Assessing Morocco’s Human Rights Picture: Constitutional Reform May Not Be Enough

In 2011, as the Arab Spring toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, spurring protests and making rulers panic throughout the Middle East and North Africa, tensions in Morocco were rising as well. The February 20 Movement—a loose coalition of youth protesters supported by various trade unions, Islamist parties, and human rights activists—rattled Morocco’s monarchy with far-reaching reform demands brought on by strong economic and political discontent with unemployment, corruption, and the lack of democracy.

King Mohammed VI moved swiftly to get ahead of the curve by trying to demonstrate at least a verbal commitment to the principles of democracy and human rights. The palace rolled out a new package of constitutional reforms ostensibly to meet protesters’ demands for greater government accountability and a stronger voice for citizens, which would be put to a vote in a national referendum.

But the constitutional changes embodied an inherent contradiction: while touted as a fundamental change in the system of governance by establishing a genuine constitutional monarchy with limits on the powers of the king and a clear separation of powers, the new constitution actually cemented the absolute rule of the monarch, who remained the final arbiter in the Moroccan system. This meant that the new system of governance was practically guaranteed to under-perform—if not fail altogether—to deliver what it promised. Indeed, Morocco’s record on human rights and democratic governance in the years since the referendum has borne this out. Political liberalization has had a number of setbacks, the elites surrounding the court remain entrenched, and the human rights picture continues to elicit concern.

A New Era Begins? Constitutional Change, Democracy, and Human Rights

Demonstrations broke out in the capital, Rabat, and several other cities on February 20, 2011, a month after Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali had been forced to flee his country and nine days after Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak stepped down. The Moroccan protesters’ demands varied but centered on opening up the political system and limiting the powers of the king. In response, on March 9, King Mohammed VI announced that a commission would be formed to recommend constitutional changes. He added that a referendum would be held to ratify the new constitution.

The package that was eventually recommended by the commission (after a drafting exercise largely directed by the royal court, with limited input from other stakeholders) embodied significant reforms to the structure of government and the balance of power within the system. Rather than the king, the winning party in parliamentary elections would henceforth name the new prime minister, who would assume the function of “president of the government.” In this capacity, the prime minister could appoint government officials and dissolve parliament to pave the way for new elections (both powers had been previously reserved for the monarch). The change also empowered parliament to launch investigations of government ministers on a vote of one-fifth of its members and initiate a motion of censure with just a third, whereas the constitution previously required unanimous approval in both cases. In another important change, the judiciary would be placed under the control of a supreme council comprising both judges and the leader of Morocco’s human rights council.

The ostensible intent of Morocco’s constitutional changes was to improve protections for citizens and place limits on the king’s power, a strategy intended to establish a semblance of democratic governance—within limits

Indeed, human rights was an area the new constitution, and the king himself, particularly emphasized. The updated document enumerated 21 specific rights intended to encapsulate the key provisions of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These included equality of the sexes, freedom from torture, freedom from arbitrary arrest, presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to freely access information, freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration, and the right to take part in and select the government. As Morocco’s National Human Rights Council noted, the 2011 constitution also “provides for the primacy of international convention[s] ratified by … Morocco and the domestication of their provisions.”

The ostensible intent of the changes was to improve protections for Morocco’s citizens and place limits on the king’s power, a strategy intended to establish a semblance of democratic governance—within limits. As the king himself put it in a speech to his “loyal subjects” on June 17, 2011, the constitutional changes represented a “special Moroccan democratic development model” that established “the citizenship-based Monarchy and the Citizen King.”

The king stated that the new constitution would complete “the construction of a State based on the rule of law and on democratic institutions.” Mohammed VI unambiguously affirmed that the draft constitution would enshrine “all human rights as they are universally recognized, with the applicable mechanisms and enforcement guarantees.” Among other things, the king insisted, “the draft Constitution confirms the commitment to all human rights, especially the presumption of innocence and guaranteeing the conditions for a fair trial. It criminalizes torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and all forms of discrimination and inhuman, degrading practices. The draft Constitution also upholds freedom of the press and of expression and opinion, as well as the right to access information and to submit petitions, in accordance with norms and criteria specified in an organic law.”

The February 20 movement, political activists, and opposition members criticized the new constitution as failing to go far enough to meet demands for political liberalization. With the support of pro-government parties in parliament and a heavy-handed campaign orchestrated by the government, however, the constitution passed with over 98 percent of the vote in the July 1, 2011 referendum, which claimed a turnout of about 70 percent of eligible voters. As the top-down reform process rolled on, the February 20 Movement lost momentum and began to splinter—no doubt one of the government’s intended outcomes.

Behind the Rhetoric, Restraints on Freedom

The new constitution, with its emphasis on what the king characterized as the “special Moroccan democratic development model” and the primacy of human rights, set a very high standard for Morocco to follow in the years following the referendum. The choice was necessary considering the circumstances in which the monarchy found itself in 2011; a major show of royal deference to the will of the people appeared to be the only thing that might prevent escalating demands for changes that could fundamentally threaten the existing political and economic power structure. Moreover, the king and his advisors knew the world was watching; amidst the turbulence of the Arab Spring, which was widely seen in the West as an exhilarating and overdue political moment, the royal court and its political allies needed to demonstrate commitment to liberalization in order to maintain the political and financial support of foreign benefactors. This was at a moment when that support seemed as if it could waver, as it had for Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

But the new constitution made clear just how circumscribed the “special Moroccan democratic development model” really was. Morocco’s citizens were very clearly to remain the king’s “loyal subjects.” The new constitution left the reins of power firmly in Mohamed VI’s own hands; he remained the head of the military and security forces, retained the power to dissolve parliament (albeit a power now shared with the prime minister), and is in charge of all “strategic” decisions—the definition of which is left to the monarch. In addition, the person of the king was considered “inviolate,” “respect and reverence shall be due to him.” Islam was recognized as the state religion and the king as amir al-mu’minin, or commander of the faithful, effectively acknowledging him as the highest religious authority in the country and a key source of legitimacy and power. Both the structure and wording of the constitution effectively arrogated to the king any powers that were not specifically granted to the legislature or other bodies. Collectively, these wellsprings of authority left virtually absolute power in the monarch’s hands.

Governance and Human Rights Problems Persist

The tension between the emphasis in the new constitution on democracy and human rights and the undimmed powers of the monarchy manifest themselves in Morocco’s languishing record on civil and political rights. According to Freedom House,  Morocco continues to be rated “Partly Free,” and its numerical score on civil and political liberties has barely budged in the years since the constitutional referendum, with a downward trend last year for the “harsh state responses to major demonstrations” throughout 2017.

The broader human rights picture has likewise been marked by “characteristic vacillation between tolerance and repression,” as the 2018 World Report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said of the government’s heavy-handed handling of protests in the Rif. But it could have been applied to Morocco’s handling of human rights challenges in general.

Despite constitutional guarantees, freedom of expression is sharply circumscribed in practice. As HRW notes, prison sentences can be handed down for any number of violations of the kingdom’s “red lines” (such as “‘causing harm’ to Islam, the monarchy, the person of the king, and the royal family, and ‘inciting against’ Morocco’s ‘territorial integrity,’ a reference to its claim to Western Sahara”). Numerous journalists, activists, and bloggers were arrested and imprisoned on charges of spreading “false news,” human rights reporting, or public protests in the Rif and elsewhere.

Freedom of assembly, also guaranteed by the 2011 constitution, was likewise under threat. While Moroccan authorities permit many peaceful demonstrations in favor of political reform, they routinely crack down on others. Authorities arrested some 450 protesters in the Rif through October 2016 some of whom claimed mistreatment by security forces. A number of these accusations were corroborated by the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH). Human rights researchers from HRW and Amnesty International were denied access to the country, and several individuals who were attempting to observe protests in favor of Western Saharan self-determination were expelled. The AMDH itself was obstructed on several occasions, its activities restricted, and access to venues for planned activities denied.

Numerous credible reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees, many of them protesters involved in demonstrations in the Rif or Western Sahara, continue to surface, despite the criminalization of such abuse in the constitution

Numerous credible reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees, many of them protesters involved in demonstrations in the Rif or Western Sahara, continue to surface, despite the criminalization of such abuse in the constitution. Investigations into such incidents are limited, and the king has expressed strong support for the security forces. The US State Department has noted that there have been “few examples of investigations or prosecutions of human rights abuses by officials, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government, which contributed to the widespread perception of impunity.”

This general pattern has rightly raised many questions about the government’s commitment to political reform and human rights safeguards. Political deadlocks through 2017 indicate that “the promises of shared power and a constitutional monarchy in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings have not been kept,” according to the Brookings Institution. Other observers have concluded that the strong human rights provisions in the new constitution have proved to be “largely cosmetic.” Legal reforms needed to implement the constitutional protections “were much discussed but rarely enacted,” as HRW noted in 2015.

This is not to say that Morocco has not made progress—it has. Morocco is party to all of the leading international human rights conventions, including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and is active in international efforts to encourage universal accession to this instrument. In its annual human rights and democracy world report for 2017, the European Union acknowledged that Morocco had made “significant progress,” citing in particular the April 2017 reestablishment of the Ministry of Human Rights, which had been abolished in 2002, and the government’s satisfactory cooperation with UN human rights bodies.

The failures to make good on the constitutional promises of political liberalization and advancement of human rights may yet revive the spirited activism of 2011 and pose new challenges for the monarchy

However, the uneven pace of reform, political deadlock, and the continued efforts by the palace to control the fractious party politics that its own intervention in 2011 helped unleash have spurred protest in the country and fed discontent with the corruption and cronyism that are rife in the Moroccan system. The failures to make good on the constitutional promises of political liberalization and advancement of human rights may yet revive the spirited activism of 2011 and pose new challenges for the monarchy.

The Role of the West

This should concern not only the Moroccan government, where such challenges threaten to re-focus public discontent on the monarchy itself, but also Morocco’s friends in the international community. Both the United States and the European Union value their relations with Morocco, viewing the country as an oasis of stability in North Africa; Washington maintains close counterterrorism and anti-drug cooperation with the kingdom and sees its border security and military cooperation programs as an important part of regional stabilization efforts. The United States also enjoys a robust economic relationship with Morocco, with US exports to the country quadrupling since the US-Morocco Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2006.

For the king to retain his support and Morocco its stability, the United States and the EU must do more to urge him and his country along the right path

An important part of the US strategy to support Morocco is encouraging improved democratic governance and respect for human rights, both through bilateral aid programs and the current $450 million aid compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation. These efforts must be reinforced with stronger insistence that the Moroccan government takes its commitments on human rights seriously, passing and implementing legislation where necessary to enact constitutional protections in law and making greater efforts to hold government officials and security forces accountable for excesses.

As the events of 2011 have shown, King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan ruling class will respond to public pressure and are capable of constructive, if grudging, reform. For the king to retain his support and Morocco its stability, the United States and the EU must do more to urge him and his country along the right path.