Stealing from Western Sahara

IssueJuly - August 2009
Feature by John Gurr

Western Sahara, illegally occupied by Morocco 33 years ago, faces a mounting challenge to the integrity of its rich natural resources. While thousands of the Saharawi people struggle to survive in the Algerian desert, dependent for their every need on international aid, Morocco actually profits from its illegal occupation. Generals and politicians associated with the occupation reap the benefits of Western Sahara’s fishing and phosphate industries. Some of the richest fishing grounds in the world are off the coast.

Western Sahara is rich in minerals and natural resources, with one of the largest concentrations of phosphates in the world as well as iron, uranium and oil reserves. With phosphate prices increasing over the last two years, Morocco gains around $1.5 billion a year from its exploitation of Western Saharan phosphates.

Money spent within the territory is aimed primarily at Moroccan settlers while Saharawis continue to suffer from high unemployment. This drastically unfair distribution is sure to worsen if Morocco succeeds in exploiting the potential oil and natural gas reserves off the Western Sahara coastline. The European Union has negotiated a fishing agreement with Morocco that fails to distinguish between the waters of Morocco and those of Western Sahara, leading to the illegal overfishing of Western Sahara’s waters.

This allows European vessels to plunder the rich fisheries in Western Saharan waters. The agreement led ambassador Hans Corell, former legal advisor to the UN, to state: “As a European I feel embarrassed. Surely, one would expect Europe and the European Commission – of all – to set an example by applying the highest possible international legal standards in matters of this nature.” Ambassador Corell observes that it was clear beforehand that the failure to distinguish between the waters of Western Sahara and those of Morocco “would violate international law”.

Two Scottish trawlers have licenses under this agreement to fish in Western Saharan waters. The US has excluded Western Sahara from its free trade agreement with Morocco. The European Union should cancel agreements that do not specifically exclude the territory of Western Sahara. In 2006, the Fish Elsewhere Campaign was launched to lobby against signing the EU-Moroccan Fisheries Agreement that would allow fishing in the waters of Western Sahara.

The campaign did not prevent the agreement but was successful in gaining support across 20 EU countries with 200 parliamentarians and one country, Sweden, voting against the agreement.

Topics: Western Sahara