UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday prepared a draft resolution that would renew the U.N. mission in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, but it did not ask for sustained U.N. human rights monitoring as demanded by rights advocates, diplomats said.
Last week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon renewed his appeals for sustained human rights monitoring in the North African Western Sahara region and warned against unfair exploitation of the region’s natural resources.
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. Rabat vigorously opposes the idea of MINURSO monitoring alleged rights abuses in Western Sahara.
“The United States has circulated a draft resolution,” a council diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “It doesn’t include a sustained human rights monitoring mechanism, though it urges all sides to build on improvements made in the past year in the area of human rights.”
The draft has gone to the so-called Group of Friends on Western Sahara - France, Russia, Spain, Britain and the United States - according to Ahmed Boukhari, the U.N. representative for Western Sahara’s Polisario Front independence movement.
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 a number of African nations and Polisario. Algeria is also a strong supporter of the Polisario.
New York-based Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, sent a letter to the Security Council this week, urging the 15-nation body to “extend (MINURSO‘s) mandate to incorporate human rights monitoring in Western Sahara and in the Polisario Front-run refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria.”
Boukhari voiced disappointment that the U.S. draft does not call for rights monitoring by MINURSO. He said in an email that Morocco and France appeared to have “once again cornered the council in an unsustainable position that undermines Security Council legitimacy to deal with other international conflicts.”
Washington says it continues to advocate for human rights improvements in Western Sahara.
“We are engaged with both the Moroccan government and the Polisario to ensure universal human rights are being respected in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
“We view the renewal of the MINURSO mandate as part of a broader goal to resolve the conflict in a way that respects human rights of people affected by the dispute,” the official added.
Washington supports the idea of the U.N. mission monitoring human rights. But council diplomats say there is little point in including it in the draft resolution since Morocco, backed by permanent veto-wielding council member France, would strongly oppose it. The French delegation would likely veto it.
Last year the United States, on Ban’s recommendation, initially 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.
Several council diplomats voiced dismay at the fact that the U.N. secretariat twice revised Ban’s report on Western Sahara last week within the space of several hours. The main change in the third and final version altered his call for a rights “monitoring mechanism” to a call for “monitoring”.
Boukhari accused Morocco and France of pressuring the United Nations to revise the report. France denied the allegation and Morocco did not respond to a request for comment.
Western Sahara is slightly bigger than Britain and has under half a million people known as Sahrawis. 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.
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 in U.N.-mediated talks have floundered. In his report, Ban appealed for a revival of the Western Sahara talks aimed at securing a political deal and some form of self-determination for the Sahrawi people.
Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Ken Wills