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(New York) – United Nations Security Council members should task the United Nations with monitoring human rights violations in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps around Tindouf, in Algeria, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to all 15 Security Council member countries. The Security Council is to vote later in April 2013 on renewing the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission for Western Sahara, known as MINURSO.

MINURSO is one of the few modern UN peacekeeping missions that does not include a mandate to observe and report on human rights conditions. Morocco, which claims sovereignty and exercises de facto control over Western Sahara, has long opposed the inclusion of human rights monitoring in the mandate, with the support of France. The mandate will expire on April 30 but has been renewed without interruption since the mission was created in 1991.

“The Security Council should put an end to the anomaly whereby MINURSO conducts de-mining activities and border patrols but has no mandate to report on the police violence, unfair trials, and restrictions on assembly that routinely confront Western Sahara residents,” said Philippe Bolopion, UN director at Human Rights Watch.

The UN secretary-general and the special rapporteur on torture both recently called for enhanced rights monitoring in Western Sahara. Moroccan abuses in Western Sahara particularly target Sahrawis who advocate self-determination or independence for the territory. The authorities violate their rights to demonstrate peacefully and to form associations, and activists have been tortured and then imprisoned after unfair trials.

Diplomatic sources told Human Rights Watch that the US has included language in the 2013 draft resolution that would allow the UN to monitor and report on human rights in Western Sahara. The draft also asks the secretary-general to ensure that relevant UN agencies can monitor and report on human rights in the refugee camps around Tindouf, with Algeria’s cooperation.

Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony on the Atlantic coast between Morocco and Mauritania. When Spain withdrew in 1975, Morocco seized control of most of the territory and has since administered it as part of Morocco. The UN does not recognize Moroccan sovereignty and considers Western Sahara a “non-self-governing territory.”

The UN in 1991 brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front, premised on a referendum on self-determination that the UN mission was to organize. However, the referendum has never taken place and Morocco now opposes it, proposing instead a form of autonomy for Western Sahara within Morocco.

“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,” Human Rights Watch said in its letter. The Polisario Front has taken measures to punish camp residents who have criticized its leadership or supported Morocco’s autonomy plan.

“A human rights monitoring mandate for the Western Sahara peacekeeping mission is long overdue and would both improve rights protections and make it more difficult for any party to the conflict to distort claims of abuse to advance their political agendas,” Bolopion said. “Security Council members should not pass on a landmark opportunity to bring MINURSO in line with other modern peacekeeping missions, designed with the understanding that human rights are an integral part of the UN’s work.”

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