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Rare victory for Western Sahara

Western Sahara
European Union

In the European Parliament today, the proposed one-year extension to the fisheries deal between the EU and Morocco was voted down.

Compared to the wrangles over the eurozone economic crisis, that might not sound like anything very significant. But it really matters, believe me. Since 2007, the EU fishing fleet has been harvesting fish - mainly sardines and octopus - from the rich waters off Western Sahara, just south of the Canary Isles. And it has been paying Morocco around 36 million euros a year for the privilege, not only validating its illegal military occupation of its southern neighbour but rewarding it handsomely too.

Western Sahara is the only former colony in Africa that was not given the right to self-determination. When Spanish colonial rule ended in 1975, Morocco seized the territory, driving half the indigenous Saharawi population to seek refuge in camps over the border in Algeria, where they have remained ever since.

The European Parliament’s own legal service has ruled that the fisheries agreement violates international law, given that the people of Western Sahara have never approved it. In addition, reports for the European Commission have recently demonstrated that the fisheries deal is a waste of EU taxpayers’ money – as well as destroying marine life. Yet until today the extension of the deal had seemed likely.

European fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki said she would respect the Parliament’s decision, and would propose repealing the deal at a meeting of EU fisheries ministers on Thursday.

Sara Eyckmans of Western Sahara Resource Watch, which has been campaigning on this issue for years, commented: ‘This is a complete victory for the Saharawi people. The parliament has refused to blindly follow the interests of the Spanish fisheries industry. We expect this to have consequences for the Parliament's handling of future agreements with Morocco that involve the territory of Western Sahara. The UN has clearly stated that the Saharawi people has a right to be consulted on such issues.’

Saharawis have had precious little to cheer about in the 14 years since I visited the occupied territories and the refugee camps. Now at last they have some good news.

Photo by wonker under a CC Licence.

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