Human rights battle mars UN effort in W. Sahara

The UN Security Council on Thursday called on Morocco to improve its respect for human rights in disputed Western Sahara, but backed off calls for the UN to stage rights investigations.

Morocco staged a major diplomatic offensive after the United States proposed a resolution that called for investigations by the UN peacekeeping force in Western Sahara, now Africa's longest-running conflict.

UN resolution 2099, which extended the mandate of the UN mission for one year, encouraged Morocco and Polisario Front rebels, "to continue in their respective efforts to enhance the promotion and protection of human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps."

Morocco started occupying the former Spanish colony Western Sahara in 1975 in a move never accepted by the international community and the Polisario Front took up arms to fight for a separate state.

The UN negotiated a ceasefire in 1991, but its efforts to negotiate a permanent peace deal are deadlocked.

Morocco proposes broad autonomy for the phosphate-rich region under its sovereignty. This is rejected by the Polisario, which has called on the United Nations to carry out resolutions calling for a self-determination referendum.

In the face of accusations that Morocco tortures Sahrwai detainees, the United States had proposed a resolution calling for the UN mission to carry out "monitoring and reporting on human rights" in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps run by the Polisario.

The Western Sahara mission is one of the few UN operations in the world that has no human rights element.

Morocco angrily called off annual US-Morocco war games and lobbied intensely in Washington and with Britain, Spain and France -- members of the friends of Western Sahara group along with the United States and Russia -- to get the resolution altered.

After Washington dropped its demand, smaller scale military exercises have since started.

Human rights groups, the Polisario Front and African nations have been pressing for year for greater monitoring of allegations of rights abuses by Moroccan forces. UN experts have also said that detainees in the territory have been regularly tortured.

The Polisario envoy to the UN, Ahmed Boukhari, praised the US effort.

"Morocco's panic and extreme hostility towards the broadening of MINURSO's mandate indicates that serious violations of human rights take place, which the Moroccan government wishes to hide from the international community," said Boukhari.

"This impunity cannot last forever," he added.

Moroccan and US diplomats made no immediate comment on the resolution, which also gave strong support to the UN special envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, who was disavowed by Morocco for some time last year.

Ross has just completed a regional tour that took him to Western Sahara.