The United Nations has called for more human rights oversight in Western Sahara, the vast northwest African territory occupied by Morocco since 1975, as a mandate for UN peace keepers in the disputed region comes up for renewal later this month.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for "sustained, independent and impartial" monitoring of human rights in the territory, while welcoming Morocco’s efforts to improve the situation in the area under its control.
Ban said he welcomed Morocco's willingness to allow special investigators from the UN Human Rights Council to visit the territory and the Polisario Front independence movement's willingness to work with the UN.
"The end goal nevertheless remains a sustained, independent and impartial human rights monitoring," Ban said.
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.
Ahmed Boukhari, the Polisario Front’s UN representative, said he was disappointed the report didn’t go further, adding that Morocco and France were putting pressure on the world body.
"Morocco with the help of France are placing the UN in a very uncomfortable situation," he told the Reuters news agency.
The renewal of the mandate of the peacekeeping mission marks an annual battle in the Security Council between France, which defends Morocco's position, and a number of African and Western nations supporting Polisario.
Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in the late 1970s but has come under mounting fire over its human rights record in the territory it controls.
Human rights group Amnesty International accused Morocco on Friday of suppressing peaceful protests over the past year. It cited reports of activists tortured in custody and demanded a broadening of the UN force's mandate.
"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," Amnesty said.
Unlike UN peacekeeping forces elsewhere, MINURSO, which has monitored a ceasefire between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front since 1991, is not charged with reporting on human rights, something rights activists and the Polisario have advocated for years.
Exploitation of resources
The Polisario Front has raised concerns about Moroccan and international exploitation of the resource-rich territory, notably relating to controversial exploration activity by foreign oil companies in Western Saharan waters.
Texas firm Kosmos Energy plans to drill a well in its Cap Boujdour block this year, while France's Total renewed an offshore reconnaissance permit in December.
"In light of increased interest in the natural resources of Western Sahara, it is timely to call upon all relevant actors to 'recognise the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount'," the report said.
Morocco has proposed wide autonomy for the disputed territory under its sovereignty, but this is rejected by the Polisario, which has campaigned for independence since 1973, and insists on the right of the Sahrawi people to determine their own future in a UN-monitored referendum.
Successive UN attempts to broker a permanent settlement have floundered with Rabat wanting Western Sahara to be an autonomous part of Morocco, and the Polisario Front proposing a referendum among ethnic Sahrawis that includes an option of independence.