Leaked report decries W Sahara rights
By Mark Turner at the United Nations
Published: April 16 2007 16:00 Last updated: April 16 2007 16:00
The people of Moroccan-administered Western Sahara are systematically being denied their human rights, according to the UN, in a leaked report that could embarrass Rabat's new efforts to grant them autonomy under continued Moroccan rule.
A UN mission sent to the contested territory last year concluded "the human rights situation is of serious concern … The Sahrawi people are not only denied their right to self-determination, but are severely restricted from exercising a series of other rights."
But the report, which was completed last September and has been seen by the Financial Times, was never officially released, and the UN insists it was never intended for public consumption. An official familiar with the process said there was some disappointment within the system at a perceived sweeping of Sahrawi rights under the table.
The UN study said the region's inhabitants were being denied "the right to express their views about the issue, to create associations defending their right to self-determination, and to hold assemblies to make their views known. Serious changes to both legislation as well as government practice … are required".
The allegations come as both the Moroccan government, and the pro-independence 'Frente Polisario', lobby the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary General on competing political plans to resolve a 30-year stand-off over the former Spanish colony's status. The Secretary General is expected to issue a report this week.
In broad terms, Rabat is ready to grant Western Sahara significant autonomy, but within Morocco, while the Polisario Front wants a referendum on self-determination, with the option of independence. Morocco says it is open to a negotiated compromise.
Recent days appeared to show a swing in US favour towards the Moroccan side, with Nicholas Burns, US Undersecretary of State, describing its plan as "a serious and credible proposal to provide real autonomy".
The State Department said it hoped "Morocco's presentation of its initiative to the United Nations will spur discussion and create an opportunity for Morocco and the Polisario to engage in direct negotiations, without preconditions, to resolve the Western Sahara dispute."
But Ahmed Buhari, the Polisario Front's UN representative, told the FT: "The Moroccan proposal is based on one main point – to say western Sahara is a part of Moroccan territory. This starting point is undermining the entire process; there is no way out other than the referendum on self-determination."
The UK, which holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council, has said it is not hopeful for any quick solution, given the intractability of the two positions. Whether the wider dissemination of the UN human rights report will have any effect on the deliberations is unclear.
El Mostafa Sahel, Morocco's ambassador to the UN, said the report was incomplete, in that the mission did not have free access to the Algerian side (where there is a large camp); and also insisted "we live in a country of liberty; everyone has the right to express their opinion."
But the UN cited reports that demonstrations in the town of Laayoune in 2005 were met with excessive force by Moroccan security forces, which in turn prompted the demonstration to become violent. The mission was also presented with claims of arbitrary arrests, torture, and expressed concern over "serious deficiencies with regard to ensuring the right to a fair trial."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007