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 call made by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his report on the situation in Western Sahara released April 10, 2014, for “sustained, independent and impartial monitoring of human rights, covering both the Territory and the camps.”
Human Rights Watch’s monitoring of human rights conditions in Western Sahara, which included recent visits to El-Ayoun, Dakhla, and the Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria, confirm the need for the “sustained, independent, and impartial monitoring” that the Secretary-General urges. Existing rights-monitoring mechanisms fail to meet these criteria, which would be best satisfied by enlarging the mandate of MINURSO to include human rights monitoring of violations committed by all parties.
Morocco has announced a series of human rights initiatives since 2011 that, while positive, have yet to change the basic human rights situation in Western Sahara. That situation is characterized by Morocco’s firm repression of all Sahrawis who express their opposition to Moroccan rule and who favor self-determination for the territory. Authorities continue to prevent them from holding public demonstrations or creating legally recognized associations, provide no remedies to credible complaints of police violence against them, and prosecute and imprison Sahrawi activists after unfair trials in which complaints of torture go uninvestigated.
Morocco’s initiatives on human rights include the opening in 2011 of two “regional commissions” of human rights, located in Dakhla and El-Ayoun that are part of the National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH). UNSC resolution 2099 of 2013 welcomed this development.
However, these commissions cannot substitute for the kind of “independent, impartial, comprehensive, and sustained” monitoring that the Secretary General called for, for reasons that we explain in the annex to this letter.
As for working with UN human rights mechanisms, Morocco has indeed been cooperative, responding positively to requests to visit made by Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council and hosting five such visits to Morocco and the Western Sahara during the past three years. While these visits to Western Sahara by the UN’s thematic mechanisms are positive developments that should continue, they are by their nature brief and infrequent, and will never add up to monitoring that is comprehensive and sustained.
Human Rights Watch has long maintained that 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, and in the roughly 20 percent of Western Sahara that is under the Polisario Front’s de facto control.
In November-December 2013, Human Rights Watch conducted a two-week mission to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. We were able to work unhindered and found Sahrawis willing to speak with us, both inside the camps and among those visiting or living in other countries. They voiced concern about the trials of civilians before Sahrawi military courts and pressures on those who criticize the Polisario leadership, among other issues that Human Rights Watch will address in a forthcoming report.
The refugee population lives in a state of relative isolation, rarely visited by independent human rights monitoring groups. The camps are located in a remote desert region of Algeria, a country that has a visa requirement for most foreign visitors. Even more isolated is the small portion of the Sahrawi population that lives not in camps in Algeria but in the portion of Western Sahara that is under Polisario control.
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, Mali, and South Sudan. The UN peacekeeping operation approved on April 10 for the Central African Republic has 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 and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch
United Nations Director
Human Rights Watch
Annex – Recent Developments of Concern to Human Rights Watch
Under Moroccan law, peaceful speech or activities that “harm” Morocco’s “territorial integrity” are punishable by prison terms and a fine. These repressive statutes remain in effect despite Morocco’s adoption in 2011 of a constitution that contains many human rights guarantees.
Freedom of Association.Authorities systematically refuse to grant legal authorization to Sahrawi nongovernmental associations they deem sympathetic to the pro-independence camp, even if these associations have followed the procedures provided by Moroccan law to establish their legal existence–and even, in the case of the El-Ayoun-based Association of Sahrawi Victims of Human Rights Violations, after a Moroccan administrative court ruled in 2006 that the administration had wrongly refused to accept the ASVDH’s founding documents.
Morocco’s law on associations violates the right to freedom of association by providing broad criteria for rejecting associations on the basis of their objectives: according to article 3 of that law, “Any association is void if it is founded on a cause or within an objective that…aims to undermine…the integrity of national territory”–a phrase that authorities have applied to the act of peacefully challenging Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara.
Freedom of Assembly.In Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, authorities systematically prohibit public rallies by groups deemed to favor Sahrawi independence, regardless of whether the organizers followed the procedures for obtaining permission beforehand. For example, on February 15, in anticipation of an announced demonstration called to support a human rights mandate for MINURSO, large numbers of uniformed and plainclothes police secured a wide area surrounding Smara Road and the Maâtallah neighborhood in El-Ayoun, preventing suspected demonstrators from approaching and ordering a Human Rights Watch delegation out of the area. The police regularly uses excessive force to disperse peaceful protesters in El-Ayoun, according to numerous testimonies we collected. In 2014 alone, security forces prevented attempted demonstrations called by Sahrawi organizations on January 15, February 10, February 15, March 8, March 15, April 2, and April 5.
No Accountability for Police Violence. Sahrawis have no effective redress when they allege to have been victims of police violence. With rare exceptions, when they present written complaints to the office of the prosecutor at the El-Ayoun Court of First Instance, they encounter either a refusal to issue them a receipt for their complaints, or they receive a receipt but never receive a response. It is almost unheard of for the prosecutor to conduct an investigation where a complainant is invited to provide testimony or furnish other forms of evidence to support the complaint. As noted below, alleged victims submit complaints to the regional commissions for human rights in El-Ayoun and Dakhla, but these entities have so far had no more success than the individual complainants in prompting an investigation or formal response from judicial or state authorities.
Unfair Trials. Human Rights Watch remains concerned about the quality and independence of the justice rendered by Moroccan courts when trying Sahrawi activists. On February 17, 2013, 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 are in prison, have limited opportunities to appeal their conviction because of the rules governing military court trials.
On March 14, 2014, Morocco’s council of ministers approved a draft law that would end military court jurisdiction over civilian defendants. The adoption of such a law would be a positive development. However, it remains to be seen if the adoption of this law will bring relief to the Gdeim Izik defendants who the military court already convicted, and how it will affect the case of another Sahrawi citizen living inside Morocco, activist Mbarek Daoudi of Guelmine, currently in pre-trial detention and facing a military court trial for illegal weapons possession.
Furthermore, while ending military court jurisdiction over civilians is a step forward in principle, it will advance human rights substantively only to the extent that the regular court system ensures fair trials and the rights of the defense. That is far from the case, according to Human Rights Watch’s monitoring of trials of Sahrawi activists.
One case of concern to Human Rights Watch that is currently before the El-Ayoun Court of First Instance is that of Abdeslam Loumadi. On January 21, 2014, authorities arrested Loumadi, 26, at his home in El-Ayoun. Loumadi is known as a frequent participant in attempts by Sahrawis to demonstrate in El-Ayoun and as someone who has filed many formal complaints against the police for allegedly mistreating him. At his first and second appearances before the investigating judge on January 24 and February 2, Loumadi denied the accusations and alleged to the judge that police had tortured him during interrogation. He requested a medical examination, according to his lawyers, but the court did not respond to this request. He told his lawyers, furthermore, that the police had not allowed him to read his “confession,” whose contents he learned only when before the investigating judge. Loumadi remains in El-Ayoun prison in pre-trial detention, charged with forming a criminal group, blocking a public thoroughfare, destroying public property, participating in an armed gathering, incitement, and other charges. His trial has been postponed until May 7. Human Rights Watch is concerned by the failure of the court to investigate Loumadi’s allegations of torture and by the possibility that the real motive behind his prosecution may be his constant presence in “unauthorized” demonstrations and filing of complaints against the police, rather than compelling proof of criminal wrongdoing.
Morocco’s Regional Human Rights Commissions in Western Sahara
Morocco’s initiatives on human rights include the opening in 2011 of two “regional commissions” of human rights, located in Dakhla and El-Ayoun that are part of the National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH). The directors of the two regional commissions kindly received a Human Rights Watch delegation in February 2014. These commissions conduct many worthwhile human rights workshops, trainings and other activities locally. They also receive complaints from individuals, and raise individual cases regularly with the authorities.
However, these commissions cannot substitute for the kind of “independent, impartial, comprehensive, and sustained” monitoring for three main reasons:
First, the NCHR and its regional commissions cannot be considered “independent” in that they are national institutions of Morocco, whose sovereignty over Western Sahara the UN does not recognize.
Second, they do not engage in “sustained” and “comprehensive” monitoring of human rights conditions. Since they began operating in 2011, the commissions have not made public a single report about human rights violations in the areas under their purview. When asked why, the directors told us that they submitted their reports to the CNDH headquarters in Rabat and that the CNDH would decide when to make them public.
Third, while many Sahrawi and other citizens who believe their rights have been violated solicit help from the regional commissions, Moroccan authorities respond rarely if ever to the written interventions prepared by the commissions on individual cases, the directors of both commissions told us. At best, both directors said, they are sometimes able to mediate through personal contacts and telephone calls. They also report being successful in helping Sahrawi victims of grave abuses under the late King Hassan II get compensation or assistance within the framework of Morocco’s Truth and Equity Commission.
Morocco announced in March 2014 a directive that will require the administration to respond to written interventions by the regional commissions within 90 days. Again, this is a welcome step, but it is too early to tell whether it will provide any substantive redress to Sahrawis who claim their rights were violated or curtail the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of violations.