Special Report | Western Sahara: It is time for MINURSO to add human rights to its mandate
New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 19:34 - 13 Comments
By Khalil Asmar
The UN peacekeeping force has monitored a ceasefire in the Western Sahara since 1991 between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the liberation movement seeking independence for the indigenous Saharawis. But unlike similar missions elsewhere, it is not charged with monitoring human rights, something the Saharawis and international human rights organisations and activists have advocated for years.
And yet, the human rights component in UN peace missions has played a significant role in maintaining and building peace in the regions they supervised. This component has prevented and redressed human rights violations by monitoring the human rights situation, issuing public reports, and assisting in building national capacities to address human rights issues.
In 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire between the kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front, bringing to an end the 16-year war and paving the way for a peaceful outcome to the long running conflict, the two parties had to sign a peace agreement without a specific deadline for hold a UN-sponsored referendum allowing the people of Western Sahara to decide their own fate. Instead, the “Mission des Nations Unis pour le Referendum au Sahara Occidental” known as MINURSO set up its offices, spread its blue helmet forces with the promise of holding a referendum yet, as very few people noticed, was exempt from having any human rights monitoring component in this remit.
Unlike UN peacekeeping missions limited to a ceasefire-monitoring task – such as those between Lebanon and Israel, or between the south and north of Cyprus – in which the dispatching of the blue helmets was to supervise and report on the opposing troops’ commitment to peace, the main objective of MINURSO, from the outset, was to organise a fair and democratic referendum in which the people of Western Sahara are able to cast their votes on either independence from or integration into the kingdom of Morocco.
Meanwhile, both opposing parties have engaged in direct and indirect negotiations to pave the way for the proposed referendum, and some high-profile UN Secretary General special envoys to the region have made genuine efforts towards securing a lasting solution. Nevertheless, the dispute has remained locked in a stalemate, leading to unprecedented frustration among the Saharawi people, whose voices on the political scene have continued to grow louder in calling for the long awaited scheduled plebiscite. A wave of protest has spread like fire across the completely closed territory, despite being shut off from all forms of media and press, and has been forcefully banned, leading to flagrant, serious, and systemic human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, RFK Center for justice and human rights and other human rights groups have all highlighted ongoing severe repression in Western Sahara. Even the US State Department’s annual report on human rights acknowledges “limitations on the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association” and “the use of arbitrary and prolonged detention to quell dissent.” Observing that support for self-determination is ruthlessly suppressed, the report goes on to note that security forces have “engaged in torture, beatings, and other mistreatment of detainees” with impunity.
The threat to human rights posed by the remarkable and growing scale of violations is of increasing concern. Thus, I would like to present four key reasons why a human rights-monitoring component should, as an urgent need, be part of the MINURSO mission to Western Sahara.
1- The ubiquity of the monitoring: The MINURSO human rights component would apply not only in the zone occupied by Morocco, but also the strip liberated by the Polisario Front, in addition to the refugee camps based south of Algeria. The remit of the MINURSO human rights component will cover the entire region and thus, when confronted by the reciprocal accusations by both parties of human rights violations, a mandate for human rights for MINURSO would allow it to serve as an impartial and reliable reference in monitoring and reporting facts on the ground.
2- The political bias of Morocco’s HR organisations: As the international community, and the major human rights organizations, have damned its record on human rights violations in Western Sahara, the Moroccan state decreed the establishment of its own human rights body to supervise and report on the ongoing abuses. Thus, the “National Council for Human Rights” (CNDH) has been set up with offices in Western Sahara’s major cities. However, the deployment of its members was based, as usual, on their loyalty to the Moroccan monarchy, and the tasks they’ve been assigned are often usurped by the entourage of higher-level state officials. In effect, Morocco’s move is no more than a political maneuver aimed at hampering MINURSO from adopting a human rights prerogative in its coming mandate.
3- Breaking the cycle of abuse and impunity: The failure to review and address the numerous, ongoing, and specific cases of human rights abuses is a clear indicator of a culture of impunity, where the perpetrators continue fostering more abuses and the victims bitterly feel their voices being ignored. The urgent introduction of a human rights component will address these legal incongruities and help in promoting and adhering to the rule of law. Otherwise, this situation will only continue to aggravate and escalate.
4- Empowering local NGOs: Although a number of local human rights organisations have gained accreditation by the major international human rights groups, as is the case for CODESA (presided by leading Sahrawi activist Aminatou Haidar), and other similar organisations, the Moroccan state still denies them legal status and permissions to operate. As such, their members are subject to daily harassment.
Equally important, despite the recent emergence of numerous local organisations involved in the protection of children’s rights, women’s rights, and the rights of people with disabilities, they have been marginalized, denied legal recognition and often brutally repressed, all because because they advocate for the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination.
After years of occupation and human rights abuses, and in the context of endless delays in the decades-long wait for a referendum, the need for the MINURSO mandate to include within its remit a human rights-monitoring remains as pressing as ever. Such an expansion of the mandate would help empower Sahrawis to fight for their own rights, and strengthen these local capacities for resistance.