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Preparing for the MINURSO mandate debate

February 11, 2015 at 2:34 pm

As April approaches, Morocco is hectically preparing for the UN’s annual renewal of the mandate for the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which was established in 1991. The fervour this year stems from attempting to avoid last year’s surprise of the US-led bid to extend the mandate to include the supervision of human rights abuses. Morocco objects to the extension, and not necessarily due to fear of recording or reporting police interventions against Polisario Front activists “inside” Morocco; activists and foreign media have always been visible in the region. The objection comes principally because Morocco feels the victim of unequal treatment. MINURSO functions mainly on Morocco-governed territories, thus meaning that the country receives extra scrutiny while any human rights abuses in the Tindouf camps or on Algerian lands will go unnoticed.

Two recent developments show that current conditions boost Morocco’s slow but sure move towards more credibility and legitimacy in its struggle for territorial integrity. First, last January, AFP foregrounded a 2007 investigative report drafted by the the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) on EU humanitarian assistance to Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Southern Algeria. Different research centres and news outlets have also highlighted the report, which shows two key findings. The first is massive EU embezzlement, while the second is the inability to measure diversions or trace how EU assistance is dealt with by Algeria and Polisario leaders. The outcome of this has meant that the separatist leaders have prospered due to foreign aid theft.

The EU money has been abused by Algiers and Polisario due to a number of factors: paradoxical figures of Tindouf refugee numbers; refusal to conduct a refugee census; inadequate monitoring; aid arriving at Oran before Tindouf; the Algerian Red Crescent’s responsibility for distributing EU aid; absence of transparency; the abuse of detainees, etc. Since the EU lacks reliable data on refugee numbers, the Polisario Front inflates them. That is why a census is refused by Algeria and Polisario. As the ESISC report briefing bluntly states, if Algeria’s unjustifiable refusal is “understood in the context of its relations with Morocco and its need for political propaganda over the issue of refugees living on its soil, the refusal of the Polisario is primarily motivated by the profit which the separatist Front gains from an overestimation of the number of refugees and, as a result, larger amounts of humanitarian assistance flowing in.” The circulation of the report in EU-North Africa meetings and events qualifies Morocco to shun the position of a target in human rights accusations.

The second point in Morocco’s favour is that the EU parliament previously refused three anti-Morocco amendments to a draft of the annual report on Human Rights in the World and EU Policy. The refusal indicates Morocco’s success in gaining support from MEPs. It is equally a sign of the EU’s growing trust in the reforms Morocco is undergoing, solidified by the win-win thawing of relations between Morocco and France.

On the other hand, the 2015 African Union Summit requested Morocco’s withdrawal from the “last colony in Africa”. The summit hosted in Addis Ababa last January affirmed the AU position, which considers Morocco as an occupying force in Western Sahara. The position neglects that Morocco’s bonds to Africa existed long before the separatist project started in 1975. In short, paradoxically, Morocco wins at the European level but not at the regional one. The decision to leave the African Union in 1985 was a mistake, the price of which is still being paid. The “empty chair” policy only allowed the Polisario Front – backed and bankrolled by the Algerian and ex-Libyan regimes – to gain more friends in Africa; even though Morocco had economic and strategic ties with them. The position also disregards the woes many African countries have undergone after division.

The situation, thus, is still in favour of Morocco today, especially due to the European influence at the UN. With Moroccan-French relations flourishing, the April renewal will, expectedly, bring no change to the status quo. The biggest losers are the people of Morocco and Algeria whose bounties are being squandered on a dispute that has no perceivable closure. What is needed is to rebuild relations with the African states that recognise Polisario, starting with neighbouring Algeria. Economically, Morocco can be a passageway for European joint investments in Africa as well as African goods and joint projects towards Europe; even the Constitution encourages the Moroccan government to diversify and extend foreign partnerships via South-South cooperation.

Concerning the mandate extension, I think Morocco can accept it under one condition: asking the Polisario Front to open doors for investigations by MINURSO and the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and human rights. If this condition is abided by, Morocco and the Polisario Front will play on equal grounds in the eyes of international organisations. The situation favours Morocco because human rights abuses are much less if we compare Morocco’s socio-economic investments to detention camps.

If there is genuine will to solve the lengthy problem, with the inclusion of human rights abuses in the three zones (Morocco-Tindouf-Algeria), the card of human rights supervision will lose its validity. In the end, the three parties will have to deal with one another directly, which will create an example in countering the separatist political projects currently teeming in Middle East and Africa.

Abderrahim Chalfaouat is a Morocco-based researcher in media, society and MENA politics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.