UNITED NATIONS — Morocco uses torture in its own country and on opponents in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, a UN investigator said Tuesday.
The rights investigator gave details of a special trip to Morocco and Western Sahara as the UN Security Council debates demands that the UN mission in Western Sahara be granted a mandate to investigate human rights abuses.
“There is a lot of evidence of excessive use of force,” Juan Mendez, UN special rapporteur on the use of torture, told reporters after presenting a report to the UN General Assembly.
“Whenever there is a sense that national security is involved, there is a tendency to use torture in interrogation. Difficult to say how pervasive or how systematic it is, but it happens frequently enough that the government of Morocco should not ignore the practice,” Mendez added.
Mendez went to Morocco and Western Sahara for one week in September at the invitation of the government, which is currently a temporary member of the 15-nation UN Security Council.
He said there were signs of change in Morocco, where a moderate Islamist party has controlled parliament since last November.
“Morocco is developing a culture of respect for human rights that is a very good starting point for the elimination of torture in the near future. But it is far from being able to boast that torture has been eliminated,” Mendez said.
The expert said he was still completing a report on the practices his team was told about during the trip to Morocco and Western Sahara, which Morocco started to annex in 1975.
“They were no different in Western Sahara from Morocco,” he said.
“We found the same kind of evidence that mistreatment in interrogation, for example, is always close to happening, especially when there is excessive use of force in demonstrations and they happen both in Western Sahara and in Morocco.”
A US rights group, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, also reported abuses after a visit last month. The group said it recognized positive changes to the Moroccan constitution, including “the criminalization of torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances.”
But it deplored the heavy military and police presence in Western Sahara and alleged widespread intimidation of the Sahrawi people and “many cases of police brutality” against non-violent protesters.
The UN brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario Front separatists in 1991. But efforts to arrange a political settlement on the future of Western Sahara are deadlocked.
Several Security Council nations have called for the UN mission in the disputed territory to have a mandate to investigate human rights abuses. Morocco opposes the proposal.
Mendez said he does not yet have a firm opinion, though he commented that “permanent monitoring is always much more helpful than a once-in-a-lifetime kind of visit that a special rapporteur can do.”