Dear High Commissioner:
Human Rights Watch is writing to urge you to redouble efforts to establish a program of human rights monitoring for Western Sahara and the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.
As the April 13, 2009 Report of the U.N. Secretary General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara notes, "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 [the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara] 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."
This makes the peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara an anomaly in the U.N. system insofar as the U.N., mindful of the link between respecting human rights and maintaining peace, includes a human rights monitoring component in virtually all other peacekeeping missions.
The decision of the Security Council in April to renew MINURSO's mandate until April 2010 without revising it makes it incumbent on your office to find a way to ensure that human rights has its proper place in U.N. operations in Western Sahara.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in its only and still unpublished 2006 report on Western Sahara, noted:
urgent measures should be taken by the concerned parties to ensure that all human rights are protected fully. It is of extreme importance that human rights issues cease to be instrumentalized and that all human rights be implemented in a less politicized manner.... Closer monitoring of the human rights situation both in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps in Tindouf is indispensable. The United Nations should explore with all relevant actors the best way to ensure adequate and continuous monitoring of the human rights situation in the region, and to offer effective capacity building, protection and redress.
These recommendations remain valid today. In its December 2008 report, Human Rights in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf Refugee Camps, Human Rights Watch 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, 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.
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.
We are aware that at least some of the principal parties oppose regular, on-the-ground human rights monitoring by the U.N. We urge you to work to overcome such objections so that peacekeeping operations in this region will at long last come to resemble peacekeeping operations elsewhere in giving human rights its rightful place in the mission's mandate.
Thank you for your consideration.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa division
Juliette de Rivero
Geneva Advocacy Director