Human Rights Developments
Citing slow progress in the voter identification process, the U.N. secretary-general repeatedly recommended the postponement of a transitional period, during which the U.N. was to have had powers including the responsibility for monitoring law and order in the territory, as well as the right to ensure that laws or measures that could obstruct a free and fair referendum were suspended. This delayed indefinitely the U.N. mission's assumption of powers essential to its effective supervision of the voter identification process.
Moroccan security forces routinely prevented Sahrawis seeking to submit voter applications from entering U.N. headquarters and the identification center in the Western Saharan capital of Laayoune. Applicants going through the identification process in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara were not permitted to come to the identification center on their own; rather, they were gathered in a central location and brought to the identification center in Moroccan vans. The U.N. did not formally investigate reports that Morocco had intimidated applicants who had come forward to be identified in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, such as allegations that registration receipts had sometimes been illegally confiscated by Moroccan authorities.
Western Saharan (Sahrawi) tribal leaders involved in the identification process reported that Morocco had pressured Sahrawi tribal leaders living in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara on how they should rule in individual cases. This reportedly occurred through intimidation, either in advance or by Moroccan observers present in the identification room, who often signaled to tribal leaders. In addition, members of the MINURSO identification commission reported that they had come under pressure from certain senior U.N. staff members to make decisions on voter eligibility that favored Morocco and were contrary to the accepted procedures. In order to be eligible to vote in the referendum, applicants had to prove that they met one of five criteria agreed to by the parties, including membership in a Sahrawi tribe, or proving that their father was a Sahrawi born in the territory. A large number of the applicants submitted by Morocco had no documents proving links to the Western Sahara, were not familiar with the tribal structure of the region and had clearly memorized answers to the factual and biographical questions posed by the Commission. Many of these applicants were among the 40,000 people Morocco had transferred to the Western Sahara in 1991, in violation of the terms of the Settlement Plan, stating that they were Sahrawis who wanted to vote in the referendum. For the fourth year, this population lived under twenty-four hour guard in tent cities in the Western Sahara, and received food and other benefits from the Moroccan government. Access to the tent cities was tightly restricted by Moroccan police and secret service agents. Despite indications that individuals with questionable ties to the Western Sahara were being presented for identification, there was little opportunity to scrutinize the U.N.'s procedures or guidelines for making the final decisions on eligibility. Although the general criteria for eligibility were known, the U.N.'s final decisions were made behind closed doors, and no decisions were announced on the over 50,000 applicants who had already been identified by the U.N.
On January 25, 1995, Ambassador Frank Ruddy, former deputy chairman of the MINURSO identification commission, testified before the United States Congress, alleging MINURSO mismanagement and obstructionist actions by Morocco. In response to Ruddy's allegations, the U.N. under-secretary-general for internal oversight services conducted an investigation and issued a report on April 5, 1995 (the "internal oversight services report"), confirming some of Ruddy's allegations, but failing to find evidence of mismanagement.
In a September 8, 1995, report to the Security Council, the secretary-general stated that progress in the identification process had been "disappointing," but recommended the extension of MINURSO's mandate to January 31, 1996. The Security Council did so, but noted the secretary-general's intention to present the Security Council with alternative options before the expiration of the mandate, including a possible withdrawal of MINURSO if conditions necessary for the start of the transitional period were not in place.
Morocco continued to engage in human rights abuses in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. On May 11, 1995, eight young men were arrested in Laayoune following a peaceful, pro-independence demonstration, and sentenced to fifteen to twenty years imprisonment by a military court in Morocco. Citing this incident and other "violations of the peace process," Polisario temporarily suspended its participation in the identification process on June 23, 1995. On July 9, 1995, the king commuted the eight Sahrawis' sentences to one year.
Hundreds of Sahrawis who had been victims of forced disappearances but were released in June 1991 still had not received any compensation from the Moroccan government by the end of 1995. Moreover, hundreds of cases of Sahrawis who reportedly disappeared up to two decades ago remained unresolved and the government made no effort to investigate or hold accountable those responsible for disappearances.
In 1995, up to 165,000 Sahrawis lived in desert camps in southwestern Algeria. They had taken refuge in these camps twenty years earlier, when armed conflict had broken out between Morocco and the Polisario Front. The refugees received humanitarian assistance from international relief organizations, U.N. agencies and the European Community. Polisario administered these camps and appeared to provide assistance to Sahrawi refugees on a timely and equitable basis.
Although living conditions in the desert were difficult and the location of the Polisario camps was remote and desolate, there was no evidence of food shortages, epidemics or other major health problems. Although most refugees expressed openly their unhappiness with the difficulties of living in the camps, there was no evidence that the Polisario was keeping refugees there forcibly. Rather, most of the difficulties and restrictions faced by the refugees were a result of their remote situation and the harsh climate in the desert, the economic and political difficulties of the region and the realities of being a stateless refugee population. Some refugees have returned to the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and some Sahrawis have left the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara since the original exodus, to join Polisario and live in the camps.
On May 8, 1989, prior to the signing of the U.N. Settlement Plan, Polisario released 200 elderly, ill and disabled Moroccan combatants captured and held during the war_in some cases for more than two decades. For the sixth straight year, Morocco denied these released prisoners, who were camped near the border, the right to return to Morocco; eight of them had died by 1995. Over 2,300 other Moroccan prisoners of war and up to 300 Polisario prisoners of war were still being held in Morocco and in Algeria. The ICRC has visited both sets of prisoners regularly since May 1993, with some interruptions. Human Rights Watch/Middle East visited two Polisario prisoner camps, where it found detention conditions to be extremely harsh, particularly due to the desolate desert location, intense heat, and the constant threat of sudden sandstorms. Some prisoners complained about their physical treatment at the hands of prison guards, while others emphasized that this had improved in the past five or six years. All the prisoners complained about insufficient food and medication, as well as about compulsory, unpaid labor, which was required for long hours, in a harsh climate.
The Right to Monitor
In Polisario refugee camps in Algeria, Human Rights Watch/Middle East was encouraged by members of Polisario to move about freely in the camps and speak to whomever it chose, but the remoteness of the camps, the unfriendly desert terrain and the absence of private transportation ultimately made Human Rights Watch/Middle East dependent upon Polisario for moving about. Although Polisario had agreed to provide access to all of the locations where Moroccan prisoners of war were being held in Algeria, Human Rights Watch/Middle East was only permitted to visit two such locations.
The Role of the International Community
The U.N.'s investigation into the allegations raised by Frank Ruddy provided an opportunity to expose shortcomings in the MINURSO operation and make constructive recommendations aimed at ensuring the credibility and fairness of the referendum process. Instead, the internal oversight services report had a defensive tone, and failed to provide a strong critique of the process or useful recommendations. Despite long-standing allegations of misconduct and unfairness associated with the MINURSO operation, the Security Council did not raise these concerns in any of its resolutions, or initiate any investigation until June 1995, when it sent a fact-finding delegation to the region to "assess progress and identify problems." The delegation issued a report that focused primarily on the slow pace of identification, and only alluded to issues related to the fairness of the referendum.
The U.S. and Argentine missions to the U.N. took the lead in pressing the Moroccan government to permit the 184 remaining prisoners of war released by Polisario to return to Morocco, in accordance with the internationally-guaranteed right to enter one's own country. However, by November, the Moroccan government had not responded to this initiative.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East