UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – The United States has withdrawn a demand that the United Nations start human rights investigations in disputed Western Sahara following furious lobbying by Morocco, diplomats said Tuesday.
Morocco, which has occupied Western Sahara since the 1970s, had condemned a US move to put the demand in a UN Security Council resolution on the UN peacekeeping mission in the North African territory to be voted on Thursday.
It called off military exercises with the United States to show its anger.
Morocco started occupying Western Sahara in 1975 in a move not accepted by the international community. UN efforts to seek a peace deal between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which wants an independent state, are deadlocked.
The United States had proposed a resolution calling for the UN mission, MINURSO, to carry out “monitoring and reporting on human rights” in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps run by the Polisario, diplomats said.
But following the Moroccan campaign, the resolution will encourage stronger efforts on human rights in the phosphate-rich territory.
“There is more human rights language in the text than last year and it encourages enhanced efforts and progress on human rights,” said a UN diplomat with knowledge of the text, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The Moroccans have been put on notice that there is heightened international scrutiny and attention being paid to Western Sahara,” added a diplomat from a Security Council country, confirming the change.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for greater rights monitoring in the territory.
The UN mission in Western Sahara is virtually the only one in the world with no human rights monitoring mandate. UN experts have said that detainees in the territory have been regularly tortured.
But Morocco lobbied intensely in Washington and with Britain, Spain and France — members of the friends of Western Sahara group along with the United States and Russia — to get the resolution changed.
It cancelled the annual African Lion joint military exercises with the United States.
The United States generally draws up the annual resolution on the MINURSO mandate and it is then agreed by the Friends group before being submitted to the 15-members of the Security Council.
France, a permanent member of the Security Council, has long supported Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara.
The new resolution was to be sent to all 15 members of the Security Council on Tuesday ahead of Thursday’s vote.
Morocco, which only proposes increased autonomy for Western Sahara, while UN resolutions call for a self-determination vote, had condemned the proposed resolution as “biased”.
“This is a missed opportunity and it’s disappointing to see the US retreat in the face of Moroccan overreaction,” said Philippe Bolopion, UN specialist for Human Rights Watch, which has lobbied for the rights mandate.
“The compromise reached this year will not be sustainable unless Morocco allows UN rights experts to visit Western Sahara on a regular basis, and Algeria allows them to do the same in the Polisario-run camps around Tindouf,” he added.
Polisario envoy to the UN, Ahmed Boukhari, said the original US resolution had been “a great support for the struggle for freedom of the people of Western Sahara.”
“The American initiative will remain on the radar,” he added. “It will not disappear.”