U.N. chief accused of backing down on Western Sahara rights

Western Sahara has the U.N.’s only peacekeeping force without a mandate to monitor human rights

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The group pushing to resolve what’s been called Africa’s last remnant of a colonial past is accusing the U.N. chief of trading away a tougher stance on Western Sahara during a recent phone call with Morocco’s king.

The Polisario Front, which wants independence for the Morocco-held strip of land, says Ban Ki-moon toned down his latest annual report on the U.N. peacekeeping force there. Morocco’s king last year threatened to kick out the force when Ban’s previous report suggested that it monitor human rights, and the U.N. special envoy was not allowed to visit Western Sahara for close to a year.

Western Sahara has the U.N.’s only peacekeeping force without a mandate to monitor human rights, while human rights group say Morocco uses violence to stifle dissent.

The Security Council next week is expected to vote on a resolution extending the U.N. mission. The draft obtained by The Associated Press has no mention of adding human rights monitoring.

Efforts to add such monitoring to the mission’s mandate have failed in the past two years under threats from Morocco, which in 2013 cancelled military exercises with the United States after the U.S. gave it a try.

Morocco annexed the mineral-rich former Spanish colony in 1975 and fought the Polisario Front until the U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991. The peacekeeping force monitors the ceasefire pending a referendum over the fate of the territory and its roughly half a million people. That referendum has never taken place.

The Polisario Front’s U.N. representative, Ahmed Boukhari, on Thursday took issue with the January phone call between Ban and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, saying Ban’s latest annual report on Western Sahara “has been negotiated with Morocco.” The report, which often lays groundwork for council action on the peacekeeping mission, has no suggestion for human rights monitoring by the force.

The U.N. special envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, had not been allowed to visit for months, until that phone call. “I confirmed that reports to the (Security) Council will remain objective and reflect facts,” Ban’s latest report says of the conversation with the king. “In reply, the king confirmed that Morocco welcomed the return of my personal envoy.”

A spokesman for Ban disputed Boukhari’s accusation, saying, “The U.N. doesn’t take instructions from member states in drafting reports.”

Morocco’s ambassador on Thursday did not comment. Ambassador Omar Hilale last year told reporters that U.N. monitoring is only needed “when there is massive and huge violations of human rights.”

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