The Moroccan state started to seriously interact with the human rights discourse in the early 1990s due to long domestic struggles by human rights advocates and global pressures to reform. At the same time, human rights organizations have developed and set aside much of their political lineage, taking up an active role in policy advocacy and pushing for alternatives to meet growing social and societal demands. The 2011 movement has revitalized the human rights approach to politics and social problems, and culminated a decades-long struggle to peacefully and gradually move to a social rights-based contract with the state. Such a state of affairs no longer seems far off.
The human rights movement in Morocco presents a rich and diverse model in North Africa; one that reflects domestic, regional and international influences, starting from its formation as a force in the political and social domains in the 1970s and 1980s, through the 1990s political transformation towards greater participation and the gradual abandonment of systematic repression, violence and violations of political and civil rights by the state. The movement flourished in the late 1990s bolstered by the new consensual alternation system for governments and was part of the 20 February 2011 movement in the context of the Arab Spring, leading to the adoption of a new Moroccan Constitution that clearly recognizes the supremacy of international human rights treaties.
Historically, the state's relationship with the human rights movement was characterized by oppression and systematic disregard mixed with attempts for containment at times. This was the case until the early 1990s when the state began a gradual recognition of the human rights movement and started to deal with past violation through acts of amnesty, reconciliation and settling issues related to detainees, torture and enforced disappearances.
The emergence of the human rights movement with the establishment of the Moroccan League for Human Rights, the Moroccan Association for Human Rights and the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights was characterized by political affiliation, since a large part of the movement was associated with the leftist Marxist movement – although it explicitly adopted the International Bill of Human Rights as a main reference. For many years, this birth was affected by the dynamics of the relationship between the state and the human rights movement, where the state dealt with it in a hostile and suspicious manner, while the movement focused on political and civil rights before expanding in the past two decades, especially after the 20 February 2011 momentum, to advocate for economic, social and cultural rights.
The human rights movement in Morocco developed in close contact with political parties and in defence of detained political activists. In 1972, the Moroccan League for the Defence of Human Rights (Ligue Marocaine pour la Défense des Droits Humains, LMDDH) was established as the first Moroccan human rights NGO. It had a close relationship with the Istiqlal (Independence) party. It was followed by the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (Association Marocaine des Droits Humains, AMDH) in 1979 as a human rights organization born within the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, to be later adopted by the Democratic Socialist Vanguard party and is currently politically close to the Democratic Path Party. In 1988, the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights (L’Organisation Marocaine des Droits Humains, OMDH) was established independently of political parties. In the context of a re-arrangement of the political scene, the palace undertook some reforms launching a phase of political détente in the early 1990s. King Hassan II established the Consultative Council for Human Rights in 1990, imitating a French model of a similar institution founded in the 1980s. In 1993, a ministry for human rights was established and, in June of the same year, Morocco ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture. Starting 1998 the Ministry of Justice and Prison Administration began to apply a law that mandated autopsies of those who die in detention as a routine procedure.
Civil society expanded too. The Commission for the Defence of Human Rights was established in 1992 in Marrakesh and had a local focus. The field continued to expand with the birth of other human rights organizations which took a comprehensive approach to human rights and those which specialized in specific fields (women's rights, children, villages and neighbourhoods). This was considered by some to be a point of strength, since the spread of human rights associations and their diversity lays roots for a movement deeper within society and in relation to the state. However, others saw it as a weakness because it may contribute to the dispersion, fragmentation and infiltration of the field of human rights. The latter view emanated from a concern that the more visible and spread civil society organization are the more tempted the state to encroach on its domain and even create its own civil society organizations (CSOs). This suspicion grew after 2005 with the government/s "National Initiative for Human Development" as some feared CSOs would multiply but their impact would decrease.
Human Rights organizations and the State: Conflict or Integration?
The human rights movement in Morocco first appeared in the form of moral and legal demands during colonial times and has continued ever since. The relationship between the state and the human rights community was dominated by the state’s desire to preserve and enhance a composite identity that combines traditions and modernity while containing the civil society. For the first two post-colonial decades, the state was absorbed in the mission of establishing and maintaining various institutions. It always sought to contain civil society, leaving no room for CSOs outside its control. ) In return, various CSOs always tried to ensure their freedom and independence, and to influence state policies and practices.
Despite the spread of human rights CSOs, this proliferation has often been – directly or indirectly – condoned or ignored by the state. The ruling regime especially the palace, has long demonstrated its ability to change the balance, either through containment, deterrence or violence, or by re-engineering the political realm through fostering new elites or setting up political parties or civil society actors within what has come to be known as the "democratic margins”.
The evolution of the human rights movement in Morocco is generally linked to the multiple effects of domestic and foreign policy prerogatives, as well as the interaction among civil society components and political currents. Important political transformations in the 1990s, particularly those affecting human rights, can be understood through a quick review of relevant internal and regional developments.
Morocco emerged from the post-independence decades of social and political tension in the late 1980s. These three decades witnessed the events of March 1965, the declaration of an emergency state three months later, two coup attempts in 1971 and 1972 and the events of March 1973. With the end of the Cold War, the Moroccan state had stabilized its political institutions but faced serious economic challenges. To face these challenges, it started to include political opposition elites, especially from the left, into the circles of government. This also was meant to help stem the rise of Islamist groups which constituted a greater threat to the regime. Sensitive files, such as political detainees, brutal torture and enforced disappearance in infamous detention centres (e.g. Tazmamart, Agadez, Qal'at Magouna, Moulay Ali El-Sherif, Dar Berisha, etc.) started to appear in newspapers and books.
King Hassan II began his reforms in the field of human rights by establishing the Consultative Council for Human Rights in 1990, and then the Ministry of Human Rights in late 1993 to prepare and implement government's human rights and rule of law policies. In addition to those institutions, a comprehensive amnesty was issued in July 1994. Five years later, under the reign of his successor, Mohammed VI, the "Independent Arbitral Tribunal for Compensation Resulting from Physical and Moral Damage to Victims and Rights holders of those Subjected to Enforced Disappearance, Arbitrary Detentions and their Families" was established to begin a public process of redress for the victims of long years of repression. The Commission issued 8,000 decisions by the end of its work in 2003. It was criticized for having a mandate limited to financial compensations with little attention to the other aspects of "reparation". There was no mechanism of appeal of its decisions, which compounded the impact of its unclear criteria that led to significant discrepancies in compensations granted to victims of violations.
The most important step was the establishment of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004 to investigate grave past violations, particularly those related to enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention. Following the end of the Commission’s work, its Chairman Driss Benzekri submitted his final report, including recommendations to ensure that serious violations of human rights in Morocco are not repeated, to undertake necessary institutional reforms and to develop a national strategy to combat impunity. The Commission stressed that the consolidation of rule of law requires legal reforms as well as reform in the security and justice sectors.
Many years passed since the Commission issued its recommendations. However, a large part of them has not been implemented, particularly those related to reparation for collective harm, the disclosure of the fate of all those who have been forcibly disappeared or the development of a national strategy to combat impunity. Moroccan human rights defenders argued that the main purpose of the Commission has not been achieved, which was to ensure that the decades of systematic repression by the state, especially with respect to the treatment of political activists, conditions of detention, resort to torture and enforced disappearance, do not recur.
Amnesty International, in its Broken Promises report in 2010, criticized the outcome of the Commission's work years after its conclusion, recognizing that the composition of the Commission itself was a signal "reflecting strong political will at the highest levels of government ... to address the legacy of the past", but its work and outcome “showed serious drawbacks that explain, if only partly, its inability to honour all promises of reconciliation and justice made. The mandate and powers of the Commission, Amnesty International wrote, did not cover all human rights violations committed between 1956 and 1999; also excluded from the Commission's work was the question of determining responsibility and identifying perpetrators of gross violations of human rights." Although the Commission addressed issues that are broader than its mandate, it was not able to address two key issues in its recommendations or the way in which the CCDH has implemented these recommendations in the following years: namely holding those responsible for the violations to account and reforming the legal and institutional framework that allowed those violations in order to guarantee non-repetition.
The establishment of the Consultative Council in 1990 was in part a reaction by King Hassan II to the growing criticism of the regime's record of violations against political opponents in particular and of human rights in general. The international context then pushed the regime to pay more attention to human rights issues. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 and the end of the Cold War, Morocco found itself in a defensive position regarding a shameful human rights record.
In the 1990s, the state undertook a political re-arrangement under the slogan of "consecrating the state of rights and law", while it was aware and concerned about Morocco's international image with human rights and democracy promotion becoming a dominant discourse in that decade. In that context, the regime was keen to create the above mentioned institutional mechanisms. On the political front, the left-wing opposition joined the ruling circles with the system of consensual alternation in 1998.
However, this period of calculated openness faltered with the growing threat of terrorism, beginning with the bloody 2003 bombings in Casablanca and subsequent security measures to dismantle cells accused of carrying out or planning acts of violence in a number of Moroccan cities. In 2003, an anti-terrorism law was enacted. By the end of the same year, about 2,000 people were arrested, based upon a law that has sometimes been used to curb human rights activism. The law was also used by security institutions to intimidate journalists and activists, some of whom were tried and sentenced to prison terms even after the 2011 uprising, as was the case with commentator Ali Anouzla and his website Lakom (For You).
The popular demonstration on 20 February 2011 changed the political equation again and pushed the regime to amend the Constitution in response to protests focusing on demands for social justice, basic services in education and health care, and the independence of the judiciary. The popular movement expressed public anger towards "exploitation", humiliation and marginalization. It also showed the depth of resentment by the majority who have been disenfranchized while watching daily practices of favouritism and how privileges and benefits were awarded to a lucky few while they had to withstand harassment, obstruction and overcome obstacles to secure their very rights.
Just as the human rights movement had long contributed to the transitional justice process, helped raise awareness about women's and children's rights, worked on rights of detainees and on civil liberties in general, it also played a role in the context of the 2011 movement and consequent constitutional amendments. In this, it was supported by popular calls to include many rights and freedoms in the Constitution and to ensure it is reflected in the laws of the land.
Determinants of the relation between the state and the rights movement
We can classify Moroccan human rights organizations and actors into three generations:
- The generation of the Moroccan League for Human Rights (LMDDH) and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), which was associated with political opposition movements that used human rights to lobby the state. Most of the activists of these organizations were former political prisoners whose activism became restricted during the years of lead. For some, human rights activism was an entry point to press the state into embracing human rights as a base in the political arena. Some activists, like Driss Ben Zikri, later adopted an exclusive human rights approach not necessarily related to assumed political gains. The Moroccan Organization for Human Rights (OMDH) joined this generation later on.
- The second generation was made up of professionalized human rights activists committed to the international human rights bill and without any specific political affiliation. Working through organizations such as Adalah, they monitored rights violations and interceded with the state. These associations came together with the first-generation organizations under the umbrella of the Moroccan Coalition for Human Rights Institutions, which includes 22 organizations.
- The third generation was related to Islamist human rights organization. Alkarama Forum, for example, is associated with the Justice and Development Party. Such outfits have reservations on the universality and comprehensiveness of the international human rights bill. They tailor the bill with an Islamist approach, for example, by opposing equality between women and men in inheritance and supporting polygamy. In these two issues, the state sides with these organizations, since it abides by a certain understanding of the dictates of Islamic law.
Among these organizations, the AMDH is the most active in terms of social mobilization because of its dispersed branches and presence in the public space since its inception. This national network makes AMDH more influential and a constant source of irritation to the state, which has often imposed restrictions on its activities and activists to limit its work and credibility.
In its overall relationship with the human rights movement, the state first challenged the rise of human rights activism before adopting some of its principles in the context of becoming more open, even if instrumentally, to human rights rhetoric and principles, in the 1990s. However, tensions and fluctuations continued to characterize this relationship.
Human rights organizations in the current social/political context
After 2011, with the increase in societal demands, the human rights movement that usually focused on civil and political rights expanded its scope to the second-generation rights and also diversified the way it spread messages and presented its demands using new platforms, especially social media.
Rights-driven protests expanded. They included organizing against unemployment, protesting rising water and electricity bills, demanding more individual freedoms and challenging conventional morality (dress code, consensual sexual relations, etc.), calling for the truth about past violations in the context of a real transitional justice process, advocating cultural rights (Amazigh), opposing globalization and criticizing economic policies promoted by international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (ATTAC Morocco) documenting and exposing bribery, illegal income and corruption, and calling for accountability (Transparency Morocco Association).
The protest actions spread in scope and broadened in terms of rights defended. By March 2015, the government had granted legal registration to 32 associations and settled the status of 24 others established by migrants residing in Morocco. A new law came into force prohibiting military trials against civilians. For the first time, the government recognized a Sahrawi Human Rights Organization (Sahrawi Society for Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations), led by people who openly criticized the regime. Morocco also granted a temporary legal status to asylum seekers recognized by the United Nations, and thousands of migrants looking for economic opportunities, pending a comprehensive review of its laws on the right of asylum and residence of foreigners on Moroccan soil. The government’s refusal to accept legal registration papers of these organizations or their branches in the past (so-called deposit vouchers) had been one of the many techniques used to place the activity of these associations in a gray zone where their applications to register have been neither accepted nor refused.
However, the government sometimes imposed arbitrary administrative obstacles. For example, efforts by journalist Ali Lmrabet to register a satirical weekly were impeded even after he served a 10-year ban on practicing journalism in Morocco. Police in Rabat confiscated the tapes of two French television journalists on 16 February 2015 and expelled them on grounds that they were filming without a license. Some old police practices returned including attacks on rights activists through surveillance and harassment or prosecution for trumped up charges. Thugs were also used as an indirect method of intimidation. Certain restrictions were imposed on national and international human rights organizations. The authorities were often lenient with public protest, but systematically prevented gatherings in certain locations and regions, including the Sahara, especially if the protest was to the demand self-determination.
As of 2014, a group of leaders who led the youth movement, especially in the northern regions, was arrested. More than 200 activists were detained in El-Hoceima, Taza, Bani Bouayash, Kasr el-Kebir and Larache, and a leading leftist activist was killed in suspicious conditions. An investigation was opened after the murder of five young men whose bodies were found brunt down and deformed in the Banque Populaire building in El-Hoceima. A vicious attack was launched against some human rights organizations, especially the AMDH; the authorities cancelled 40 events in one month, in violation of the very government regulations in this regard. The AMDH claimed that there were 168 obstructive measures against human rights associations between 2014 and 2016. Activities of some associations were illegally prevented. The authorities continued to refuse legal registration to a number of human rights organizations. By the end of 2015, 41 out of AMDH’s 97 local branches remained in an ambiguous legal status due to the refusal of local authorities to accept applications for registration or to give them receipts indicating files were submitted. In some cases the authorities demanded documents that are not required under the law and delayed temporary or final receipts of registration. Sometimes, organizations were denied receipts of formation or renewal. There are 14 human rights associations that have not been licensed by the Ministry of the Interior, most notably the Freedom Now association, whose appeal was rejected in court in support of a provincial administration in Rabat that refused to admit the association’s registration file. In several cases, no reasons are given for the rejection, since authorities refuse to provide the association concerned with a written decision in order to undermine any possible court appeals. On 15 February 2015, security agents raided the AMDH headquarters without a judicial permission. AMDH leaders, including Abdelhamid Amin, Khadija Riyadi, were attacked or threatened several times.
The authorities also prevented human rights defenders from leaving Morocco to attend or participate in events abroad and interrogated some of them. In November 2015, seven civil society activists, including Maati Mounjib, a historian and co-founder of “Freedom Now”, were tried on multiple charges, including undermining state security and training people to use smart phones to produce media reports. They face five years in prison, if convicted. The government also banned cultural events, including a play on African immigrants in Morocco. Rap singer, Alhaqed, was banned from performing and jailed for selling football game tickets on the black market, before obtaining political asylum in Belgium. Personal accounts and Facebook pages of journalists and human rights activists were hacked or monitored, which are illegal measures that have not been investigated or punished.
Politically, a direct confrontation ran between Islamist conservatives representing the Justice and Development party (PDJ) in government and parliament, on the one hand, and modernists of the Authenticity and Modernity party (PAM), the women's movement, February 20 activists and some components of the democratic bloc (such as the Socialist Union and Left Federation), on the other. Although they did not constitute a coherent coalition, the modernists were commonly concerned about a perceived deterioration in the human rights situation with growing restrictions on personal freedoms and the PDJ’s ignoring calls for violence against human rights activists or labelling non-Islamists as infidels. Rights organizations criticized the PDJ prime minister's statement calling for burying the violations of the past calling for "letting bygones be bygones," in reference to the past violations.
The women's rights movement addressed the phenomenon of child rape and abuse and demanded amendments to the Penal Code which enforced marriage of a minor rape victim to her rapist. The women's rights movement also expressed frustration at the lack of progress towards full gender equality and ending discrimination and violence against women. In addition, although the Amazigh language has become an official language after the 2011 Constitution was promulgated, the Amazigh continued to complain about exclusion and marginalization.
Human rights organizations resorted to various strategies and techniques. In addition to mobilization and sensitization, they wrote letters, issued statements and submitted policy and legislative proposals to the head of government or lesser officials, agents of the King, heads of courts and relevant bodies. Some associations provided support to victims of human rights abuses, as well as counselling and legal aid through their lawyers, in addition to issuing annual reports on the human rights situation, which concluded recommendations to the State and the international community. Human rights associations, either individually or together with other national and international bodies, prepared reports on the human rights in general or on specific cases and submitted them to the UN Human Rights Council or the UN treaty bodies. Parallel shadow reports often challenged official reports and revealed their inconsistencies with respect to the implementation of international treaties and obligations.
Among the most important reports that cost Morocco dearly was the shadow report that addressed the Tazmamart detention centre, since it exposed the reality of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances that the state had long denied. However government officials such as former Minister of Human Rights, Mohammed Ziyan, argued that some human rights associations and civil society organizations, by virtue of their party affiliations, compiled their reports either to pressure the government to achieve concessions or to maintain the presence of their parties within the government, and therefore did not play their full expected role with impartiality.
National Council for Human Rights
The CNDH replaced the Consultative Council in 2011 after the Equity and Reconciliation Commission concluded its work. Compared to its predecessor, the CNDH has a broader mandate as an independent body funded by the state. It has worked on protecting individual and collective freedoms and enjoys a pre-emptory mandate allowing it to intervene before violations occur. With 13 regional office around the country, it works to monitor, receive complaints, mediate, and investigate violations. It issues an annual report in addition to thematic reports that are referred to the King. It can exercise the right to intervene in certain situations if it felt they could lead to rights violations.
As a national institution, the CNDH is entitled to visit places of detention and incarceration and monitor conditions of prisoners. It is also authorized to study the compliance of existing legislations and regulations with international conventions and treaties related to human rights and the international humanitarian law. It has contributed to national reports submitted to UN treaty bodies and encouraged the government to implement their observations.
The CNDH is headed by Driss Yazmi, a former journalist who lived in exile (France) before returning in 2005 to work on transitional justice with other activists including Driss Ben Zikri, former leftist political detainee in 1977-1991 and Ahmed Herzni, an activist and an expert in democratic transition. The National Council has 30 members appointed for a renewable term of four years, taking into account diversity, competence, experience, women and regional representation. Members are chosen from among public figures representing various social sectors such as civil society associations, trade unions, the parliament, the judiciary, university professors and Moroccan experts at the United Nations. Eight members are appointed by the King, while 11 are proposed by NGOs. The rest are proposed or selected by the heads of the two chambers of Parliament, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the head of House of Councillors, high religious bodies, and a judicial association (The Hassani Judges Wedadiya). A number of politicians and intellectuals have criticized the exclusion of representatives of the Islamist PDJ, the Amazigh Movement and the Union of Moroccan writers from the CNDH membership. Some called for boycotting the Council.
The Council is regulated by a royal decree (Dahir) of 25 articles: 10 articles outlined the mandates of protection, 12 covered the promotion of human rights, and three focused on the enrichment of thought and dialogue on human rights and democracy. The CNDH can petition the legislative body. Under Article 24, CNDH president can submit "a brief summary of the contents” of reports before the two Houses of Parliament in a plenary session after submitting it to their speakers. The Parliament must allow the Council to participate in the work of parliamentary committees concerned, inter alia, with human rights issues. Finally, the CNDH can organize programmes to raise the capacity of parliamentarians and staff on human rights issues.
At times, the CNDH took bold positions when it demanded, for example, equality in inheritance between men and women and the abolition of the death penalty, or when it criticized the work of the government and the two houses of parliament and submitted proposals to speed up the legislative process to render the laws of the land compliant with the 2011 constitution.
The CNDH has faced a lot of criticism. Some alleged the Council was “driven only by instructions and lacked initiative to intervene in emerging issues”. Others thought the CNDH has played an important role in working on bills and proposals and advising the state in a large number of areas. It had the courage to intervene in sensitive political areas such as abortion and inheritance, inviting severe criticism. On inheritance, it was aided by a religious organization, the League of Moroccan Scholars, which sided with the CNDH recommendation for equality in inheritance between men and women. Still rights advocated sometimes blamed the Council for allegedly presenting the state's view as "the truth" on controversial issues.
The CNDH reports are of relatively high quality but their recommendations are not binding to the government. The CNDH is not solely responsible for its rather weak impact since the Parliament ignores many of its recommendations. However, the CNDH has continued to work with a relatively high standard of professionalism and contributed to closing some transitional justice files in Morocco. It has also helped raise public awareness about legal mechanisms to fight torture and to develop a discourse of human rights in schools and universities. The CNDH also helped organize, fund or take part in symposiums, workshops, and artistic events related to human rights. Despite its structural fragility and substantive constraints, the CMDH remains an educational force and a major advocate in society and with the State.
The Moroccan state has started to seriously interact with the human rights discourse in the early 1990s due to long domestic struggles by human rights advocates but also under the pressure of global transformations. Meanwhile, most human rights organizations have set aside much of the package related to their political lineage. The human rights movement moved from the ranks of political opposition to the regime in the 1970s and 1980s to a position in which it monitored the state reforms with suspicions in the early 1990s, ending with an active role in policy advocacy and pushing for alternatives to meet the growing social and spatial demands in the past 10 years, especially after the 2011 uprising. There are no clear distinctions among these various stages since some rights organizations still occupy one or more of these varying positions.
Although the state has often lagged behind the aspiration of the growing demand for human rights, the rights movement has been able to carve a bigger space that allowed it to better relay its basic demands. Despite internal and external obstacles, the civil society actors in Morocco have become more influential. The role of human rights organizations is no longer limited to protest, support and litigation, as it branched into policy advocacy and legislative proposals and lobbying.
For its part, the State (specifically the monarchy) has strengthened legal guarantees for the protection of many basic rights and public freedoms in the 2011 Constitution. However, at the level of legislation and implementation of legal provisions, there is still a considerable controversial scope for action to ensure the universality and indivisibility of rights. The Moroccan Penal Code still contains articles such as Article 219 which criminalizes "insulting God, disdaining religions and undermining the loyalty of citizens to the state", all of which contravene the Constitution and Morocco's international obligations guaranteeing freedom of belief and opinion.
It is obviously not enough to have a new constitution, even if its second chapter is considered a true charter of rights and freedoms. Nor is it enough for the state to strengthen commitments to relevant international treaties, organize workshops on reform, institute measures to combat torture, and improve living conditions. All of this would not truly instil human rights into the civil society and state institutions unless there is genuine accountability. Such a transformation would also require that human rights organizations and defenders become partners in policy formulation and evolve into a formidable social force that would prevent the recurrence of systematic human rights abuses and to ensure the effective commitment of the state, in law and practice, to human rights standards and culture.
Despite this mixed picture, the 2011 movement has obviously revitalized the human rights paradigm and approach to politics and social problems. The 2011 uprising crowned a struggle that has begun decades ago to peacefully and gradually put an end to the regime logic of dominant authoritarianism in favour of a social contract with the state based on the rights of citizens. And such a state of affairs no longer seems far off.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.