May 1, 2010 / 12:08 AM / 9 years ago

Fractious U.N. council extends presence in Western Sahara

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The Security Council renewed on Friday the mandate of the U.N. mission in Western Sahara after a daylong argument over whether to mention the thorny issue of human rights in the disputed territory.

Morocco, which annexed the resource-rich former Spanish colony in 1975, strongly opposed any such reference. Although Rabat does not sit on the 15-nation council, its case was put forward by its ally France, a permanent council member.

The Polisario Front independence movement has long pushed for inclusion of human rights monitoring in the mandate of the U.N. MINURSO mission, saying Morocco violates the rights of the territory’s inhabitants, known as Sahrawis. It was supported by several non-aligned council members.

Following seven hours of closed-door consultations, the council passed unanimously a resolution to extend MINURSO’s mandate, which had been due to expire at midnight on Friday, for a further year.

The resolution did not expand the mandate or even use the phrase “human rights,” referring only to the “human dimension” of the conflict. But its text was amended in several ways that Polisario supporters said supported their case.

The Western Sahara dispute centers on a northwest African territory slightly bigger than Britain with fewer than half a million people. The area is rich in phosphates — used in making fertilizers — and, potentially, offshore oil and gas.

A U.N.-brokered ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario came into force in 1991. The two sides have held sporadic U.N.-mediated talks since 2007 but remain deadlocked between Morocco’s proposal to give Sahara autonomy and Polisario’s call for a referendum with full independence as one option.

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The resolution finally agreed to on Friday inserted references to “reaffirming” previous council resolutions and to the “existing” mandate of MINURSO.

Polisario supporters on the council, primarily Uganda and Nigeria, said that underlined that the original aim of the U.N. mission was to prepare for a referendum. Morocco long said it would accept a referendum — although one was never held — but later rejected the idea, substituting the autonomy proposal.

Moroccan and Polisario officials both claimed successes from the text adopted by the council.

Moroccan Ambassador Mohammed Loulichki told reporters his country did not oppose human rights as such. “We are against the use of human rights for other purposes,” he said in an implicit charge that Polisario was politicizing the issue.

Morocco says that Polisario abuses human rights at Sahrawi refugee camps at Tindouf in neighboring Algeria, where MINURSO maintains only a liaison office.

U.N. officials say MINURSO, which consists of just 224 uniformed personnel, mainly military observers, is too small as it stands to deal with rights issues.

Polisario’s U.N. representative, Ahmed Boukhari, charged earlier this week that France had “worked actively to shield Morocco from any international scrutiny of its serious and repeated human rights abuses” in Western Sahara.

French officials denied that but said they did not want to disrupt the Morocco-Polisario talks with references to the controversial rights issue in the MINURSO mandate. In his speech to the council, French Ambassador Gerard Araud praised Morocco’s autonomy proposal and did not mention human rights.

Editing by Peter Cooney

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