By Guillaume Klein ,AFP
RABAT — Under fire over its human rights record in the Western Sahara, Morocco is vying to regain the initiative as the U.N. makes a new peace push for the disputed territory. U.N. envoy Christopher Ross is trying to break a decades-old deadlock between Morocco, which annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975 in a move never recognized by the international community, and the pro-independence Polisario Front, which is backed by neighboring Algeria. The envoy, whom Morocco tried unsuccessfully to have replaced last year, accusing him of bias, began his shuttle diplomacy with talks with government ministers in Rabat on Monday. They were due to be followed by talks with Algerian officials and with leaders of the Polisario, which has retained control of a small sliver of the territory ever since a U.N.-brokered cease-fire came into force in 1991. Earlier this year, aggressive international lobbying by Rabat successfully shot down an unprecedented U.S. proposal to task the U.N. peacekeeping force in the territory with human rights monitoring. Instead, the U.N. Security Council resolution extending the force’s mandate simply stressed the “importance of improving the human rights situation” in Western Sahara and the Sahrawi refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Amnesty International called the resolution a “missed opportunity.” In the weeks after the Security Council vote, scores of pro-independence protesters were injured in clashes with Moroccan security forces in the territory’s main city Laayoune and other towns, where calm has since returned, at least temporarily. But speaking to parliament on Friday, King Mohamed VI warned against “blind optimism.” “The situation is difficult. Nothing has yet been settled. The scheming of those opposed to our territorial integrity will not stop,” he said, while calling on “all citizens” to mobilize. “Instead of waiting for the attacks of our adversaries to respond, we should put them on the defensive.” North Africa specialist Khadija Mohsen-Finan warned the human rights issue will “inevitably be back on the agenda, by April at the latest,” when the U.N. peacekeeping force’s mandate next comes up for renewal. Morocco has been stung by the criticism of its Western Sahara policies, some of it from its Western allies.
A report by the U.S. State Department to Congress last month detailed the kingdom’s harsh repression of those publicly advocating independence for the territory. Rabat slammed it as “biased, simplistic and unbalanced.”