UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Thursday to keep a U.N. peacekeeping force in Western Sahara for another year, but without a mandate to monitor human rights in the disputed territory that the United States had sought.
The U.S. abandoned the monitoring proposal after strong opposition from Morocco, which annexed the former Spanish colony in 1976, and its close ally, France, a veto-wielding council member.
Instead, the resolution now encourages Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front "to continue in their respective efforts to enhance the promotion and protection of human rights in Western Sahara" and camps in Tindouf for Saharan refugees.
It also welcomes steps taken by Morocco to strengthen its National Council on Human Rights Commissions operating in Dakhla and Laayoune in the Western Sahara and the expected review of human rights in the country this year by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said his government doesn't oppose monitoring.
"The problem is how to report the situation of human rights in Western Sahara," he said. "We have always said the best way is through bilateral dialogue with Morocco. ... We have steady improvement of human rights in Western Sahara thanks to the decisions taken by Morocco. There is room for improvement, but we think we can follow up through our dialogue with Morocco."
Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the mineral-rich Western Sahara, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination for the local people through a referendum on the territory's future.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission monitors a 1991 cease-fire that ended a decades-long battle for independence by Polisario Front rebels and was given a mandate to help oversee the referendum on Western Sahara's future. It currently has about 175 military observers, 25 troops and six police officers. The council extended its mandate until April 30, 2014.
The Polisario Front has been lobbying for years, along with human rights groups, for a U.N. human rights presence in Western Sahara.
In a report to the Security Council last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for "independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human rights situations in both Western Sahara and the camps" for Saharan refugees because of continuing reports of rights violations.
The United States, following up on the report, proposed having the U.N. monitor human rights in the resolution it drafted to extend the mandate of U.N. peacekeepers.
Angered at the proposal, Morocco canceled its annual military exercises with the United States on April 16. The 13th annual "African Lion" exercise — involving 1,400 U.S. servicemen and 900 Moroccan troops, as well as foreign observers from countries like France and Germany — had been set to start on April 17 with many personnel already in place.
When he announced the cancellation, Moroccan government spokesman Mustapha Khalfi, who is also the minister of communication, called the U.S. proposal "an attack on the national sovereignty of Morocco" that would have "negative consequences on the stability of the whole region."
Khalfi said Morocco — which is serving a two-year stint on the Security Council — counted on "the wisdom" of other council members to block human rights monitoring.
Diplomats said that when the U.S. presented its draft resolution to the Friends of Western Sahara group, which includes Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Spain and Switzerland, there were strong objections from France. So the U.S. dropped the human rights monitoring provision.
Philippe Bolopion, United Nations director for Human Rights Watch, said even though the U.S. effort to include monitoring was short-lived, "Morocco is now on notice that its rights record in Western Sahara will come under renewed scrutiny."
"Morocco's virulent efforts to block such a mandate only serve to undermine its claim that it is making strides to improve human rights conditions in the contested territory," he said.