UN peacekeeping force in Western Sahara and refugee camps must urgently monitor human rights
The UN must prioritize human rights monitoring for the situation in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara and Sahrawi refugee camps across the border in Tindouf, Algeria, Amnesty International urged ahead of a Security Council vote next week on 27 April to renew the mandate of its peacekeeping presence in the area.
The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) does not currently have a mandate to document or report on the human rights situation despite the fact that abuses continue to be committed by both the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi pro-independence movement, which administers Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, southern Algeria.
“Enabling the UN peacekeeping mission to monitor human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps is crucial for ensuring that abuses committed far from the public eye are brought to the world’s attention, holding those responsible to account, and improving respect for human rights,” said Heba Morayef, research director for Amnesty International in North Africa.
“The UN mission in Western Sahara is the world’s only modern peacekeeping operation without a human rights component. It’s been over a quarter of a century since it was established and it is high time to upgrade its status to enable it to report on such violations.”
The need for independent, impartial human rights monitoring is particularly urgent given ongoing impunity for past abuses and violations in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps, as well as rising political tensions over recent allegation of breaches of the ceasefire agreement by both parties in the buffer zone near the Mauritanian border.
Over the past year, Amnesty International has continued to document human rights violations, and in particular arbitrary restrictions on peaceful protesters and activists supporting self-determination for Western Sahara, as well as breaches to their right to a fair trial and to the prohibition on torture or other ill-treatment.
The organization is also following the new civilian trial of 24 Sahrawis, including human rights and political activists, who had previously been sentenced to heavy prison terms following a grossly unfair military trial. The defendants were detained in 2010 in connection with violent clashes that led to the death of 11 Moroccan security force members and two Sahrawis, after the forcible dispersal of a protest camp in Gdim Izik near Laayoune, Western Sahara. The media blackout imposed by Moroccan authorities on the events at the time, and the controversy that surrounded the clashes, is a clear example of the urgent need for impartial, authoritative human rights monitoring in the region.
Perpetrators of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law committed during Morocco’s armed conflict with the Polisario Front between 1975 and 1991 have largely gone unpunished. Similarly, the Polisario Front has failed to hold to account those responsible for committing human rights abuses in refugee camps under its control during that period.
MINURSO’s capacity was reduced last year after the Moroccan authorities expelled a number of its civilian personnel, including de-mining staff from UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS), in March 2016. Western Sahara is one of the world’s most heavily mined territories with more than 2,500 casualties reported since 1975, according to UNMAS. Local human rights groups have reported several deaths and injuries from landmines in Western Sahara over the past year. Among the victims was a 12-year-old girl, who was killed by a landmine Mahbes, in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, in May 2016.
“Instead of hampering MINURSO’s work, the Moroccan authorities should be fully cooperating with the mission to ensure they are able to carry out their duties at full capacity. And the Security Council should expand MINURSO’s mandate to include human rights monitoring and reporting. A failure to do that is only likely to fuel further violations and continued impunity,” said Morayef.
MINURSO was established in 1991 in the territory annexed by Morocco in 1975 as well as in Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, 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.
In a statement published last month, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council called on the UN Security Council to expand MINURSO’s mandate to include human rights monitoring, it has also requested that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights visit Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps to assess the human rights situation there. Morocco re-joined the African Union earlier this year.