April 11, 2015 / 12:42 AM / in 3 years

U.N. wants 'understanding' of Western Sahara human rights situation

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon listens during a news conference with Salim al-Jabouri, speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, in Baghdad March 30, 2015. REUTERS/Karim Kadim/Pool

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is calling for an “independent and impartial understanding” of human rights in the disputed North African territory of Western Sahara, according to a report seen by Reuters on Friday.

Ban’s annual report on Western Sahara stopped short of recommending the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the territory (MINURSO) monitor rights, which the African Union has urged.

Rather it suggests that the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should do it. He offered no details.

“I call on the Parties to continue and further enhance their cooperation with United Nations human rights mechanisms and OHCHR, including by facilitating OHCHR missions to Western Sahara and the refugee camps near Tindouf, with unrestricted access to all relevant stakeholders,” Ban said in the report.

“These missions and other future forms of cooperation ... should contribute to an independent and impartial understanding of the human rights situation in both Western Sahara and the camps, with the goal of ensuring protection of all,” he added.

The Security Council is expected to renew MINURSO’s mandate this month.

Morocco took control of most of the territory in 1975 when colonial power Spain withdrew, prompting the Polisario Front independence movement to wage a guerrilla war that lasted until 1991, when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire and sent in MINURSO.

Morocco rejects the idea of MINURSO conducting human rights monitoring and says the African Union has no business meddling in the issue. Morocco is not a member of the African Union due to Western Sahara.

Polisario now runs refugee camps at Tindouf in Algeria.

Morocco’s U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

The 1991 ceasefire settlement called for a referendum on the territory’s fate. But the referendum, which MINURSO was deployed to help organize, never took place, and attempts to reach a lasting political deal have foundered.

“It is vital that all human rights protection gaps and underlying human rights issues in situations of protracted conflict be addressed,” Ban said in the report. “This would also contribute to creating an environment conducive to the negotiating process.”

France, traditionally an ally of Morocco, has been accused of supporting Rabat at the United Nations, but Paris has rejected the allegation, saying Morocco was able to defend its interests without France’s assistance.

Rabat wants Western Sahara to be an autonomous part of Morocco. Polisario, backed by a number of African countries including Algeria, wants to hold the long-promised referendum among the region’s ethnic Sahrawis that would include the option of independence. Morocco and Polisario disagree on who should vote in a referendum.

Western Sahara has a population of under 500,000. It is rich in phosphates, used in fertilizer, and potentially, offshore oil and gas. Polisario has complained about Western companies searching for natural resources based on permits from Morocco.

Editing by Jonathan Oatis

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