The UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is halfway through its extended mandate, which stands to be renewed again in UN Security Council discussions in April 2014. Meanwhile, Algerian diplomatic efforts have successfully cornered Rabat on the thorny issue of human rights in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, in what appears to be a carefully orchestrated strategy and scripted exchange of arguments.

It all started with Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s October 28 speech, at a conference of solidarity with the Sahrawi cause in Abuja, Nigeria, which called to broaden MINURSO’s mandate to include human rights monitoring. The demand is not new; it was tried unsuccessfully at the UN Security Council last year, though concern for human rights monitoring did make its way into the 2013 UN Security Council Resolution on Western Sahara.

The venue and context of the conference, and the absence of Moroccan representatives, made the Algerian move an awkward if not a predictable attempt to escalate tension in bilateral relations. Several upcoming or concurrent events may have prompted Algiers’ abrupt decision to renew calls for a human rights mandate for MINURSO: King Mohammed VI’s upcoming visit to the White House, Morocco’s election to the UN Human Rights Council (together with Algeria), reported unrest in two to the main towns in Western Sahara (Laayoune and Smara) in October that coincided with the field trip to the region by UN envoy on Western Sahara Christopher Ross, and pressures on the White House from civil society groups (such as Human Rights Watch) as well as from some members of Congress in Washington to add human rights monitoring to MINURSO’s mandate. The timing could not have been more auspicious for Algeria. 

Morocco played right into Algeria’s hand by subsequently recalling, for consultations, its ambassador to Algiers. King Mohammed VI’s thinly veiled criticism and umbrage at Algeria’s hostile intentions in his speech on November 6, marking the 38th anniversary of the Green March (Annexation of Western Sahara) also helped Algeria accomplish its goal of hitting Rabat right where it hurts: human rights and Western Sahara’s fragile societal situation. Also, Morocco’s subdued expression of regret over the removal of the Algerian flag at the Algerian consulate in Casablanca failed to assuage Algeria’s anger. Algiers has not retaliated at the diplomatic representation level, which is perhaps a sign it has already scored political dividends against the less subtle Moroccan diplomacy that is still in need of some anger management skills.

The ensuing spat between Morocco and Algeria did not bring anything new; instead it allowed Algiers to retain calm and firmness against what it could claim was Rabat’s overreaction and lack of statesmanship. Algiers could restate its position that Western Sahara is a decolonization issue that is best addressed within the UN framework (and therefore should not affect bilateral relations with Morocco) while Rabat stays on the defensive on human rights. Despite its claims of non-interference in Western Saharan affairs, Algeria seems unwilling to let the demands to include a human rights component to MINURSO die down. 

What came out of this rather undiplomatic row is more of the same in terms of policy—but with added strains on bilateral relations, and the obvious failure to insulate Western Sahara from these relations, overall there is an even slimmer chance for progress on finding a lasting settlement of the Western Sahara dispute.

Beyond the quasi-ritual stating of narratives and counter-narratives by parties to the conflict, the issue of human rights is also eminently convenient for the U.S. Human rights provides a perspective on the Western Sahara issue that unites otherwise unlikely allies, such as neo-conservative politicians and idealist democrats, in promoting a rights-based approach to resolving the conflict based on the implementation of a self-determination referendum.

MINURSO is not the only contemporary UN peacekeeping mission not to have a human rights mandate. In fact, MINURSO is unique among UN peacekeeping missions in the Middle East in that it does report on human rights in its area of operation despite lacking a specific mandate on human rights. Furthermore, similar peacekeeping missions that the UN established in the early 1990s to oversee self-determination elections and transitional processes in southern Africa (including UNAVEM, UNTAG, and ONUMOZ) did not include per se a human rights monitoring mandate or reporting functions—though human rights enforcement in relation to elections, voting processes, police activities, and the release of political prisoners, among others, implicitly included a human rights observation and reporting mandate.

MINURSO’s mandate has become on the whole irrelevant, as neither the UN nor any parties to the dispute support the 1991 settlement plan. Instead, the Polisario and Algeria back the Baker peace plan while Morocco sticks to its autonomy plan. There is not much room for negotiations amid the pressing domestic and diplomatic needs for both Morocco and Algeria to flex muscles on the Western Sahara issue and compete for regional influence. Therefore, the human rights issue has emerged as an outlet for both parties to vent frustration and exchange mutual blame for the deeply entrenched impasse on the Western Sahara dispute.

However, because human rights are not embedded in MINURSO’s mandate and functions, any discussion on human rights violations in both Western Sahara and refugee camps remains outside the UN’s purview, thus perpetuating a political and diplomatic vacuum that has adverse consequences on the “confidence-building climate” between Morocco and Algeria, let alone any talks. Continued pressure within the UN Security Council on the U.S. and France, both key allies of Morocco, could also force an institutional response to find an urgently needed, suitable institutional framework to address human rights issues, just as the overall dynamic of negotiations on Western Sahara has shifted from peace plans and autonomy to human rights and the territory’s internal situation. Given MINURSO’s increasing ineffectiveness, a human rights monitoring component under its purview is likely to be just as ineffective. Ultimately a special procedure within the UN Human Rights Council would have to be envisaged, either through a specifically dedicated rapporteur or independent expert on the human rights situation in Western Sahara and the Sahrawi refugee camps in southwestern Algeria—or by requesting existing thematic rapporteurs, experts, and working groups on such issues as arbitrary detention and enforced or involuntary disappearances to investigate issues related to situation in Western Sahara.

Fully accountable and transparent human rights monitoring (internationalized and institutionalized) in Western Sahara would be preferable to the current political exploitation that unduly and negatively affects the complex and fragile search for a negotiation process.

Jacques Roussellier is an Instructor at American Military University and co-editor of the forthcoming book Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalism and Geopolitics (Rowman & Littlefield).