Morocco to pre-empt W Sahara debate

2014-03-18 19:50
Western Sahara

Western Sahara

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Rabat - Morocco is seeking to forestall UN Security Council debate on its rights record in Western Sahara when the mandate of the territory's peacekeepers is renewed, with several reform announcements.

Last year, Washington sought to task the peacekeeping force, known as Minurso, with human rights monitoring in Western Sahara, an unexpected move fiercely opposed by Morocco, which controls most of the disputed territory and is highly sensitive to criticism of its policies there.

The kingdom launched a shrill lobbying campaign and eventually got the proposal dropped, with the final resolution calling instead for "the promotion and protection of human rights."

But the experience clearly rattled the authorities, with King Mohammed VI warning that the "manoeuvrings of the enemies of our territorial integrity will not stop," and urging his government to "put these adversaries on the back foot."

The UN peacekeeping force, whose mandate is again up for renewal in April, has monitored a ceasefire in the Western Sahara since 1991 between Morocco and the Algeria-backed pro-independence Polisario Front.

But unlike similar missions elsewhere, it is not charged with monitoring human rights, something rights activists and the Polisario Front have advocated for years.

Comments by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in October about "systematic human rights violations ... inside the occupied territories to suppress the peaceful struggle" of the Sahrawi people, prompted Morocco to briefly recall its ambassador to Algiers in protest.

Last week, a day after the king returned from abroad, Morocco's government endorsed a draft law -- which still has to approved by parliament - ending the trial of civilians in military tribunals.

Spain and France, a key ally of Morocco and supporter of its proposal of broad autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty, welcomed the move, which Paris said would strengthen the rule of law.

Historic reforms

Military trials of civilians have been heavily criticised by human rights groups, particularly the case of 25 Sahrawis jailed by a military court in Rabat in February 2013.

The king pledged to end the practice when he visited the White House in November.

The Sahrawis were accused of killing 11 members of the Moroccan security forces in Western Sahara in 2010, and nine of them were handed life sentences, despite allegations that their confessions were obtained under torture.

Morocco's government spokesperson Mustapha Khalfi described the planned reform of military tribunals as "historic."

But Amnesty International's Sirine Rachid said it was only a first step, and called for the fair retrial of all civilians convicted by military courts.

"Further human rights violations in Western Sahara remain unaddressed, in relation to freedom of expression, association and assembly, torture and other ill-treatment, and access to truth and justice for victims of enforced disappearance," she said.

Earlier this month, Rabat said it wanted to respond better to claims of human rights violations, and would name permanent ministerial representatives to liaise with the official National Human Rights Council (CNDH).


Alleged abuses, in particular those relayed by the CNDH's branches in Laayoune and Dakhla, Western Sahara's main cities, would be examined and an official response given "within three months."

Maghreb historian Pierre Vermeren called the plans to end military trials of civilians and promptly address rights abuses "positive," saying it strengthened Morocco's hand when the Security Council discusses Western Sahara next month.

"The link with the UN vote is obvious. It's doubtful that Morocco's opponents will manage to revive the human rights issue," Vermeren told AFP.

But he said the question of the independence of the judiciary in Morocco, whether civilian or military, remained.

Hamoud Iguilid, a rights activist in Laayoune, agreed that the purpose of the draft law was to "prevent the UN from discussing an enlargement of Minurso," calling it "façade diplomacy."

He also urged the retrial in a civilian court of the Sahrawis jailed last year.

Read more on:    un  |  morocco  |  western sahara  |  north africa

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