The U.S. and other key nations are backing a new U.N. resolution on the disputed Western Sahara that mentions human rights for the first time, but the group promoting independence for the mineral-rich north African territory said Tuesday it doesn't go far enough.
The long-simmering issue of human rights in Western Sahara bubbled to the surface in November when Moroccan forces tore down a tent camp in Western Sahara where 20,000 people were protesting discrimination and deprivation at the hands of the Moroccan government with deadly results. It has gained additional momentum as a result of the protests against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and north Africa.
Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the Western Sahara, which it took over in 1979 when Mauritania pulled out. But the pro-independence Polisario Front insists on the "inalienable right" of the people of the former Spanish colony to self-determination through a referendum on Western Sahara's future.
The U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss the draft resolution proposed by the U.S., France, Britain, Russia and Spain for the first time which would extend for a year the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara. It has successfully maintained a ceasefire in Western Sahara since 1991 but has been unable to help resolve the standoff between Morocco and the Polisario Front for 20 years.
That standoff is reflected in the 15-member Security Council, which also has been divided over Western Sahara for years.
France strongly supports close ally Morocco, backed by other key countries, while African nations strongly back Western Sahara, which is a full member of the African Union.
Council diplomats said the draft resolution circulated Monday night encourages both parties to engage on human rights.
Stephane Crouzat, spokesman for France's U.N. Mission, said the so-called "Group of Friends" supporting the draft resolution want to encourage Morocco's recent "significant steps" to address the human rights situation, both nationally and through the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Morocco's King Mohammad VI recently established a National Council on Human Rights and said the country would be more open to dialogue and interaction with the Human Rights Council and nongovermental organizations.
"It's very important to help Morocco ... to pursue these efforts and to encourage them to address the human rights issue in the most constructive way, and we feel this is a constructive way," Crouzat said.
But Khadad Mohamed, the Polisario Front's co-ordinator with the U.N. peacekeeping mission, said Morocco has no right "to pretend to defend human rights" in Western Sahara when it is violating those rights.
"It is as usual the double-standard policy regarding human rights because Morocco is an occupying power," Mohamed said.
He accused the Security Council of failing to assume any responsibility on the issue, saying "just using the word human rights without really a clear mechanism to defend it and to protect it ... is really wrong."
Mohamed said the draft resolution didn't respond to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's report to the council last week in which the U.N. chief said that as a result of Morocco's new initiative, he expects the Human Rights Council "to address on an independent, impartial and sustained basis the alleged violations of the universal rights of the people of Western Sahara in the territory and the camps."
South Africa's U.N. Ambassador Baso Sangqu strongly backed the Polisario Front's call for "a credible international independent mechanism ... that will on a constant basis monitor the human rights violations by both sides, or allegations by both sides."
He said human rights monitors should be part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, stressing that Western Sahara "is the only peacekeeping mission in Africa that doesn't have this kind of mechanism."
Sangqu called on the Security Council to apply the same human rights standards in Western Sahara as it has in the Middle East and North Africa, saying "human rights are indivisable."