MILAN, Italy — This week the United Nations Security Council will renew the mandate of the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
This renewal is also the U.N.'s opportunity to give the mission the power to monitor human rights in Western Sahara, as is standard in all other contemporary U.N. missions.
In disregard of the purpose and very name of MINURSO, 36 years after Spain's hurried withdrawal and Morocco's illegal occupation of the Western Sahara territory, the Saharawis are still denied their right to self-determination under the United Nation’s Charter. As 180,000 Saharawi refugees live a challenging life in the Algerian desert, Morocco's repression of the population in the territory continues unabated. Last year this repression took a particularly violent expression with the bloody assault on an encampment where some 15,000 people were peacefully pressing for socio-economic and political reforms. Morocco's human rights violations in Western Sahara have been repeatedly denounced by, among others, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the European Parliament.
Thus, the United Nations failure to resolve the political stalemate over self-determination is compounded by the organization's deliberate neglect of the human rights of Saharawis under Moroccan occupation.
The Security Council could redress this failure by requiring MINURSO, the one and only international presence in the territory, to monitor human rights — and rectify its anomalous status as the only contemporary U.N. mission in the world without a human rights mandate.
The matter was raised in the Security Council last year when countries ranging from Uganda to Austria, from Mexico to the United Kingdom indicated their readiness to fulfil this humanitarian duty towards a people to whom the organization has a long-lasting, unmet political obligation. Unfortunately, in its blind support for Morocco's illegal occupation of Western Sahara, France intervened in the Security Council to prevent any decision that would change the status quo. Relying on its influence as a veto-yielding member, France lobbied long and hard to ensure that not even the words "human rights" would appear in the text of the council resolution.
What will happen this time around? The United Kingdom which had previously expressed support for the idea of human rights monitoring, has seemingly allowed itself to be swayed by its French ally. In sharp contrast to interventions in Libya and Ivory Coast in which the United Kingdom, France and the U.S. have repeatedly emphasized the protection of civilians, human rights and democracy, a draft of the resolution that was leaked earlier this week from the so-called “Group of Friends” establishes no tangible mechanism to monitor human rights.
When it comes to basic rights, shuttling between principle and realpolitik to suit one's real or perceived strategic interests is especially repulsive. France, the U.S. and the United Kingdom should not champion the human rights of Libyans and others in the Arab world while denying those of the Saharawis, a people who have suffered decades of foreign domination and repression.
As the human rights situation in Western Sahara deteriorates, this position in the Security Council has become untenable. It is high time for the United Nations to establish a continuous and independent presence in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps to monitor, protect and advocate the human rights of all Saharawis.
Past experience shows that nothing short of such regular presence can offer the minimum guarantees that the Saharawis have a right to expect. This engagement would fulfil one of the fundamental institutional obligations of the United Nations towards any non-self governing people. It would also help prevent a growing frustration from turning into civil unrest with grave consequences for Morocco and possibly the entire Maghreb region.
Francesco Bastagli was the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative for Western Sahara.