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Morocco lobbied UN to turn blind eye to Western Sahara in 'House of Cards' operation

UN report accuses Moroccan government of intercepting communications and using ‘unethical tactics’ to influence organisation on occupied territory

The Moroccan government intercepted United Nations communications and used “unethical tactics” in a “House of Cards”-style operation designed to get the organisation to turn a blind eye to the humanitarian situation in Western Sahara, according to a leaked UN report.

The leaked report is a UN analysis of correspondence between the Moroccan government and the country’s permanent ambassador to the UN in Geneva and later New York, Omar Hilale, in the period from January 2012 to September 2014. The Moroccan correspondence was made public last year by an anonymous source using the @chris_coleman24 Twitter handle.

The Moroccan correspondence appears to show that the north African country intercepted internal UN communications; made significant donations to the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) with the expressed intention of influencing the body; lobbied to cancel fact-finding missions to the area by senior officials; and attempted to stop a mandate to monitor human rights abuses being given to the UN peacekeeping mission in the territory.

The leaked UN report, by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), says its “analysis of these cables indicates that the confidentiality of UN communications has been seriously compromised as Morocco indicates on several occasions that it had intercepted UN internal correspondence emanating from Geneva, New York and Laayoune”. In a cable dated 22 August 2014, Hilale made explicit reference to “the writings of the secretariat that have been intercepted”.

Morocco has occupied Western Sahara for 40 years ever since colonial Spain withdrew in 1975, fighting a 15-year guerrilla war with the Polisario Front, a militant group made up of native Sahrawis calling for independence, in the process. The UN brokered a peace deal between the factions in 1991 and has had a peacekeeping mission – the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso) – monitoring the situation in the region ever since, including the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Algeria.

They also expose the motivations behind some of the large donations made by Morocco, who made a $250,000 donation to the OHCHR in 2011 with the expressed intention of making then UN High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, “more attentive” to their concerns about her office’s contribution to the next report on Western Sahara by the UN Secretary General. A cable dated 22 January 2013 reads: “I would like to recall the priority of transferring the remaining $250,000 in respect to Morocco’s contribution to the OHCHR budget for 2011, and of which the High Commissioner has twice expressed her wish to receive it … This transfer will help to make Mrs Pillay more attentive to our concerns on her office’s contribution to the Secretary General’s next report on the Sahara.”

Since 1998, the Moroccan government has donated more than $7m to the OHCHR. By comparison, its neighbour Algeria donated just over $1.5m in the same time period.

According to the DPKO report these communications raise questions about “UN agencies vulnerability to external interferences” in light of their budget constraints.

A spokesperson for the OHCHR said it encourages as many states as possible to make voluntary contributions because it is “not healthy to depend on just a few donors”, adding that Morocco’s donations in 2013 and 2014 made up 0.4% of the department’s total income.

The leaked Moroccan correspondence details how Moroccan officials sought to prevent the OHCHR high commissioner Pillay from visiting Western Sahara to report on the humanitarian situation in the territory, with the Moroccan ambassador Hilale warning his colleagues that his “OHCHR contact” had informed him that various UN bodies are lobbying for Pillay to visit Western Sahara. In later cables, Hilale talks of the need to block the wishes of senior officials to prevent Pillay visiting Morocco.

The Moroccan government has been dogged by allegations of human rights violations in Western Sahara for years, and the DPKO go as far to suggest that the cables show that Morocco has no desire to “resolve or even engage on the question of Western Sahara through a genuine negotiating process as called for by the security council”.

The cables reveal Moroccan lobbying to ensure human rights were not included in the mandate for Minurso, one of the few UN peacekeeping missions to not have such a mandate. In January 2013, Hilale wrote to say he had asked a UN official “to make Pillay aware of the importance of avoiding all engagement on the eventual expansion of the Minurso mandate to human rights, or on the creation of an independent mechanism in Western Sahara”.

The DPKO report writes that this implies the Moroccan government were keen to argue “that basic peacekeeping functions such as reporting on developments on the ground and access to all interlocutors do not apply to Minurso”.

Earlier this year, despite calls from Ban Ki-Moon, the African Union, Human Rights Watch and the US government to give Minurso a human rights mandate, the UN Security Council voted to renew Minurso’s mission without the mandate. Hilale, now Morocco’s representative to the UN in New York, welcomed the security council’s decision.

Amnesty International told the Guardian that the UN needed to monitor human rights abuses in Western Sahara. “It is difficult to see the point of the UN peacekeeping force’s presence while it fails to monitor human rights violations. It might feel for those facing arrest or torture for claiming the independence of Western Sahara as if the UN are witnessing violations while remaining idle,” said North Africa researcher Sirine Rached.

It is noted in the DPKO report that the Moroccans are unlikely to confirm the authenticity of these cables. Though the report states in a meeting with Jeffrey Feltman, under secretary general for political affairs, in October 2014, Ambassador Hilale did not reject their overall substance, only stating that some portion of the cables had been edited. As the report states, “it is important to note that all the measures and events anticipated in these correspondences have indeed taken place”.

The Moroccan government presented the Guardian with a lengthy response to the evidence presented in this article.

A spokesman for the government said: “We refuse to comment or give any credence to documents that have been leaked, grossly falsified and maliciously exploited by an individual or group of individuals, who have hidden behind fake social media accounts and false identities while clearly purporting their intent to destabilise our country and harm our national interests.”

The spokesman rejected allegations of human rights violations made by Amnesty International and accused the NGO of a “one-sided and biased approach”. They insisted that the North African country had a “longstanding commitment to human rights” and was taking legislative steps to improve this.

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