/Solar-Energy/Morocco-Pushes-Huge-Renewables-Agenda-In-Disputed-Western-Sahara.html; “Dirty green energy on occupied land,” Western Sahara Resources Watch (21 July 2020); Équipe Média, op. cit..
Video of siege and demonstration at Khattari area, smara.voice (15 August 2021), https://fb.watch/bC8xuwHDrx/https://fb.watch/bC8xuwHDrx/.
 Oscar Allende, “Equipe Media denuncia la confiscación y demolición de viviendas en el Sáhara Occidental ocupado,” Equipe Media (4 October 2021), https://www.elfaradio.com/2021/10/02/equipe-media-denuncia-la-confiscacion-y-demolicion-de-viviendas-en-el-sahara-occidental-ocupado/.
 Ibid.; Équipe Média, op. cit.
"مواطنون بالداخلة يتهمون والي الجهة وأخنوش ومزوار بمصادرة أراضيهم ويستنجدون بالملك (بالقيديو)،" صحراء تودوس (11 أبريل 2021)، https://saharatodos.ma/?p=14869.
 Phone interview with Sahrawi activist Hmad Hammad, January 2022.
 See Mohamed Laâbid, « Laâyoune : La plage d`Amgriou séduit les investisseurs » Aujourd`hui le Maroc (16 January 2008), https://www.maghress.com/fr/aujourdhui/59266.
 Jacob Mundy and Stephen Zunes, “Moroccan Settlers in Western Sahara: Colonists or Fifth Column?” in Oded Haklai, Neophytos Loizides, eds., Settlers in Contested Lands: Territorial Disputes and Ethnic Conflicts (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2015), pp. 40–74, https://1lib.ch/book/3506931/6713bb; Gabriel Davis, “Morocco’s Double Infallibility: The Intergenerational Peril of the 1975 Green March,” Jadaliyya (11 August 2020), https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/41535.
 Commission on Human Rights, Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, “The human rights dimensions of population transfer, including the implantation of settlers and settlements,” E/CN.4/Sub.2/1993/17, 6 July 1993, http://www.refworld.org/docid/3b00f4194.html.
 Erica Vásquez, “The Roots of Conflict: From Settler-Colonialism to Military Occupation in the Western Sahara” (Part 1), Jadaliyya (9 January 2015), https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/31655.
 Mundy and Zunes, op. cit., pp. 60, 74.
 In 2015, settlers made up two-thirds of the total 500,000 population. Whitney Shefte, “Western Sahara`s stranded refugees consider renewal of Morocco conflict,” The Guardian (6 January 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/06/morocco-western-sahara-referendum-delay; Mundy and Zunes, op. cit. The total population is estimated to be 630,289 in the beginning of 2023. “Western Sahara Population,” Country Meters, https://countrymeters.info/en/Western_Sahara#:~:text=Demographics%20of%20Western%20Sahara%202021,of%20603%2C091%20the%20year%20before.
 “Discrimination over the right to housing in OCP, local workers say,” WSRW (8 April 2012), https://wsrw.org/en/archive/2275.
 According to Moroccan government reporting of Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement revenues. See “EU’s Fishy Business with Morocco,” Land Times/أحوال الأرض, Issue 22 (March 2021), http://landtimes.landpedia.org/newsdes.php?id=qGps&catid=ow==&edition=pGs=.