UN must monitor human rights in Western Sahara and Sahrawi refugee camps

Human rights monitoring by the UN must be at the forefront of discussions this week over the future of its presence in Western Sahara and Sahrawi refugee camps, Amnesty International said today, amid increased restrictions on journalists, peacekeepers and peaceful activists.

The Security Council is due to vote on extending the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) on Thursday, 28 April. It is the only UN modern peacekeeping mission without a human rights mandate, yet human rights abuses have been committed by both sides - the Moroccan authorities and pro-independence movement the Polisario Front - in the 40-year dispute over the territory.

In a report to the Security Council earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for independent and impartial human rights monitoring in Western Sahara and the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, south-western Algeria.

Impartial and sustained human rights monitoring by the UN would offer some protection to a population that lives with the daily threat of abuses by the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario Front
Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director

“Impartial and sustained human rights monitoring by the UN would offer some protection to a population that lives with the daily threat of abuses by the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario Front,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

"At a time when the Moroccan authorities are increasingly trying to shut the door to scrutiny by expelling foreign journalists and arresting peaceful activists, and as the human rights situation in the Tindouf camps remains opaque, this is more important than ever. The absence of human rights monitoring perpetuates the cycle of abuse and impunity."

In the year since the MINURSO mandate was last renewed, the Moroccan authorities have continued to stifle dissent in Western Sahara, placing arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly. Peaceful demonstrations are routinely banned or forcibly dispersed by security forces. Human rights organizations are rarely allowed to register.

The absence of human rights monitoring perpetuates the cycle of abuse and impunity
Magdalena Mughrabi

Last month, the UN was forced by the Moroccan authorities to withdraw dozens of civilian staff and close a military liaison office for the MINURSO mission after Ban Ki-moon referred to Morocco’s “occupation” of Western Sahara during a visit to the Tindouf camps.

Among those who had to leave were staff implementing programmes coordinated by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS). UNMAS considers Western Sahara one of the most heavily mined territories in the world, with more than 2,500 casualties reported since 1975. It says it plays a key role in reducing the humanitarian risks and improving living conditions for Sahrawis.

Sustained UN human rights monitoring is also needed in the Tindouf camps, where Sahrawi youth are reportedly increasingly frustrated with the 25-year impasse in resolving the Western Sahara dispute since the 1991 ceasefire. The absence of regular independent human rights monitoring leaves residents vulnerable to abuses. The Polisario Front has also failed to take any steps to hold to account those responsible for human rights abuses committed in the 1970s and 1980s in camps under its control.

Background

The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established in 1991 in the territory annexed by Morocco in 1975 as well as Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, in south-western Algeria. Its mandate has been to monitor a ceasefire between the Moroccan armed forces and the Polisario Front, as well as to implement a referendum to determine Western Sahara’s final status.