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Kennedy Center delegation accused of bias during Western Sahara visit

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A delegation of Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) visiting the disputed Western Sahara region to explore the state of human rights has been criticized for taking sides.

The delegation, headed by Kerry Kennedy, met with Moroccan lawmakers in the capital Rabat and was briefed about the government’s human rights approach in the Western Sahara.

But the delegation’s visit and stay at the place of Aminato Haidar, a separatist woman living in Western Sahara under the Moroccan rule, drew criticism from several activists and NGOs who said the RFK Center’s delegation has crossed the lines.

The delegation accused Moroccan authorities of hindering its movement in the city of Layoun, the capital of Western Sahara. The government, however, dismissed the claims, saying international human rights groups were “welcome” to visit the disputed region and that the delegation was granted freedom of movement in the region.

The delegation also visited the Tindouf camps in Algeria’s South West, where the Polisario Front seeking the independence of Western Sahara is based.

A video circulated on the internet showed a demonstration in Tindouf in support of a Moroccan proposal for autonomy of the region. The demonstration was staged during the U.S. delegation’s visit and Polisario’s security forces were shown cracking down on protesters.

Western Sahara became under Spanish rule in 1884. On Nov. 14, 1975, it was partitioned. Morocco acquired two-thirds in the north and Mauritania the remaining third. Spain agreed to end colonial rule and Algeria helped set up the Polisario Front in 1973. The front launched repeated attacked on Mauritania and forced it to withdraw from the part it occupied, and when Mauritania pulled out, Morocco stepped in and annexed the territory.

Backed by Algeria, Polisario declared the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and led a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces until 1991, when both parties agreed to peace plan.

The peace plan provided for a transitional period, leading to a referendum in January 1992. Western Saharans would choose between independence and integration with Morocco.

While the ceasefire held, the mission was never fully deployed, nor was the transitional period. A key sticking point was an “identification process” to decide who was eligible to vote in the plebiscite

The Identification was to be based on a census carried out by Spain in 1973. Polisario wanted to rule out the Moroccans who settled in Western Sahara after the Green March, a mass demonstration in November 1975 that was mobilized by the Moroccan government to force Spain to abandon the territory.

U.N. special envoy James Baker mediated talks between the Polisario and Morocco and submitted a “Framework Agreement,” in June 2001. The framework was rejected by both Algeria and Polisario, thus it never came into effect.

In January 2009 U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross as his new special envoy to deal with Western Sahara. Mr Ross was once U.S. ambassador to Algeria who was seen as siding with Polisario and Algeria.