By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The U.N. peacekeeping mission in the disputed territory of Western Sahara should be given an added mandate to monitor human rights, rights groups said, days before a U.N. vote on the mission's renewal.
The Western Sahara mission, MINURSO, is the only current U.N. peacekeeping mission without a human rights mandate, watchdog Amnesty International and rights coalition EuroMed Rights said on Tuesday.
Western Sahara, an arid territory slightly bigger than Britain along the Atlantic Ocean, has about half a million people, the Sahrawis.
Giving MINURSO the task of reporting on human rights "would offer some protection to a population that lives with the daily threat of abuses by the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario Front," said Magdalena Mughrabi, an Amnesty International spokeswoman.
The Polisario Front, which says the territory belongs to ethnic Sahrawis, waged a guerrilla war against Morocco from 1975, when Rabat annexed the area after taking it over from colonial power Spain, until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991. The two sides have been deadlocked since.
Morocco's diplomatic mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to telephone and email requests for comment.
Human rights monitoring would help shed light on a territory often out of bounds for journalists and independent human rights groups, said Jacob Mundy, an assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University in New York.
It could "corroborate accounts that are often difficult to corroborate in terms of Moroccan abuses as well as what goes on inside the (Polisario-run) refugee camps," Mundy said.
Any such plan has been complicated by a controversy caused by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's use in March of the word "occupation" to describe Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara, while visiting Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria.
His use of the word, during a visit intended to spur negotiations between the Polisario independence movement and Morocco, stirred the indignation of Rabat which expelled dozens of U.N. staff, greatly reducing the mission's work.
The 15-nation U.N. Security Council is due to vote on Thursday on whether to extend MINURSO's mandate. Ban has recommended an extension to avoid possible breaches of the ceasefire and a renewal of fighting.
Anouar Boukhars, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think-tank, and Western Sahara expert, called the idea of a human rights-tasked MINURSO "a non-starter with Morocco."
"Certainly not in the current circumstances," he added.
Focusing energies on numerous big infrastructure projects currently under way, including a $9 billion solar power scheme, would better serve human rights by employing Sahrawis who feel they suffer from discrimination, he said.
"If you can't advance the political route, at least focus on the socio-economic route," he added.
But Amnesty International spokesman Richard Bennett said human rights should be upheld independently of economic circumstances.
"While of course Amnesty recognizes the importance of economic opportunities, they are not a replacement for political rights," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)