U.N. renews call for human rights monitoring in Western Sahara

VIENNA, April 10 Thu Apr 10, 2014 3:05pm EDT

VIENNA, April 10 (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday renewed his appeals for sustained human rights monitoring in the disputed territory of northern Africa's Western Sahara and warned against unfair exploitation of the region's natural resources.

The comments were included in Ban's latest report on Western Sahara to the 15-nation U.N. Security Council, an advance copy of which was obtained by Reuters.

Morocco took control of most of the territory in 1975 when colonial power Spain withdrew, prompting a guerrilla war for independence that lasted until 1991 when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire and sent in a peacekeeping mission known as MINURSO.

Ban said he welcomed Morocco's willingness to allow special investigators from the U.N. Human Rights Council to visit the territory and the Polisario Front independence movement's willingness to work with United Nations rights bodies.

"The end goal nevertheless remains a sustained, independent and impartial human rights monitoring mechanism," Ban said.

While Ban did not say it directly, U.N. officials and diplomats say that he would like the U.N. mission in Western Sahara to take on monitoring human rights violations in the territory, but Morocco, backed by France, has vigorously resisted the idea.

The renewal of the mandate of the peacekeeping mission marks an annual battle in the Security Council between France, which defends Morocco's position, and African nations supporting Polisario.

Western Sahara, which is slightly bigger than Britain, has under half a million people known as Sahrawis.

African countries, Britain, the United States and other Western nations have repeatedly called for U.N. peacekeepers to be given the task of monitoring alleged human rights abuses.

Last year the United States, on Ban's recommendation, proposed that MINURSO take on the job of human rights monitoring. But Morocco was furious and Washington dropped the idea. By way of a compromise, Rabat agreed to allow some U.N. rights investigators to visit the territory.

Ban recommends renewing the mandate of MINURSO for another year, while calling for adding 15 additional U.N. observers to the 225 already there.

OIL AND GAS POTENTIAL

The report also touches on the sensitive issue of the exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources. It is rich in phosphates - used in fertilizer - and, potentially, offshore oil and gas.

"In light of increased interest in the natural resources of Western Sahara, it is timely to call upon all relevant actors to 'recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount'," Ban said, citing the United Nations Charter.

French energy giant Total and U.S. oil explorer Kosmos have joined in the hunt for oil off the coast of Western Sahara. Morocco says the exploration work will comply with international rules and the local population would benefit from discoveries.

Neither Total nor Kosmos had an immediate response when contacted by Reuters. Ban's report does not name any specific companies active in Western Sahara.

Rabat wants Western Sahara to be an autonomous part of Morocco. Polisario instead proposes a referendum among ethnic Sahrawis that includes an option of independence, but there is no agreement between Morocco and Polisario on who should participate in any referendum.

Attempts to reach a lasting deal through U.N.-mediated talks have floundered. In the report, Ban renewed his call for a revival of the Western Sahara talks aimed at securing a political deal and some form of self-determination for the region. (Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)