The sahara autonomy and the protection of human rights

Enshrined in numerous international conventions, Human rights constitute today's sole universally recognized value system. In other words, this value system is currently a reference of choice to judge the credibility of any large-scale political project, such as the Moroccan project for granting autonomy to the Sahara.

In fact, the Moroccan project presents itself as the framework for a «build]ing[ a modern, democratic society, based on the rule of law, collective and individual freedoms, and economic and social development» (point 3 of the Moroccan Autonomy Project).

However, the viability of such a project can be measured up only by examining two crucial elements: its consistency with the international standards on Human rights, and its political and institutional implications at the internal level.

I.          The autonomy of the sahara, a factor for the consolidation of civil and political rights

The autonomy of the southern provinces ought to comply with international standards on matters of civil and political rights, the purpose being to secure its approbation by the international Community. However, the impact of this autonomy on the rights of Sahrawi populations can only be judged at the internal political and institutional level.

A.      The autonomy project and the universal spirit of civil and political rights

The International covenant relative to Civil and Political Rights constitutes the first reference in civil and political rights. It starts by stipulating that «all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development» (Article 1.1). In this respect, the Moroccan project of autonomy is the ideal framework which ensures the achievement of the right of the Sahrawi population to decide on their own fate; it announces that the Sahrawi population «will themselves run their affairs democratically, through legislative, executive and judicial bodies enjoying exclusive powers. They will have the financial resources needed for the region's development in all fields, and will take an active part in the nation's economic, social and cultural life» (paragraph 5 of the Moroccan Project for Autonomy).

Other international texts may serve as a reference on matters of civil and political rights. For instance, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which stipulates in its article 7 that «States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country (...)». The Moroccan project falls into the same logic by providing in its paragraph 19 that « (...) There shall be adequate representation of women in the Parliament of the Sahara autonomous Region».

The credibility of the Moroccan project can be measured up through other texts emanating from international entities. This is notably the case of the international organization «United Cities and Local Governments», whose members have underlined in the final declaration of a recent congress that «the need to foster decentralization processes by strengthening the competences, capacities and financing of local governments». The same text stipulates «effective local democracy implies the active participation of citizens through methods which enable all sections of the local community, including those traditionally excluded, to be involved [sic] on an equal basis. Furthermore, if we want to make progress in the active involvement of citizens, we should implement participatory mechanisms (paragraph 15). Indeed, this is a condition that the project for the Sahara autonomy amply meets.

According to these texts, civil and political rights consist of two ideas: to guarantee individual freedom, and to ensure the participation of citizens of the region in public life. It is against these two ideas that it be possible to measure up the impact of the autonomy of the Sahara region on the protection of the Sahrawi population's civil and political rights.

B.       The sahara autonomy and the civil and political rights : a vertical division of power

The Project for the Sahara autonomy may bring considerable benefits as regard the «rights immunities», insofar as it constitutes a vertical division of power that would result in a limitation of the prerogatives of public authorities.

In fact, in a regionalized system the State is composed of two levels of government having powers defined by the Constitution, and each level of government may resort to the competent jurisdictions if it deems that the other level encroaches on its prerogatives, which provides citizens with an additional protection against any abuse of power.

This opportunity is offered to the Sahrawi citizens, because they will be both represented « in the bodies and institutions of the region, without discrimination or exclusion» (Paragraph 4) and «in Parliament and in the other national institutions» (Paragraph 18).

Furthermore, the autonomy of the Sahara restricts the process of making political decisions to a very limited social unit, thus conferring more democratic rights upon the population of the southern provinces, since it allows every individual the possibility to exercise more influence at the local level than at the national level.

Certainly, political and civil rights rest on the assumption that all citizens have the same right to participate in public life. However, for this right to be effectively exercised there will be need to establish institutions through which popular engagement and control can be exercised. In this regard, the regional parliament, provided for by paragraph 19 of the Moroccan Initiative, would be an essential institution for promoting the rights of the Sahrawi.

While the protection of civil and political rights hinges on the consecration of the limits of State powers, the protection of the economic, social and cultural rights requires the constant intervention of public authorities.

II. The sahara autonomy: a step toward the effective concretisation of economic, social and cultural rights

Concerning the economic, social and cultural rights or second-generation rights, the Moroccan initiative draws on the common international texts in this area, which would translates into a more effective implementation of this category of rights.

A. Conformity of the autonomy project with international standards on second generation rights

The protection of economic, social and cultural rights basically relies on the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. All these rights are constitutionally guaranteed for all Moroccan citizens. Paragraph 25 of the Moroccan initiative for the autonomy of the Sahara stipulates «the Region's populations shall enjoy all the guarantees afforded by the Moroccan Constitution in the area of human rights as they are universally recognized».

Also reflecting the conformity of the Moroccan project to international standards is the Declaration on the Right to Development which states in its Article 8.1 that «States should undertake, at the national level, all necessary measures for the realization of the right to development and shall ensure, inter alia, equality of opportunity for all in their access to basic resources, education, health services, food, housing, employment and the fair distribution of income. Effective measures should be undertaken to ensure that women have an active role in the development process. Appropriate economic and social reforms should be carried out with a view to eradicating all social injustices».

The right to development also constitutes a part of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), announced during the millennium summit. In this regard, the autonomy of the Sahara is a major step towards materializing these objectives, since most of them can be achieved only at the local level.

Indeed, during the 2005 follow-up World Summit of the Millennium Summit of 2000, participating States have stressed «the important role of local authorities in contributing to the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals» (Paragraph 173).

Concerning cultural rights, the Moroccan project urges the Sahrawi population to strive to «the promotion of the Saharan Hassani cultural heritage» (Paragraph 12). Regarding this paragraph, it would be appropriate to refer to the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which underlines in its first article the need to «to promote respect for the diversity of cultural expressions and raise awareness of its value at the local, national and international levels» (Article 1.e).

All these cited texts form a legal arsenal devoted to the protection of the economic, social and cultural rights. However, the prosperity of these rights depends as much on the material resources at the disposal of the public authorities as on their internal or international legal consecration.

B. Economic decentralization: a guarantee of the efficiency of economic, social and cultural rights

The full guarantee on economic, social and cultural rights often depends on the capability of the public authorities to ensure the effective practice of these rights, including through concrete services public Service.

Traditionally, it falls to the State to assume the responsibility for meeting the economic, social and cultural needs of its citizens through the use of the financial revenues collects through local taxes.

In the context of a regionalized state, as proposed by the Moroccan initiative for the Sahara autonomy, responsibility for implementation of these rights is decentralized as tax resources are. Indeed, since the regional authorities have «taxes, duties and regional levies enacted by the Region's competent authorities» (paragraph 13), it falls to them to cater for the economic, social and cultural needs of the Sahrawi population.

In addition to income tax, the Region of the Sahara will have right to  other financial resources consisting of the income of the natural resources of  the Region as well as  the necessary resources allocated under National Solidarity (paragraph 13). Similarly, the regional authorities will be entitled to adopt appropriate economic policies, particularly with regard to «economic development, regional planning, promotion of investment, trade, industry, tourism and agriculture» (paragraph 12).

This economic autonomy for the Sahara region will be fostered through the establishment of an Economic and Social Council, as specified in paragraph 26 of the text of the Moroccan Initiative.


The Moroccan project for the Sahara autonomy largely favours the protection of civil and political rights enshrined by international conventions. This clearly applies to both the exercise of democratic rights to engage in public life as well as to the rights related to individual autonomy or rights-immunities.

Concerning the economic, social and cultural rights, the regionalization stipulated by the project for the Sahara autonomy constitutes an economic and fiscal decentralization that is likely to allow the regional powers to improve the efficiency of public services offered to the governed population.

Anouar Allali
Doctoral student in international law