Turtle Bay

Susan Rice gets the Morocco block

The United States has abandoned an initiative to authorize a U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on human rights abuses in Western Sahara in the face of intensive resistance from Morocco, which exercises military control over the former Spanish colony. Last week, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pushed for a ...

The United States has abandoned an initiative to authorize a U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on human rights abuses in Western Sahara in the face of intensive resistance from Morocco, which exercises military control over the former Spanish colony.

Last week, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pushed for a broader mandate for the U.N. peacekeeping mission to monitor and report on rights abuses in Western Sahara and in Tindouf, Algeria, where more than 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live in a cluster of desert encampments.

The initial move — which was applauded by human rights advocates — encountered intense resistance from Morocco. Last week, Rabat protested the U.S. action by cancelling joint U.S.-Moroccan military exercises. The Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, also objected to the U.S. move in a letter to the White House. Morocco made clear that they would not allow the human rights monitors into Western Sahara.

The former Spanish possession is Africa’s only remaining non-self-governing territory, with some 500,000 people in a sparsely populated desert expanse the size of Britain. Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, when the Spanish withdrew. Mauritania ultimately abandoned its claim, and Morocco claimed their share of the territory in 1979. Morocco — aided by France’s diplomacy — has fiercely and successfully resisted efforts by the Polisario Front, which enjoys diplomatic support from Algeria, to claim independence.

The Algerian-backed Polisario rebels fought Moroccan troops until 1991, when a U.N. brokered ceasefire called for a referendum that would allow Saharans the ability to vote on an independence referendum. But Morocco has never allowed such a vote to occur, and now insists that Western Sahara remain as an autonomous part of Morocco. Morocco, however, has been unable to convince any other government to recognize its claim to Western Sahara.

For years, the government in Rabay has successfully blocked a raft of initiative by states, including Britain, to grant the U.N. mission a role in monitoring human rights abuses.

Last week, Rice surprised her counterparts in the so-called Friends of Western Sahara group — which includes the governments of the United States, France, Britain, Spain and Russia — by indicating that Washington would press for authorization of U.N. human rights monitors in a Security Council resolution renewing the U.N. peacekeeping mission’s mandate for another year. But the proposal faced resistance in the U.N. Security Council from Morocco, the council’s lone Arab government, and other key powers like France, China, and Russia.

Earlier this week, the United States dropped the proposal. The council is now set to vote tomorrow on a resolution that would renew the peacekeeping mandate, but without human rights monitors. Instead, the resolution offers far softer language stressing the importance of human rights, and encouraging key players to promote human rights and develop "independent and credible measures" to ensure those rights are respected.

Senior Security Council diplomats said that the United States had underestimated the depth of Moroccan opposition. They also complained that the U.S. delegation had failed to adequately consult with its key partners, including Britain, France, and Spain, before pressing ahead with the initiative.

However, one U.N. diplomat defending the U.S. position countered: "Not only did the U.S. coordinate with its allies and partners in the same timeframe as they typically do, but the positions of some important members of the Friends Groups had softened considerably on human rights."

Ahmad Boukhari, the U.N. representative of the Polisario Front, said that a stronger U.S. push could have resulted in a tougher resolution, but that he considered it a "moral victory" that the United States even put the matter on the table. Asked why the initiative was dropped, he said, "There were some difficulties whose nature is unknown to me."

The Moroccan mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.

Human rights advocates, meanwhile, expressed disappointment at the U.S. reversal. "The U.S. starting position was right on target, and had it prevailed would likely have contributed to an improvement of human rights conditions both in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps around Tindouf, in Algeria," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "Sadly the U.S. neither stuck to its guns or secured a compromise allowing enhanced human rights monitoring. Moroccan intransigence and the lack of vocal support by allies such as the UK did not help."

Britain, he noted, had previously supported the U.N. human rights mission in the past "and should have done so vocally again this year."

A spokeswoman for the British mission to the United Nations, Iona Thomas, said: "The United Kingdom strongly supports the upholding of human rights in Western Sahara. We welcome that the resolution, if adopted, will emphasize the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf camps."

The United States move followed a report earlier this month by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who urged "further international engagement" with the human rights situation in Western Sahara and Tindouf. "Given ongoing reports of human rights violations the need for independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human right situations in both Western Sahara and the camps becomes ever more pressing."

The U.N. Security Council has been pressing Morocco to accept greater scrutiny of its human rights record. Last year, Rabat agreed to allow periodic visits by independent U.N. human rights experts, and experts from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"From the outset, our aim has been a renewal of MINURSO’s mandate that is consistent with our goal of bringing about a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually agreed solution to the conflict whereby the human rights of all individuals are respected," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "As the secretary general underscored in his recent report on Western Sahara, human rights remains a serious issue that deserves the council’s attention."

"The draft resolution contains additional language this year encouraging enhanced efforts and further progress on human rights," he added. "Human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps will continue to have the full attention of the U.N. Security Council and the United States, and we will be monitoring progress closely over the coming year."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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