A Human Rights Black Hole: U.N Peacekeeping in Western Sahara

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Every contemporary United Nations peacekeeping mission on the ground today has a mandate to protect human rights, except one, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Without direct authorization from the UN Security Council, MINURSO cannot monitor or report on the human rights situation in Western Sahara, the last colony in Africa. As a result, the Sahrawi people continue to suffer from human rights abuses with no recourse or relief.

This week, the Security Council will review and renew MINURSO's mandate. Although the mission will be extended, this review will reportedly again exclude a human rights component in the mission's mandate, making the UN Secretary General's recognition of a "duty to uphold human rights standards in all its operations, including those relating to Western Sahara," ring hollow.

Looking at MINURSO's history helps explain how such a situation was created, but not a justification for the current gap. In the context of a dispute over whether the Moroccan government or the indigenous Sahrawi population (represented politically by the Polisario) would govern Western Sahara, the Mission was created in 1991 to oversee a ceasefire between the two sides and to ensure that the Sahrawi people one day have the opportunity to vote on the future of Western Sahara in a free and fair referendum. It was believed that this referendum could be held within one year, thus possibly justifying a UN Mission that would be limited in scope. Now, almost two decades after MINURSO was first created, the referendum has still not been held and there seems little chance of it occurring in the near future.

Although the impasse is in itself a significant problem, the human rights situation on the ground warrants far greater concern. Sahrawis who have sought to promote human rights in the territory, such as the rights to freedom of speech and assembly, are subject to harassment, arrest, beatings, and are charged with crimes they have not committed. The violence against the Sahrawi population by Moroccan authorities has been cited by the US State Department, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the World Organization Against Torture, and Reporters without Borders. In fact, Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara is continually ranked by Freedom House as one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Without human rights monitoring by the only on-the-ground entity which could have the capability to do so - MINURSO - this government-sponsored misconduct will continue to go unchecked.

The UN's own human rights arm agrees with this assessment, albeit quietly. The UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in a leaked 2006 report, determined that monitoring of the human rights situation in Western Sahara and the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria would be "indispensable." This report urged that a mechanism be created to ensure adequate and continuous monitoring of the human rights situation in both the Western Sahara territories and in the Polisario-run refugee camps located in Tindouf, Algeria.

Why then does MINURSO continue to operate as the only contemporary U.N. peacekeeping mission without a human rights component? With Morocco's rise as an important ally in Western efforts to thwart terrorism, its human rights record and disregard for international rule of law has been conveniently overlooked by permanent members of the Security Council. Furthermore, Morocco has informed the international community that the inclusion of a human rights component in the MINURSO mandate would be tantamount to endorsing the Polisario. Morocco's successful politicization of the situation is not difficult to see. What is confounding is the U.N. Security Council's determination to passively acquiesce to such politics in the face of this true human rights problem - and, especially because MINURSO is the only contemporary Mission in the world where it has chosen to do so.

The observance of human rights should be viewed as central to any solution to this seemingly intractable issue, not as a hindrance. As the future of Western Sahara hangs in political balance, the Security Council should, at the very least, take the definitive step of promoting the basic rights of the Sahrawi people as they wait for a resolution of the decades-long conflict over self-determination.

Visit www.rfkcenter.org to learn more about the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and our work in Western Sahara.

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