Following Three Decades of Isolation, Morocco Rejoins African Union

African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

After more than 30 years of separation, Morocco has officially been admitted back in to the African Union (AU), the continent’s largest intergovernmental organization. [New York Times; Reuters] Morocco quit the African Union’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, in 1984 after the regional bloc officially recognized Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara) as a member. [BBC: Morocco] After a reported 39 to 9 vote at the 28th African leader’s summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on January 30, 2017, Morocco became the 55th member of the AU despite some opposition concerning its position on Western Sahara, a territory that Morocco considers part of its historic land. [Guardian; Reuters; Al Jazeera] Morocco also boasts a 110 billion-dollar economy, one of Africa’s largest, and its membership in the regional bloc could mean economic opportunity for the AU. [Reuters]


Morocco submitted its bid to rejoin the AU last year and is the final African State to join the regional organization. [Al Jazeera] Debate over Morocco’s admission to the AU centered on the issue of whether Morocco would respect Western Sahara’s internationally recognized borders. [Reuters; Al Jazeera] Although the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is fully recognized by the AU, the UN still defines it as a non-self-governing territory and most of Western Sahara remains under Morocco’s de facto administrative control, leaving its status and sovereignty unresolved. [BBC: Western Sahara; Reuters] Some have suggested that Morocco’s return to the AU will facilitate a referendum on independence in Western Sahara, which was first promised in 1991 as part of a peace deal. Others, though, claim that this is Morocco’s first step towards securing control of the territory. [Financial Times; BBC: Profile] Nevertheless, AU leaders admitted Morocco, which the ambassador of Western Sahara to the AU said is not an indication that Western Sahara will leave the AU. [New York Times]

AU membership could also potentially bring Morocco under the jurisdiction of the continent’s human rights bodies, if it ratifies the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which establishes the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), and the protocol accepting the authority of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR).

Separately, Morocco’s entry into the AU is projected to increase economic opportunities both for Morocco and for the AU. [Reuters] Morocco, which is Africa’s fifth largest economy, is expected to explore interests in mining, construction, medical, insurance, and banking sectors across the region. [BBC: Western Sahara; Reuters]

Morocco still must accede to the Constitutive Act of the African Union to be a full member of the AU. According to Article 29 of the act, an African State wishing to join the regional organization must first give notice of its intent – as Morocco did last year – to accede to the act and become a Member State; the requesting State may not do so, though, until a simple majority of current Member States vote in favor of the requesting State. As soon as Morocco accedes to the act, the State will be a full member in the AU.

Western Sahara Conflict

After the withdrawal of Spain from Western Sahara, Morocco seized two-thirds of its territory between 1975 and 1976. [BBC: Morocco] Subsequently, Morocco engaged in a 16-year war with the Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s independence movement, which ended in 1991 after a “UN-brokered truce.” [Guardian] However, the conflict displaced thousands of indigenous Sahrawis, resulting in an estimated 90,000 people living in refugee camps along the Algerian border. [Newsweek] In 1992, the UN oversaw an attempt to hold a referendum on self-determination but was unsuccessful due to Morocco’s objections. [Guardian]

Morocco’s return to the AU comes despite recent tensions between the State and the international organizations over classification of Western Sahara and its rule over the territory. Last March, Morocco threatened to pull out of the UN global peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara after then-UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, used the term “occupation” when referring to the territory. [BBC: Morocco] Morocco also expelled 84 international civil servants from the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, including AU personnel. See ACHPR, 340: Resolution on the Human Rights Situation in the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, ACHPR/Res. 340 (LVIII), 20 April 2016. Further, it was reported that last August, Moroccan forces crossed UN-mandated buffer zones. [Reuters]

In response, human rights bodies including the UN Human Rights Committee and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have requested a referendum on Western Sahara’s independence and called on Morocco to respect the human rights of those in the territory, particularly the right to self-determination. See, e.g., 340: Resolution on the Human Rights Situation in the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, 20 April 2016; Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Morocco, UN Doc. CCPR/C/MAR/CO/6, 1 December 2016.

Morocco’s Human Rights Record

Most recently, Morocco has been criticized over its laws and policies restricting human rights, including freedom of association and expression, the right to private life, rights of women and girls, police conduct, and torture, among others. [HRW] In the context of the conflict over Western Sahara, Morocco has reportedly restricted human rights associations’ activities and prevented pro-independence demonstrations, which, civil society reports point out, restrict the right to freedom of association and assembly and the right to freedom of expression. [HRW] Further, it has enacted laws creating criminal penalties for harming the monarchy or territorial integrity, which authorities have applied to press statements that are critical of the government and to associations of human rights defenders. [HRW]

Additionally, Morocco continues to jail persons for same-sex conduct and for sexual acts outside of marriage, including the prosecution of women and girls that are found pregnant outside of marriage. These actions, civil society has said, violate the right to private life. [HRW]

Human Rights Obligations

Currently, Morocco is a Member State of the League of Arab States (Arab League) and of the United Nations (UN), and has human rights obligations at the universal level. Morocco has not ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights and, therefore, is not subject to monitoring by the Arab Human Rights Committee.  However, as a UN Member State, Morocco is subject to the oversight of various UN human rights bodies, including the Human Rights Council and its Universal Periodic Review and thematic special procedures. As a party to specific universal human rights treaties, Morocco’s policies and practices are monitored by UN treaty bodies.

Morocco has ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families; Convention on the Rights of the Child; Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict; Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

It has accepted the complaints procedure of three treaty bodies: Committee Against Torture, Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination. While only those three treaty bodies may review individual complaints against Morocco, the other treaty bodies may also review State reports and civil society information on Morocco’s compliance with the corresponding treaty.

As a member of the AU, Morocco may accept additional human rights obligations at the regional level. All AU members, except South Sudan, have signed and ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, likely placing pressuring on Morocco to follow suit. Additionally, the Constitutive Act of the African Union, which Morocco will be a party to soon, requires States parties to “promote and protect human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other relevant human rights instruments.” Upon ratification of the Charter, compliance with its human rights obligations is monitored by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The African Commission reviews both States’ reports on compliance and individual complaints of alleged violations.

Additionally, Morocco will have the option of accepting jurisdiction of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to hear complaints against it presented by the Commission, African intergovernmental organizations, or States parties to the African Charter. Upon acceptance of the African Court’s jurisdiction, Morocco can also opt to allow individuals to submit complaints directly to the Court against Morocco.

Additional Information

For more information on the African Human Rights System, advocacy before the African Human Rights System, or the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights please visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.