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UN Extends Western Sahara Peacekeeping Mission

Margaret Besheer
The U.N. Security Council has extended the mandate of the peacekeeping operation in the disputed Western Sahara, but once again it has failed to include a clause calling for human-rights monitoring of the situation there - bringing renewed criticism from rights groups.

Normally the extension of a U.N. mission’s mandate passes without much notice. But on Thursday, the council’s decision to extend its mission in Western Sahara for another year received a lot of attention from human rights groups.

The United States, which took the lead in drafting the resolution, at first included a demand for human rights observers to be part of the mission, but then dropped that point before it came to a vote. Human rights advocates blame pressure from council members Morocco and France for the decision, but French Ambassador Gérard Araud insisted his country did not block it.

“France has not taken any part in the negotiations which has been conducted," he said. "We have a result, and we consider it a good result. There has been a steady improvement of human rights in Western Sahara thanks to the decisions taken by Morocco. There is room for improvement, but we do think we can follow up through our dialogue with Morocco.”

Tom O’Bryan, advocacy coordinator of the Western Sahara Action Forum, an international coalition of organizations that advocates for human rights in the region, criticized the Security Council's action. Speaking by telephone from London, O'Bryan said that leaving monitors out of the Western Sahara mission, which is known as MINURSO, is a “travesty of justice” for the people of that area.

“MINURSO is the only contemporary peacekeeping operation in the world which does not have the mandate to monitor human-rights violations, despite the clear, systematic violations of the rights of the people of Western Sahara,” he said.

The U.N. director for Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, said there are still very serious concerns about the human rights of the Sahrawi people - Arabic speakers who live in several surrounding countries as well as in Western Sahara.  

“In Western Sahara, people are not free to assemble, [or] to speak their mind about the future of the territory," Bolopion said. "That is why we believe that a few U.N. monitors would go a long way to defuse the situation there.”

Both men commended the U.S. effort to get monitors included in the mission, but regretted that it was unsuccessful.

Morocco, one of the parties to the Western Sahara dispute, has long opposed the presence of such monitors. The Polisario Front independence movement says rights monitors are needed because Morocco regularly violates the rights of Sahrawis who live in Moroccan-controlled areas.

HRW’s Bolopion questioned why, if Morocco claims it has made improvements in human-rights protections for the Sahrawi people, it remains opposed to monitors.

“One has to wonder what Morocco has to hide, and why they react so strongly every time the idea of deploying a couple of U.N. observers in Western Sahara comes up," he added. "They are claiming they have made great progress over last couple years in the territory. if that is true they should have nothing to fear from deployment of a few U.N. monitors.”

The U.N. has about 200 military observers, troops and police officers in the Western Sahara. They were first deployed there in 1991 to oversee a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and integration with Morocco. That referendum has yet to take place.

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