U.S. proposes U.N. Western Sahara rights monitor; Morocco warns of "missteps"

UNITED NATIONS/RABAT Wed Apr 17, 2013 1:33am BST

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon (L) in the Oval Office of the White House, April 11, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon (L) in the Oval Office of the White House, April 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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UNITED NATIONS/RABAT (Reuters) - The United States has proposed that the U.N. peace-keeping mission in the disputed territory of Western Sahara help monitor human rights there, U.N. diplomats said on Tuesday, an idea that has prompted an expression of regret from Morocco.

The U.S. proposal was contained in a draft U.N. Security Council resolution Washington circulated to the so-called Group of Friends on Western Sahara, which includes the United States, France, Spain, Britain and Russia, U.N. diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

"The U.S. has proposed a human rights-monitoring component for the U.N. in Western Sahara," a diplomat said. Other diplomats, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights, confirmed his remarks.

The draft resolution is intended to extend the mandate of the U.N. mission in Western Sahara for another year. It is scheduled to be put to a vote later this month.

Morocco's government responded to the U.S. proposal by cancelling the annual "African Lion" war games in protest.

In a statement, it said the country was "confident in the wisdom of the members of the Security Council and in their ability to find appropriate formulas to preserve the political process from any missteps that would have significant and detrimental consequences on the stability of the region."

African Lion is an annual joint military exercise with the Moroccan Armed Forces and the U.S. Army involving around 1,400 U.S. and 900 Moroccan soldiers.

U.N. diplomats said France, which traditionally supports Rabat, was also unhappy with the U.S. proposal.

The U.S. suggestion for a human rights monitoring component of the U.N. mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, comes after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council in a report that he advocated "sustained" independent human rights monitoring for the territory.

The idea of permanent U.N. human rights monitoring is something Morocco opposes but rights groups and the Polisario Front independence movement have long advocated.

RIGHTS VIOLATIONS?

A spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, Payton Knopf, confirmed Washington was discussing the issue. "We are actively reviewing MINURSO's mandate and are working closely with our U.N. Security Council partners on this issue," he said.

"The United States continues to support the U.N.-led process designed to bring about a peaceful, sustainable and mutually agreed solution to the conflict whereby the human rights of all individuals are respected," Knopf added.

In U.N.-mediated talks, Rabat has tried to convince Polisario, which represents the Sahrawi people, to accept its plan for Western Sahara to be an autonomous part of Morocco.

Polisario instead proposes a referendum among ethnic Sahrawis that includes an option of independence, but there is no agreement between Morocco and Polisario on who should participate in any referendum.

The referendum has never been held and attempts to reach a lasting deal have been unsuccessful.

No state recognizes Morocco's rule over Western Sahara but the Security Council is divided. Some non-aligned states back Polisario but France, a veto-wielding council member, has continued to support Rabat.

Polisario accuses Morocco of routine human rights violations in Western Sahara and has called for MINURSO to have the authority to conduct independent human rights monitoring. That is something Polisario has called for in previous years, but Morocco, backed by France, has rejected the idea.

In his report, Ban argued in favour of some form of independent rights monitoring but offered no details on how it would be carried out in the resource-rich territory.

"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 (refugee) camps becomes ever more pressing," Ban said.

(Reporting by Lou Charbonneau and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Todd Eastham)

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