(Adds diplomatic reaction)
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, April 29 The U.N. Security
Council renewed a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the disputed
North African territory of Western Sahara for another year on
Tuesday, and urged all sides to respect human rights, but it did
not call for the United Nations to monitor abuses as rights
groups have advocated.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, like the rights advocacy
groups, has called for the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as
MINURSO, to monitor and report on human rights abuses in the
territory, traditionally backed by France, Morocco has long
rejected the idea.
Morocco took control of most of the territory in 1975 when
colonial power Spain withdrew, prompting the Polisario Front
independence movement to wage a guerrilla war that lasted until
1991, when the U.N. brokered a ceasefire and sent in MINURSO.
Polisario now runs refugee camps at Tindouf in Algeria.
Tuesday's unanimously adopted resolution had the U.N.
Security Council "stressing the importance of improving the
human rights situation in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps,
and encouraging the parties to work with the international
community to develop and implement independent and credible
measures to ensure full respect for human rights."
Earlier this month, Ban renewed his appeals for sustained
human rights monitoring in Western Sahara and warned against
unfair exploitation of the region's natural resources.
However, the U.S.-drafted resolution, which council
diplomats said was painstakingly negotiated with Morocco, did
not heed Ban's appeal.
New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW)
accused France of helping Morocco overcome international
pressure to add a rights monitoring component to MINURSO.
"Truth: for years France has enabled Morocco's
counterproductive allergy to U.N. rights monitoring," HRW's U.N.
Director Philippe Bolopion wrote to French envoy Gerard Araud on
Twitter. Araud rejected the allegation, saying on Twitter:
"Morocco able to defend its interests and the U.S. able to make
proposals when wanting to. No need of France."
Araud has repeatedly denied threatening to use France's veto
power to block a U.N. rights mechanism for Western Sahara. This
came after two diplomats suggested Paris could use its veto.
Another diplomat said a French veto on the issue was highly
unlikely, adding that Nigeria was the only member this year to
raise the idea of MINURSO monitoring rights in Western Sahara.
"Raising such a possibility (of a veto) is a convenient way
for some council members, including Washington, to dodge their
responsibility and justify a text without a (human rights)
mechanism," the diplomat added.
MOROCCO OPPOSES RIGHTS 'MECHANISM'
Last year the United States initially proposed that MINURSO
take on the job of rights monitoring. But Morocco was furious
and Washington dropped the idea. As a compromise, Rabat agreed
to allow some U.N. rights investigators to visit the territory.
This year, however, Washington did not renew the proposal.
French officials say they do not oppose rights monitoring,
but argue that such a change would lead to MINURSO's expulsion.
Morocco's new U.N. Ambassador Omar Hilale told reporters
that Ban's latest report on Western Sahara had indeed placed the
future of MINURSO in jeopardy. He also said there was "no need
for any kind of mechanism" for monitoring human rights.
"All people who want to express themselves, they express
themselves," Hilale said.
Polisario's U.N. representative Ahmed Boukhari welcomed the
Security Council expression of support for a political solution
to the Western Sahara conflict, but said "the Frente Polisario
notes with regret that MINURSO is the only U.N. Peacekeeping
Mission established since 1978 that does not have a mandate to
monitor and report on the human rights situation on the ground."
But Hilale said some other U.N. missions also do not monitor
Several council diplomats voiced dismay at the fact that the
U.N. secretariat twice revised Ban's report on Western Sahara
earlier this month within the space of several hours. The main
change in the third and final version altered his call for a
human rights "monitoring mechanism" to a call for "monitoring."
Boukhari accused both Morocco and France of pressuring the
United Nations to revise the report. Araud denied the charge.
The 1991 ceasefire settlement was brokered by the United
Nations with the understanding that a referendum would be held
on the territory's fate. But the referendum, which MINURSO was
deployed to help organize, never took place, and attempts to
reach a lasting political deal have foundered.
The renewal of the mandate of the peacekeeping mission marks
an annual battle in the Security Council.
Rabat wants Western Sahara to be an autonomous part of
Morocco. Polisario, backed by a number of African countries
including Algeria, instead wants to hold the long-promised
referendum among the region's ethnic Sahrawis that would include
the option of independence. There is no agreement between
Morocco and Polisario on who should participate in a referendum.
Western Sahara is slightly bigger than Britain and has a
population of under 500,000. It is rich in phosphates - used in
fertilizer - and potentially, offshore oil and gas. Polisario
has complained about Western firms searching for natural
resources based on permits from Morocco.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; editing by G Crosse)