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RFK Human Rights and Amnesty International USA Call on the Biden Administration and UN Security Council to Renew Minurso and Add Critical Human Rights Monitoring

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Amnesty International USA jointly call on the United Nations Security Council to renew the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), and for the Biden administration—representing the U.S. as the mandate’s penholder—to ensure the inclusion of a human rights monitoring component.

Such a mechanism is critical to ensure accountability for rights violations committed in the territory. The Security Council is set to vote on adopting the resolution to renew MINURSO on October 27.

For nearly 40 years, both the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front have claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony. In 1991, the UN established MINURSO, a peacekeeping mission aimed to monitor the ceasefire and ensure a free and fair referendum. This referendum has yet to materialize.

Today, 30 years after its establishment and unlike the majority of standing UN missions, MINURSO still has no human rights mandate despite myriad human rights violations carried out in the territory. Moroccan authorities have broadly failed to adhere to the Council’s repeated calls, most recently in Resolution 2548 (2020), to “ensure full respect for human rights” as required by international law, and to enhance cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights “including through facilitating visits to the region.”

The human rights situation in Western Sahara has been dire for decades. Our organizations have reported on violations in the territory for years, including arbitrary detention, torture, and restrictions on fundamental freedoms at the hands of Moroccan authorities against the Sahrawi people. However, the situation in Western Sahara has significantly deteriorated within the past year. And U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara under the Trump Administration in December 2020 has left the Sahrawi people in a more vulnerable situation than before.

In November 2020, the situation in Western Sahara escalated with the disruption of the ceasefire when the Moroccan army dismantled a Sahrawi peaceful protest camp in a MINURSO buffer zone. Since then, Amnesty has documented Moroccan security forces’ repressive targeting of at least 22 Sahrawi activists peacefully exercising their right to free speech. Among them was a minor, Mustapha Razouk, who was detained and tortured by Moroccan police for peacefully protesting for the detention of another activist. Authorities beat Razouk, poured boiling melted plastic on him, and suspended him from the ceiling.

Sahrawi rights defenders, journalists, and activists continue to face a repressive environment with severe restrictions on rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. In July 2021, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders condemned the clampdown and “abominable” abuses by Moroccan authorities against Sahrawi human rights activists and organizations in Western Sahara, stating that it flouts “the Moroccan Government’s commitment to the UN system.” Since November 2020, Sahrawi activist and human rights defender Sultana Khaya has been arbitrarily and unlawfully confined under house arrest, with no warrant or charges ever presented. Security forces have repeatedly assaulted Khaya and members of her family, including by beating and attempting to rape Khaya and raping her sister.

At least 19 Sahrawi activists remain imprisoned following mass sham trials in 2013 and 2017 that grossly failed to investigate torture and coerced confessions, serving disparate sentences from 20 years to life. Authorities have denied medical care for, tortured—including by imposing illegal 23-hours-a-day solitary confinement for years—and abused several of the detainees.

Furthermore, Sahrawi human rights organizations continue to confront great impediments to registering as official organizations, and access into Western Sahara by media officials, rights defenders, and independent monitors is also severely restricted. The Saharawi Organ against the Moroccan Occupation (ISACOM), headed by Sahrawi human rights activist and 2008 RFK Human Rights Laureate Aminatou Haidar, faced challenges to their formation as an NGO after authorities launched an investigation and subjected Haidar to harassment and surveillance. And just this month, Moroccan authorities deported two Spanish human rights lawyers and a doctor who arrived in Western Sahara on a humanitarian mission, in addition to at least nine barred entry in 2020.

The UN Secretary-General recently appointed Steffan De Mistura as the new UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara, marking a small step forward in the larger political process. But human rights violations by Moroccan authorities persist, and will only continue amidst the Council’s ongoing failure to protect the Sahrawi people.

Both the current and previous UN Secretaries-General have repeatedly called on parties to respect and promote human rights in Western Sahara, and for an independent and impartial monitoring of the human rights situation. It is vital that the Council renew MINURSO, and the Biden administration push for a human rights monitoring mechanism in the resolution it puts forward to ensure the protection of Sahrawi human rights and end the impunity.