Moroccan security forces persist in violating the human rights of Sahrawi people in Western Sahara, several months after the U.N. Security Council decided not to send human rights observers to the disputed territory, rights groups have said.
Western Sahara, a tract of desert the size of Britain that has lucrative phosphate reserves and may have offshore oil, is the focus of Africa's longest-running territorial dispute, between Morocco, which annexed it in 1975, and the Sahrawis' Polisario Front independence movement.
The conflict has resulted in some 165,000 Sahrawis crossing the border since 1976 to seek refuge in camps in Tindouf, southwestern Algeria, according to the Polisario. The UNHCR says it is officially providing aid to 90,000 "vulnerable" refugees.
Though life in the territory has improved since a U.N-brokered ceasefire in 1991, the Moroccan authorities are still systematically repressing the right of assembly and freedom of speech of the Sahrawis, the head of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights, Santiago Canton, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The Sahrawi people have been living under an oppressive regime for almost 40 years. They are put in jail for peaceful demonstrations and in some cases simply for raising a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic flag," Canton said by telephone from New York.
There are currently 59 Sahrawi political prisoners in jail, 17 of them human rights activists, and they are subject to torture, beatings and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, the RFK Center said in a recent statement.
Amnesty International accused Morocco earlier this year of torturing six men arrested after calling for the territory's independence at a demonstration, a charge that Morocco dismissed as "pure lies."
Earlier this year, the U.N. secretary general, the U.N. rapporteur on torture and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concerns about human rights violations in Western Sahara.
But the U.N. Security Council dropped demands for human rights observers in Western Sahara under pressure from Rabat, paving the way for a compromise that would allow the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to be extended for another year.
"Since 1979, every single UN Peacekeeping Mission in the world has had a human rights mandate automatically, there is no question, except for MINURSO in Western Sahara," said Canton.
"It's ridiculous. We're not asking for sanctions, just a human rights monitoring mission. The inability to resolve this issue after so many years is a clear failure of the international community," he said.
"We are not talking about independence, but human rights, even though one is a consequence of the other," Canton said.
"The Moroccan government does not make that distinction for political reasons. They use independence as an instrument, to warn states not to get involved as this is an issue of sovereignty and that Western Sahara is their territory," he said.
Expanding the MINURSO mandate to include human rights observers would not be in the spirit of consensus and would undermine national sovereignty, which is a red line for all Moroccans, Deputy Secretary-General of the ruling Justice and Development Party Slimane Amrani told Maghreb Arabe Press (MAP), the state-run news agency.
France, Morocco's traditional protector on the U.N. Security Council, has previously vetoed resolutions on the issue, supporting Rabat unconditionally.
"Morocco has been very good at lobbying the U.N. Security Council in blocking MINURSO from having a human rights mandate. France, a permanent member of the Security Council, is particularly receptive due to historical and economic ties," said Canton.
"The situation requires not only a permanent presence by the United Nations, but a clear human rights mandate to ensure that such abuses do not continue and to send a clear message that the global community will not tolerate these violations," he said.
New discoveries involving cases where Sahrawis disappeared during the war further highlight the need for human rights monitoring to be included in the MINURSO mandate for Western Sahara, Amnesty International said in a recent statement on its website.
Human remains found by a shepherd in April 2013 in the Fadret Leguiaa area of Western Sahara were analysed by a team of Spanish forensic experts, who decided that eight people, including two children, were arrested in February 1976 by a Moroccan military patrol and executed by firearms on the spot, before being buried in two shallow graves, Amnesty said.
"The findings, 'The Oasis of Memory,' stand in stark contrast to those published by the Advisory Council on Human Rights (CCDH), the national human rights institution at the time, which was responsible for looking into cases of forced disappearance," Sirine Rached, North Africa researcher for Amnesty International, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"CCDH concluded that four of the eight were arrested between February and July and taken to military barracks in Smara, where they later died. The four others were not included in the CCDH lists of victims of enforced disappearances," Rached said by telephone from London.
"The differing conclusions raise questions on the accuracy of the CCDH report. It is likely that other remains are awaiting discovery in this and other areas of Western Sahara," said Rached.
"The mandate of MINURSO [should] be expanded to include a human rights component, not only to promote truth and justice for unresolved cases of past violations by the Moroccan authorities, as well as by the Polisario Front, but also to address fresh violations, which remain an ongoing source of concern in the region," Amnesty said.