As abuses against Sahrawi activists and journalists mount in Western Sahara, 10 United States Republican and Democratic senators are urging the Biden administration to include a human-rights element in the work of the United Nations referendum mission in the disputed region, according to an Oct. 14 letter obtained by PassBlue.
As the file holder on Western Sahara in the UN Security Council, the US is responsible for drafting the resolution to renew the mandate of the mission, called Minurso. The current mandate expires this month, and the Council is expected to vote on the renewal by Oct. 31. Minurso is the only UN mission established since 1978 that does not have a dedicated mechanism to monitor violations of human rights. In 2020, the UN high commissioner for human rights was “strongly encouraged” by the Council to report on conditions in Western Sahara directly, but she continues to be blocked from visiting the area, as it has for the last six years.
“As the UN drafts the renewal of MINURSO’s mandate, we urge you to seek the inclusion of language to enable the UN to monitor human rights conditions in the region and continue support for self-determination,” the letter, addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, says. It is signed by Senators Bernie Sanders (Ind-Vermont), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Mississippi), Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), Michael Rounds (R-South Dakota), Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), and John Boozman (R-Arkansas).
Minurso was created in 1991 to organize a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara, which has never happened. It is also supposed to monitor the cease-fire between Morocco and the Frente Polisario, the political party representing the contested region of Western Sahara. The territory has steadfastly resisted the administration of Morocco after Spain decolonized it in 1976. Since its inception, the mission has lacked a human-rights component despite documented violations and abuses committed by the Moroccan authorities as well fewer instances by the Polisario, according to independent reports.
As a permanent member of the Council, France, which has favored Morocco’s colonial claims over Western Sahara, has used the threat of its veto power behind closed doors to keep the UN mission from reporting human-rights problems. The US has also tacitly favored the status quo. Yet the Biden administration has vowed to support human rights throughout the world, and last week the US was elected to the UN Human Rights Council after the Trump administration quit it in 2018. Nevertheless, Russia and China in the Security Council could push back against a human-rights role for Minurso.
“The United States must be an advocate for human rights around the world,” the letter to Blinken says. “Yet, concerning abuses by Moroccan authorities, especially against Sahrawis, the administration has said little publicly.”
In December 2020, the Trump administration boosted US support of Morocco when it recognized the country’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, shocking the Polisario and the Sahrawi people that the political arm represents. Many countries in the Mideast-North Africa region were also astonished. The Polisario have been seeking independence since 1975.
The US recognized Morocco’s right over the disputed territory after the country normalized relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords. That move further reduced any window for a negotiated solution to the Western Sahara problem, especially as tensions have risen between the Polisario and Morocco in the last year. Blinken recently celebrated the first anniversary of the accords with Morocco and other countries that have signed on to them, such as the United Arab Emirates.
“We are concerned that the Moroccan government has been emboldened in their abuse of Sahrawi activists since the United States’ misguided recognition of Morocco’s claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara,” the letter says. “This is unacceptable.”
The region is full of phosphate and other natural resources, which have been exploited by multinational corporations, although in violation of international law, concluded the UN Legal Counsel in 2002.
“The Trump administration’s disregard for international law set a dangerous precedent that did nothing to advance the peace process,” Marlene Spoerri, the director of inclusive diplomacy at the Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit advisory group that advises the Polisario Front, told PassBlue in a written comment.
“Adding a human rights mandate to MINURSO would not only build confidence in a political solution, but would send a clear signal to Morocco that respect for the rights and dignity of the Sahrawi people are the cornerstone of any credible solution in Western Sahara,” Spoerri added.
The Biden administration, however, has not reversed Trump’s decision on Western Sahara or publicly supported a mandate by Minurso to monitor human rights, although repression against Sahrawis activists and journalists rose in the last year. The US State Department did not reply to a request for comment by PassBlue.
Not everybody agrees on the value of inserting a human-rights component into Minurso. Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber, a German diplomat who led the UN mission from 2012 to 2014, explained in a written response to PassBlue: “Adding a human rights component to MINURSO would mean adding another un-implementable element to the already existing un-implementable mandate provisions.”
He noted that such a mandate would not improve anything in the territory. Member states should instead devote their energy and political capital to strengthening existing and accepted mechanisms, he said, such as periodic visits of UN special experts.
“If a permanent presence [of a rights monitoring mechanism] is really wanted, the OHCHR could establish an office in the Western Sahara,” he added, referring to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
On the ground, tensions escalated after Sahrawi protesters blocked traffic between the Moroccan-controlled side of the region at the border town of Guerguerat in November 2020. Morocco responded by deploying troops into the buffer zone, while the Polisario announced that it would no longer respect the 1991 cease-fire.
In July 2021, Mary Lawlor, an expert with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on the Moroccan government to stop targeting human-rights defenders and journalists in Western Sahara. She accused Morocco of arresting peaceful activists and sentencing them to disproportionately long prison terms.
Amnesty International has denounced that access to Western Sahara has grown more difficult for outside monitors and journalists as the human-rights situation deteriorates.
Denouncing the abuses against Sahrawis, the US senators asked Blinken to push Morocco to revisit the cases of activists facing decades-long sentences for protesting the dire economic and social conditions in Western Sahara, and the lawmakers included mentioning the status of one activist, Sultana Khaya, and her family, who reportedly have been sexually abused and harassed by authorities, despite never being informed of the charges against her.
A new envoy for Western Sahara, Staffan de Mistura, was appointed by Secretary-General António Guterres in October. The Italian-Swedish diplomat, who was the UN envoy for Syria, fills a vacancy left by Horst Kohler of Germany, who quit in May 2019. When he begins on Nov. 1, de Mistura is expected to carry out roundtable talks to achieve “a mutually acceptable political solution that will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara,” according to Guterres.
De Mistura’s name was first proposed by Guterres to the Security Council and the other relevant parties for approval last spring, only to be rejected by Morocco, which is adamant about keeping the status quo on Western Sahara. (Guterres actually proposed a total of 13 names for the envoy post.) But the US renewed the push to appoint de Mistura again recently, to show that it is acting on the Western Sahara agenda, aware that the mandate renewal is scheduled this month. De Mistura will carry out shuttle diplomacy from his base in Brussels.
“With the appointment of a new Personal Envoy, the Biden administration has a new opportunity to reassert the US’s commitment to international law by throwing its full weight behind the UN-led process,” Spoerri wrote.
“If Morocco felt confident in its own treatment of the Sahrawi population,” she added, “there would be no need for it to oppose the inclusion of a human rights monitoring mandate in MINURSO.”
This article has been updated to reflect that the UN mission’s primary mandate is to hold a referendum on the independence of Western Sahara.
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Maurizio Guerrero is an award-winning journalist who for 10 years was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).