/ 23 April 2012

Peacekeepers stay put in Western Sahara amid disappointment

The UN Security Council has reached a deal on a draft resolution to renew the mandate of the peacekeeping force in the disputed territory of Western Sahara this week, envoys said, but the Polisario Front independence movement and South Africa are disappointed.

The renewal of the mandate of the peacekeeping force, known as MINURSO, marks an annual battle in the council between Morocco, backed by France, and African nations supporting Polisario.

The African countries have repeatedly called for UN peacekeepers to be given the task of monitoring alleged human rights abuses.

Morocco and France, its former colonial master, have resisted the idea that the peacekeepers should report on rights abuses in Western Sahara, a sparsely populated tract of desert that has phosphates, fisheries and, potentially, oil and gas.

Former British diplomat Carne Ross, who heads the Independent Diplomat, a group that advises Polisario, wrote in the Guardian newspaper last week that Western Sahara is the “forgotten first source of the Arab Spring.” He was referring to the Moroccan authorities’ deadly crackdown on protests there by the Saharawi population in late 2010.

Vague reference
While the Security Council has never formally assigned the peacekeepers the role of human rights monitoring, Morocco has faced pressure to allow language on human rights in the resolutions on Western Sahara. Rabat insists the territory should come under its sovereignty, but the Polisario contends it is a sovereign state.

The latest draft calls on both sides to respect human rights and welcomes Morocco’s decision to set up a national council on rights and grant access to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council. Previous resolutions had made only a vague reference to the “human dimension” of the conflict.

The Polisario, which represents the Saharawi people, waged a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces until the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 with the understanding that a referendum would be held on the fate of the territory.

The referendum was never held and attempts to reach a lasting deal have floundered.

The new draft resolution has the council “stressing the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps, and encouraging the parties to … to ensure full respect for human rights.”

‘Blind support’
The draft resolution, which would extend the peacekeepers’ mandate until April 2013, is scheduled to go to a vote on Tuesday, council diplomats say. Polisario and temporary council member South Africa are disappointed with the text.

“Certainly, human rights have been once more sacrificed by the Security Council in Western Sahara … as a result of France’s blind support to his client in the region, Morocco,” said Polisario’s representative in New York, Ahmed Boukhari.

South Africa’s UN Ambassador Baso Sangqu told Reuters he wanted tougher language on human rights and a demand that Morocco end its restrictions on, and monitoring of, MINURSO.

A UN report to the 15-nation council on Western Sahara has been a focus of controversy this month. The UN circulated three different drafts to the council before settling on what it said was the “final advance copy.”

This elicited allegations from Polisario and several council delegations, above all South Africa, that the secretariat had caved in to pressure from Rabat and Paris to soften the report’s criticism of Morocco. Sangqu said the changes were “deplorable” and intended to “neutralise” its criticism.

An analysis of the first draft of the UN report, obtained by Reuters, which was sent directly by the head of MINURSO, Hany Abdel-Aziz, to the UN department of peacekeeping operations shows that much of language most critical of Morocco was added by the UN in New York.

That suggests allegations that the UN somehow tried to whitewash secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s report on Western Sahara to the Security Council are unjustified.

Parts of the report added by the UN secretariat include paragraphs suggesting Morocco has been spying on MINURSO and that the mission was forced to use Moroccan diplomatic license plates on its vehicles. The report said that “raises doubts about the neutrality of the mission”.

Also added to the original draft was a paragraph that says the UN force is “unable to exercise fully its peacekeeping monitoring, observation and reporting functions, or avail of the authority to reverse the erosion” of its ability to function.

Although there were some changes between the three versions of Ban’s report sent to the council, those revisions were minimal compared to the criticisms of Morocco that were added after the first draft reached the peacekeeping department, which is headed by Herve Ladsous of France.

Morocco, a temporary council member, has declined to comment on Ban’s report and the criticisms of Rabat contained in it. — Reuters