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Change We Don’t Believe In

April 29, 2009

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both, separately, called for a human rights monitoring function to be added to MINURSO‘s peacekeeping mandate in Western Sahara, when the issue comes up for discussion in the Security Council tomorrow.

overruledHuman rights have not been part of MINURSO’s mandate so far, although they’re very much part of the Western Sahara question. POLISARIO has for a few years now tried to raise the issue, demanding that MINURSO observers be stationed on both sides of the berm, i.e. both in Tindouf (POLISARIO-ruled) and Western Sahara proper (Morocco-ruled). Such an arrangement would be non-political in its setup, in that both sides would be subject to the same scrutiny, and only the bigger offender would have something to fear. But that is of course the problem, since on human rights, there’s not really any question who is the bigger offender — it’s Morocco. As HRW writes about their recent report:

We found a pattern of violations by Moroccan authorities of the right of Sahrawis to speak, associate and assemble peacefully in support of self-determination. The report describes how security forces arbitrarily arrest demonstrators and suspected Sahrawi activists, sometimes beating them and subjecting them to torture, and force them to sign incriminating police statements, all with virtual impunity; the courts then convict and imprison them after unfair trials.

Human Rights Watch devotes a substantial portion of its report to human rights in the Polisario-run refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. While we did not find systematic violations of human rights at the present time, the concerns we noted, including the absence of open debate on fundamental political issues and the survival, in a limited number of cases, of practices related to slavery, heighten our concern that the rights of the Sahrawis living in these camps are vulnerable due to the camps’ extreme isolation, the lack of regular, on-the-ground human rights monitoring, and the lack of oversight by the host country of Algeria.

Add to that Morocco’s blood-soaked history in the region, with hundreds of “disappeared” in the 1970s and 1980s, and the contrast gets even starker. So, it’s easy to understand why POLISARIO feels this is a win-win issue for them. Either they will embarrass Morocco internationally by publicizing its opposition to human rights monitoring, or they get that monitoring and thereby help protect their relatives in the territory, plus add a burden of international criticism to Morocco.

Still, I’m not sure that equation would hold all the way. POLISARIO’s international support has always leaned very heavily on human rights activism and solidarity movements, and it could potentially come to find this arrangement a good less comfortable than they imagine now. They do have some serious human rights violations of their own to deal with, and their talk about having a functioning democracy in Tindouf is shallow propaganda. While it is true that Morocco will be criticized harder than POLISARIO, and for good reason, it will also hurt much less, since Morocco has virtually no human rights-based support to lose. They do have substantial international backing, of course, but that’s all about realpolitik and lobbying, and neither Riyadh nor the Quai d’Orsay nor the White House is likely to pay any attention to what some MINURSO rapporteur writes about arbitrary detention in Dakhla.

International support for Morocco’s position on this issue (the MINURSO mandate), on the other hand, is pretty weak, but probably sufficient. Banning human rights monitors is a difficult position to defend for democratic nations, and even the Bush admin, at the height of its love-fest with Morocco over Western Sahara, seemed ready to approve them. However, France is as always less squeamish about such things, and public opinion couldn’t care less what they do in Africa. In 2006, the Council debated the issue and ended up deadlocked on a tally of 14-1 (everyone vs. France). At that point the US and other nations folded and let it slide rather than bringing the dispute into the open and risk embarrassing Morocco.

This time around, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is trying to fudge the issue in his report to the Council, by just stating in general terms that everyone needs to be nice to each other, without addressing the specific request for a HR component to MINURSO’s mandate. But, it’s up to the Council to decide — tomorrow. It’s certainly no major international issue, but precisely because of that, it will be interesting to see how the US turns under Obama, who ran much of his campaign on promises of a new deal in foreign policy — Change We Can Believe in and all of that. Will Washington be prepared to confront an ally over what should theoretically be a minor non-political human rights problem? My guess is they won’t, and that no one will notice it either, except this fine blog.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2009 14:05

    Alle, I agree with you that it’s high time a rights component was introduced to MINURSO, even if I am Moroccan and sympathize with Morocco’s claim to WS. The continued human rights abuses (and refusal to acknowledge many past ones) only weakens the Moroccan case for sovereignty over WS in the long term.

    However, it seems only fair that the same might be said of Polisario-controlled territory. Of course I doubt Algeria would play along. But on neither side do we have credible, representative Sahrawi leadership – whether “secessionist” or “loyalist”.

  2. April 30, 2009 22:51

    I absolutely agree with that, and that is also the proposal on the table. Both sides would, and should, be monitored, including in Tindouf.

  3. May 1, 2009 00:36

    Oh, well, moot point now. The SC just unanimously declared, Obama envoys and all, that human rights is for other people.


  1. MINURSO mandate extended, rights proposal buried « Maghreb Politics Review

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