The UN Security Council must expand the mandate of its peacekeeping force in Western Sahara to include sustained human rights monitoring, said Amnesty International, amid clampdowns on peaceful protests and reports of activists tortured in custody during the past year.
In a report to the Security Council yesterday UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for independent, impartial and sustained human rights monitoring in the territory and Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria.
"Extending the peacekeeping force's mandate to include human rights would shed much-needed light on violations and abuses that would otherwise go unreported and provide an independent and impartial account on disputed allegations of human rights violations," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's Secretary General, in New York.
"In the absence of an independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained human rights monitoring, parties are allowed to trade accusations of rights abuses which fuel the tension as violations go unaddressed.
"A continued clampdown has left human rights defenders powerless to effectively document rampant violations in Western Sahara. Maintaining a peacekeeping force with a limited mandate is no longer an option."
The UN Security Council is due to extend the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) at the end of April 2014. It is the only modern UN peacekeeping operation without a human rights component.
In the year since the mandate was last renewed, the Moroccan authorities have continued to stifle dissent, placing restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful protests and civil society. Peaceful demonstrations are routinely banned or violently dispersed.
Amnesty International has documented cases of activists and protesters being tortured and otherwise ill-treated in police custody following demonstrations calling for MINURSO to adopt a human rights mandate in 2014.
Human rights defenders and activists in Western Sahara also face numerous restrictions on their work, including harassment and relentless surveillance by security forces, while authorities continue to obstruct the registration of local human rights associations.
"If Morocco wishes to prove it is serious about respecting its international obligations, it must end the harassment or intimidation of activists and stop blocking independent human rights monitoring by both local groups and the UN," said Salil Shetty.
Given the political sensitivities surrounding the unresolved dispute over the territory annexed by Morocco in 1975, impartial and sustained monitoring by MINURSO could be crucial.
On 8 November 2010, violence erupted as Moroccan security forces forcibly dismantled of a peaceful protest camp in Gdim Izik, near Laayoune, leaving 11 members of the Moroccan security forces and two Sahrawis dead. Moroccan authorities failed to independently and impartially investigate the events.
Twenty-five Sahrawi civilians were later convicted by a military court for their alleged role in the violence and given heavy prison terms, including nine life sentences.
The prisoners also spent two years in pre-trial detention during which they reported being tortured and otherwise ill-treated, before being unfairly convicted on the basis of forced "confessions".
An expanded MINURSO mandate could also help ensure an independent investigation is carried out into the deaths of 11 Sahrawis forcibly disappeared in 1976.
Their remains were discovered and exhumed last year by an independent forensic team whose findings suggest the 11 were extrajudicially executed by Moroccan armed forces at the time.
"MINURSO could play a valuable role in preserving forensic evidence and paving the way for independent and impartial investigations into incidents such as enforced disappearances," said Salil Shetty.
The Polisario Front, for its part, has also failed to take steps to end impunity for those accused of committing human rights abuses in the 1970s and 1980s in the camps under its control, where no independent human rights organizations currently operate.
Establishing an independent and impartial human rights monitoring body could also contribute to helping the Polisario Front and the Moroccan authorities overcome their mutual mistrust fuelled by allegations of human rights abuses and help build an environment conducive to fruitful political negotiations.
The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established in 1991 in the territory annexed by Morocco in 1975 as well as Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf in south-western Algeria.
Its mandate has been to monitor a ceasefire between the Moroccan armed forces and the Polisario Front, as well as to implement a referendum to determine Western Sahara's final status.