France denies veto threat looms over Western Sahara negotiations

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - France’s U.N. envoy on Friday vehemently denied threatening to use its Security Council veto power to block any proposals to have U.N. peacekeepers in Western Sahara monitor the human rights situation in the disputed North African territory.

The denial from French Ambassador Gerard Araud came after the United States circulated a draft resolution that would renew the U.N. mission in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, but without asking for sustained U.N. human rights monitoring as demanded by rights advocates.

Two council diplomats told Reuters on Thursday that it would be futile for the United States to include a rights-monitoring mandate for U.N. peacekeepers as Morocco would oppose and France probably veto it. Neither of the diplomats said Araud had explicitly threatened to use the veto, though they said the possibility Paris could do so naturally tainted the discussions.

“Once for all and I stop here,” Araud declared on his Twitter feed. “France has NOT threatened to use its veto directly or not. The last French veto was in the 80s.”

“France will take its decision on the basis of a proposal if there is one,” he added.

He was responding to comments on Twitter from Kenneth Roth, head of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch chided Araud for supporting Morocco on Western Sahara.

“Shame on France, doing Morocco dirty work, for threatening to veto rights-monitoring for U.N. mission in Western Sahara,” Roth posted on his Twitter feed.

Last week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon renewed his appeals for sustained human rights monitoring in Western Sahara 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 U.S. 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.

Polisario wants MINURSO to take up human rights monitoring.

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.

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.

Diplomats close to the Group of Friends on Western Sahara said France had indicated last year that it would not veto the U.S. proposal. But that was never put to the test because the U.S. delegation removed it from the draft resolution.

Council diplomats have 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 human rights “monitoring mechanism” to a call for “monitoring”.

Polisario’s U.N. representative Ahmed Boukhari accused Morocco and France of pressuring the United Nations to revise the report. Araud 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.

Editing by Eric Walsh