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United Nations votes to keep forces in Western Sahara for a year

UNITED NATIONS--The Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to keep a U.N. peacekeeping force in Morocco's Western Sahara region for another year without a mandate to monitor human rights, which was proposed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon but rejected by Morocco's king.

Human rights groups accuse Morocco of using violence to stifle dissent and restrict freedom of expression. Amnesty International said earlier this month it has documented cases of activists and protesters being tortured or ill-treated in police custody following demonstrations calling for the U.N. mission to adopt a human rights mandate this year.

The resolution adopted by the council extends the U.N. mission known as MINURSO, which monitors the cease-fire, until April 30, 2015. It includes about 200 military observers and 30 troops and police.

Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975 and fought a local independence movement called the Polisario Front. The U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991, pending a referendum over the territory's fate that has never taken place.

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.

Morocco's U.N. Ambassador Omar Hilale told reporters that King Mohammed VI threatened to kick out the U.N. force in a phone conversation with Ban if a human rights monitoring mechanism was included.

Hilale said their discussion was “decisive,” calling Ban's proposal for a human rights monitoring mechanism “a bad mistake” that created tension. The U.N. peacekeeping presence and negotiations between the two parties were “in danger ... but happily Mr. Ban acted with responsibility,” he said.

The resolution's only mention of human rights is to stress the importance of improving the rights situation in Western Sahara and its refugee camps, and to encourage both sides to work with the international community “to develop and implement independent and credible measures to ensure full respect for human rights.”

It also welcomes recent Moroccan initiatives to strengthen the National Council on Human Rights Commissions operating in Western Sahara, the examination of Morocco's rights record by the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the planned visit of U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay this year.

“A continued clampdown has left human rights defenders powerless to effectively document rampant violations in Western Sahara,” Amnesty's Secretary General Salil Shetty said on April 11. “Maintaining a peacekeeping force with a limited mandate is no longer an option.”

Hilale said there is no need for U.N. human rights monitoring.

U.N. monitoring is only needed “when there is massive and huge violations of human rights” and no national human rights institutions, examination of a country's rights record, or visits by U.N. experts, he said. “There is already action” on all these fronts in Morocco.

Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, criticized the Security Council for refusing to allow U.N. peacekeepers to monitor and report on human rights violations.

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