UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council extended the stay of peacekeepers in Western Sahara on Wednesday but gave them no human rights role despite pressure from backers of self-determination for the disputed territory.
Sahara's Polisario Front independence movement wants the U.N. ceasefire monitors to report on what it says are rights abuses by Morocco, which annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975. Morocco denies the charge and opposes the move.
Western diplomats said a resolution passed on Wednesday to renew the mandate of the 230-strong U.N. mission MINURSO for another 12 months had beefed up rights language used in past years and was the most that could be hoped for at this stage.
The annexation of Western Sahara, which is about the size of Britain and has phosphates, fisheries and, potentially, oil and gas, sparked an armed conflict with the Polisario.
A U.N.-brokered ceasefire was reached in 1991 on the basis that a referendum would be held to decide the fate of the territory, but it never took place.
With deadlock in 4-year-old talks between Morocco and Polisario on the political future of Sahara, the focus has shifted to human rights in the territory, where clashes erupted last November when Moroccan forces broke up a protest camp.
The council's resolution calls on both sides to respect human rights and welcomes Morocco's decision to set up a national council on human rights and grant access to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council.
Previous resolutions had made only a vague reference to the "human dimension" of the conflict.
But Polisario officials say sporadic visits by Human Rights Council experts cannot compare with permanent monitoring by MINURSO, the only U.N. mission established since 1978 not to have such a role.
A report on Sahara this month by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not take up a proposal by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to recommend to the Security Council that it give MINURSO a rights role.
Polisario charged that the proposal was dropped after pressure from Morocco and its big-power council ally France.
Both Morocco and Polisario welcomed Wednesday's resolution but for different reasons.
Moroccan Ambassador Mohammed Loulichki noted the text praised Rabat's offer to grant Sahara autonomy. Polisario insists that Saharans must be allowed to hold a referendum to choose between autonomy and full independence.
Senior Polisario official Mhamed Khadad told reporters his movement had not obtained all it wanted but "at least the Security Council ... is recognizing the necessity of improving the situation of human rights in Western Sahara."
The renewal of the MINURSO mandate marks an annual battle in the Security Council, with Morocco backed by its former colonial master France and Polisario supported by African nations -- this year, South Africa and Nigeria.
South African Ambassador Baso Sangqu told the council it was a "travesty" that MINURSO had no human rights mandate. "This double standard creates an impression that the Security Council does not care about the human rights of the people of Western Sahara," he said.
All parties accept that any U.N. rights monitoring would cover not just Moroccan actions in Sahara but also Polisario's management of refugee camps in neighboring Algeria.