Human Rights Watch is writing this letter to urge your support at the UN Security Council for establishing a program of human rights monitoring for Western Sahara and the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.
As the Security Council deliberates renewing the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which expires at the end of this month, we urge that the mandate be revised to encompass on-the-ground human rights monitoring, or that another UN mechanism assume this function.
The Security Council should establish such a mechanism because the United Nations has a special obligation to Western Sahara as a designated "non-self-governing territory" whose political future is contested, and where there is no other regular, independent on-the-ground monitoring of human rights.
As the Report of the Secretary General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, dated April 13, 2009 states, "The United Nations has no staff on the ground dedicated to monitoring respect for human rights in the Territory or in the refugee camps near Tindouf, since MINURSO does not have a specific human rights mandate and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has no presence in the Territory or in the refugee camps near Tindouf."
A UN monitoring presence would serve as a neutral source of human rights reporting, amidst the allegations that the adversaries in the conflict level against one another. In so doing, it can enhance the environment for negotiations by building trust and ensuring that rights are respected.
It is important to note that such monitoring is a standard component of peacekeeping operations elsewhere; MINURSO is nearly the only peacekeeping unit under UN auspices that has no human rights monitoring component. The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) for its part conducted a single research mission in 2006, but never formally published its report from that visit.
Human Rights Watch published in December 2008 a detailed report, Human Rights in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf Refugee Camps. We found a pattern of violations by Moroccan authorities of the right of Sahrawis to speak, associate and assemble peacefully in support of self-determination. The report describes how security forces arbitrarily arrest demonstrators and suspected Sahrawi activists, sometimes beating them and subjecting them to torture, and force them to sign incriminating police statements, all with virtual impunity; the courts then convict and imprison them after unfair trials.
Human Rights Watch devotes a substantial portion of its report to human rights in the Polisario-run refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. While we did not find systematic violations of human rights at the present time, the concerns we noted, including the absence of open debate on fundamental political issues and the survival, in a limited number of cases, of practices related to slavery, heighten our concern that the rights of the Sahrawis living in these camps are vulnerable due to the camps' extreme isolation, the lack of regular, on-the-ground human rights monitoring, and the lack of oversight by the host country of Algeria.
For this reason, we have emphasized that any program of UN human rights monitoring must cover both Moroccan-administered territories and the Polisario-run camps in Algeria. The Polisario Front's verbal acceptance of UN monitoring should be put to the test. Morocco should favor such monitoring as well, as a means of providing independent verification of its repeated assertions that the Polisario Front, with Algerian complicity, is holding the Tindouf camp population captive against its will and severely repressing its rights.
Human rights monitoring would essentially involve having UN human rights officers based permanently in the Western Sahara and the camps, either as part of MINURSO or as a stand-alone OHCHR mission mandated by either the Security Council or the Human Rights Council. There, they would be able to monitor and report on the situation, identify the key human rights concerns and their causes, and be able to raise these with the relevant authorities.
MINURSO is the obvious candidate to conduct human rights monitoring in the camps and in Western Sahara. Although its original and eponymous mandate-to organize a referendum-has been stymied since 2000, its sizable locally-based staff, resources and long experience may make it the entity best placed to perform this function. In addition to monitoring the cease-fire, MINURSO operates, together with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a program of family visits and other confidence-building measures.
Even if the Security Council does not expand the mandate of MINURSO to include human rights, it should endorse another monitoring mechanism, such as a field presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Regular rights monitoring is essential to having an accurate picture of the situation and to ensuring that Morocco on the one hand and, on the other, Algeria and the Polisario Front, respect the rights of persons under their respective control. By accepting such monitoring, the parties would show good faith and nurture the mutual confidence needed to advance the political negotiations over the territory's future.
Thank you for your consideration.
Sarah Leah Whitson Steve Crawshaw
Executive Director United Nations Advocacy Director
Middle East & North Africa division