To: All Members of the UN Security Council
Re: MINURSO Renewal
Human Rights Watch urges the Security Council, when it votes on renewing the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) this month, to extend the mandate to incorporate human rights monitoring in Western Sahara and in the Polisario Front-run refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria.
We welcome the statement made by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his report on the situation in Western Sahara released last week, that, “Given ongoing reports of human rights violations, the need for independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human rights situations in both Western Sahara and the camps becomes ever more pressing.”
Similarly Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, in his report on Morocco and Western Sahara issued last month, concluded that “the entire region would benefit from a robust regional inter-governmental human rights monitoring mechanism as an important confidence-building measure that could help to improve the situation with respect to human rights observance.”
Current rights-monitoring mechanisms fail to meet the criteria cited by the Secretary-General and the special rapporteur. These objectives would be best achieved by enlarging the mandate of MINURSO to include human rights monitoring of violations committed by all parties.
Security Council Resolution 1979 of April 27, 2011, welcomed two Moroccan initiatives on human rights: its establishment of the National Council on Human Rights (NCHR) with a component proposed for Western Sahara and its commitment to ensure access to Western Sahara to all special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council visiting Morocco.
These Moroccan initiatives, however welcome, fall far short of the “independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained” monitoring of the current human rights situation that the Secretary-General is urging.
The NCHR has opened two offices in Western Sahara. It has undertaken a number of human rights activities there and can receive complaints from individual citizens. However, putting aside the fact that the NCHR is a national institution of Morocco, whose sovereignty over Western Sahara the UN does not recognize, this institution does not monitor or report on human rights conditions in Western Sahara regularly and broadly.
Morocco’s initiatives do not change the underlying situation: people in Western Sahara continue to suffer from violations of their rights (see “Recent Developments of Concern to Human Rights Watch,” annexed to this letter). Authorities continue to subject Sahrawis who advocate self-determination or denounce Moroccan human rights violations to various forms of repression, including imprisonment after unfair trials, beatings, and denial of the right to peaceful assembly, association, and expression.
As for UN human rights mechanisms, Morocco cooperated with the UN independent expert on cultural rights, who spent one day in Western Sahara during a visit in September 2011, and the special rapporteur on torture, who visited both Morocco and Western Sahara during one week in September 2012.
While these visits to Western Sahara by the UN’s thematic mechanisms are positive developments that should continue, they are by their natures brief and infrequent, and will never add up to monitoring that is broad and regular.
The enlarged mandate for MINURSO should include human rights monitoring not only in Western Sahara, but also in the Sahrawi refugee camps across the border in Algeria, whose residents live in a state of relative isolation.
In recent years, human rights monitoring, investigating, and reporting have become an integral part of UN peacekeeping operations around the world, benefitting the overall goals of the UN in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. The future UN peacekeeping presence in Mali, as envisioned in a French draft resolution, would also encompass a strong human rights mandate. Impartial UN monitoring makes it more difficult for parties to distort claims of human rights violations to promote their political agendas. It deters abuses and promotes accountability–all essential to promoting stability and political settlements.
We urge the Security Council to end this anomalous situation whereby MINURSO, almost alone among modern peacekeeping missions, lacks a mandate to monitor and report on human rights violations.
We thank you for your consideration of our request.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East & North Africa Division
United Nations Director
Annex – Recent Developments of Concern to Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch remains concerned about the quality and independence of the justice rendered by Moroccan courts when trying Sahrawi activists. On February 17, the Rabat Military Court convicted all 25 Sahrawi civilians on trial for plotting and carrying out the lethal violence that greeted police when they dismantled a protest tent camp in 2010 that Sahrawis had set up in Gdeim Izik, Western Sahara. The military court based its verdict almost solely on the confessions attributed to the defendants by the police and refused to investigate the defendants’ claims that the police had extracted those confessions from them through the use of torture. The court sentenced nine defendants to life in prison and 14 others to prison terms of twenty years or more. The defendants, 21 of whom spent more than two years in pretrial detention, have limited opportunities to appeal their conviction because of the rules governing military court trials.
Under Moroccan law, peaceful speech or activities that “harm” Morocco’s “territorial integrity” are punishable by prison terms and a fine. Judicial authorities regularly use this phrase, found for example in article 41 of the Press Code, to prosecute peaceful advocacy of independence for Western Sahara. Under article 3 of the Law on Associations, no association may exist legally that “harms the territorial integrity” of Morocco. These and other repressive laws remain in effect despite Morocco’s adoption in 2011 of a new constitution that contains many human rights guarantees.
In Western Sahara, Moroccan police quickly and systematically intervene to forcibly disperse peaceful demonstrations in favor of Sahrawi self-determination or independence, or in solidarity with advocates of that cause. For example, on March 23, they violently dispersed a peaceful gathering organized in El Ayoun to advocate for a human rights mandate for MINURSO and which coincided with a visit by the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy Christopher Ross.
Morocco’s Ministry of Interior has denied legal recognition to all Sahrawi human rights associations that it deems to be pro-independence or to be led by individuals viewed as pro-independence, even in cases where the courts determined that the administration had wrongfully denied an association the right to register. Authorities have for years refused legal recognition to the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations (ASVDH) and the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA). In September 2011, authorities refused to allow the legalization of a new Boujdour-based group called the Sahrawi League for Defense of Human Rights and Natural Resources. Even the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, which operates legally across Morocco, has since 2009 been denied legal status for its branch in the city of Smara, Western Sahara. Similarly the Moroccan Institution for Human Rights has been unable to obtain legal status for a Western Sahara branch since applying in April 2012.
Meanwhile, Western Sahara under Morocco’s control is not fully open to outside groups or persons wishing to observe and report on the human rights situation there. Authorities over the years have expelled or barred entry to scores of foreign journalists, nonviolent political activists, and human rights workers, even as it has allowed others to visit without obstacles. On March 6, Morocco expelled four members of the European Parliament, as they arrived in Casablanca on their way to Western Sahara to look at human rights conditions, on the stated grounds that they were allegedly “pro-Algeria/Polisario.”
The Sahrawi refugees live in a state of relative isolation in the Tindouf camps in Algeria, where there is no permanent, on-the-ground presence from either local or international independent human rights monitoring groups, and only rare visits by outside monitoring organizations. Human Rights Watch has received isolated reports that persons who openly dissent from the Polisario encounter pressures and reprisals for their political views. Like residents of the Western Sahara, refugees in the camps would benefit from the heightened protection that sustained, comprehensive UN human rights monitoring would offer.