Human rights battle mars UN effort in W. Sahara

Members of the Moroccan parliament gather in Rabat on April 19, 2013, in reaction to US-backed plans over W. Sahara.  By  (AFP/File)

Members of the Moroccan parliament gather in Rabat on April 19, 2013, in reaction to US-backed plans over W. Sahara. By (AFP/File)

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – The UN Security Council called for greater respect for human rights in disputed Western Sahara on Thursday, but Morocco held off US efforts for UN investigations into abuses.

Morocco, which occupies most of the territory, staged a major diplomatic offensive after the United States proposed a resolution that called for the UN peacekeeping force to be able to hold inquiries into human rights.

UN Resolution 2099, which extended the mandate of the UN mission for one year, encouraged Morocco and Polisario Front rebels “to continue in their respective efforts to enhance the promotion and protection of human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps.”

The final version even welcomed progress made by Morocco in improving human rights.

In the face of accusations that Morocco tortures detainees, the United States had proposed a resolution calling for the UN mission to carry out “monitoring and reporting on human rights” in Western Sahara and in refugee camps run by the Polisario.

The UN mission in Western Sahara is one of the few UN operations in the world without a human rights mandate.

Morocco has been accused by UN experts and human rights groups of torturing detainees linked to Africa’s longest-running conflict.

In a report last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for “independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human rights situations” in Western Sahara and the Polisario refugee camps because of reports of violations.

But after the proposed US resolution was revealed, Morocco canceled war games with the US military and King Mohammed VI sent a personal letter to President Barack Obama.

In a statement, the Moroccan royal palace noted the resolution “with satisfaction.” Smaller-scale military exercises with the United States resumed after the UN resolution was toned down.

Morocco started occupying the former Spanish colony in 1975 in a move never accepted by the international community and the Polisario Front took up arms to fight for a separate state.

The UN negotiated a ceasefire in 1991, but its efforts to negotiate a permanent peace deal have been deadlocked.

Morocco proposes broad autonomy for the phosphate-rich region. The Polisario demands a self-determination referendum, which has also been called for by UN resolutions.

Polisario envoy to the UN Ahmed Boukhari praised the US effort.

“Morocco’s panic and extreme hostility towards the broadening of MINURSO’s mandate indicates that serious violations of human rights take place, which the Moroccan government wishes to hide from the international community,” he said.

Philippe Bolopion, UN specialist for Human Rights Watch, said “Morocco is now on notice that its rights record in Western Sahara will come under renewed scrutiny.”

“The US should continue to press for an extension of MINURSO’s mandate to cover human rights, with the support of its allies who failed to speak up this time,” he said.

Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa chief Philip Luther noted that Moroccan officials claim they are improving human rights in Western Sahara and complain that human rights groups rarely visit the Tindouf refugee camps.

“For these reasons, they should have welcomed the prospect of a UN human rights monitoring mechanism, not lobbied against it,” he said.

US diplomats did not immediately comment on the resolution, which also gave strong support to the UN special envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, who was disavowed by Morocco for some time last year.

Ross has just completed a regional tour that took him to Western Sahara.