City Bar Appeals to U.N. Secretary General Regarding Human Rights Violations in Western Sahara

May 2010

On March 22, 2010, the City Bar released an open letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, signed by President Patricia M. Hynes. The letter, supported by the United Nations, African Affairs, and International Human Rights committees, urged the Secretary General to adopt changes with regard to the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO.

The letter advocates for including in MINURSO’s mandate “a requirement to monitor and report on human rights violations,” which would apply to the territory of Western Sahara and the refugee camps in Tindouf. This change in the mandate would occur on April 30th, 2010, when the Security Council will consider renewing the mission’s current mandate.

Created in 1991, MINURSO was established in order to monitor the ceasefire agreement between Morocco and Polisario over the territory of Western Sahara, which had brought an end to more than 15 years of armed conflict. However, over the course of the 19 years that MINURSO has been in place in Western Sahara, as its mandate has been repeatedly extended, there have been consistent reports of human rights violations, including restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association, in both the territory controlled by Morocco and the refugee camps controlled by the Polisario in Tindouf.  

These allegations are a subject of dispute between Morocco and Sahrawi groups, but are supported by reports of reputable organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the RFK Center for Human Rights, and the United Nations itself (the UN Human Rights Commission).  However, these organizations have acknowledged that they have only been able to conduct sporadic investigations, and all of them have called for more consistent monitoring activities.

The Association’s letter raises the issue that the MINURSO mandate’s lack of provisions relating to human rights makes it distinct from the majority of the other mandates of currently operating U.N. peacekeeping missions. To this point, all of the missions created within the past decade include provisions that provide for the monitoring of human rights conditions and, in many cases, action to protect victims of abuse.

Brandy Wityak, a member of the City Bar’s United Nations Committee, said, “MINURSO personnel located in the region are uniquely situated to carry out such activities on a consistent basis.  However, they have been powerless to do so because MINURSO's mandate does not include a mechanism to monitor and report on human rights.  The members of the UN Committee believe that UN personnel located in the territory at issue should be able to report to the international community on a regular basis the human rights abuses they observe.  Increasing the level of transparency will provide the international community with the necessary facts to determine whether any further action to protect human rights in the region is appropriate, and to perhaps shed new light on a conflict that has defied resolution for more than three decades."

The letter can be found on the New York City Bar Web site here.


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