Under fire over its human rights record in the Western Sahara, Morocco is vying to regain the initiative as the UN makes a new peace push for the disputed territory.
UN 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 recognised by the international community, and the pro-independence Polisario Front, which is backed by neighbouring 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 UN-brokered ceasefire came into force in 1991.
Earlier this year, aggressive international lobbying by Rabat successfully shot down an unprecedented US proposal to task the UN peacekeeping force in the territory with human rights monitoring.
Instead, the UN 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 neighbouring 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 mobilise.
“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 UN 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 US 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.”
Its record is expected to be put under the spotlight again later this month with a report by the European Parliament’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Sahel and Western Sahara.
The UN envoy has broadened the scope of his meetings beyond the rival leaderships, and will fly to Laayoune later in the week for meetings with non-governmental groups, both pro-independence and pro-Moroccan.
“There is a recognition by him of civil society, which has forced itself into the regional political sphere in these last few years,” Mohsen-Finan said.
She said that Morocco, which has remained outside the pan-African bloc for decades because of its decision to give membership to the Polisario’s Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, needed to stop basing its relations with foreign governments on their position on the dispute.
Mohsen-Finan said that, above all, Morocco needed to flesh out the details of the broad autonomy it has long promised for the Western Sahara as an alternative to the referendum on full independence demanded by the Polisario.
It should “give new content to the proposed autonomy, taking into account the wishes of the population, the natural wealth to be distributed,” she said.
Mustapha Naimi, a researcher and former member of Morocco’s Royal Advisory Council of Saharan Affairs, echoed her comments.
Morocco’s best response to foreign criticism would be to “accelerate the reform process,” in particular its plans to grant the regions greater autonomy, he said.
Naimi remained sceptical, however, of any breakthrough being made in the latest UN peace push, given the entrenched positions of the two sides.
“There are a number of parameters which show that things haven’t really haven’t budged,” he said.