International law has been clear on Western Sahara since 1975 when the International Court of Justice ruled that Morocco had no claim to the Spanish colony. Two weeks later the Moroccan Army marched in regardless, and refugees fled for their lives into the Algerian desert. Since then the international community has failed to act in any significant way to enforce Saharawis’ right to self-determination.
Now the European Union (EU) plans to compound this failure by stealing the wealth of the people it has deserted from under their very noses. The EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement is similar to a host of deals being signed down the West African coast, allowing European fishing in African waters to make up for the over-fishing of European waters in recent decades. But it is different in one vital way – it fails to define Morocco’s southern border. Instead it allows Morocco to decide where to apply the Agreement, knowing full well that Morocco will apply it to Saharawi waters. And when this occurs EU boats will be able to fish in the illegally occupied waters of a country that the West has done its best to forget.
For the EU, it’s a profitable arrangement. La’youn, Western Sahara’s capital, accounts for 40 per cent of Morocco’s total fish catch. By comparison, Saharawis will see almost no benefit from the agreement. It is the corporations that control fishing in Western Sahara, mostly Moroccan or Spanish, that will gain most. Even the employment that filters down to ordinary workers will go mostly to Moroccan settlers, and not to Saharawis.
But the tide might be changing. While previous agreements have allowed fishing in Saharawi waters, this time trade unions, NGOs and politicians from across Europe are trying to stop the inclusion of Western Sahara in the new agreement. The Moroccan monarchy didn’t help its cause when it embarked on a new round of human rights abuses in Western Sahara last year. Saharawis are unable to advocate independence or display their flag in the occupied territory. This blanket of silence was broken last summer as an ‘intifada’ broke out after Moroccan security forces fiercely repressed peaceful demonstrations. One young demonstrator, Hamdi Lambarki, was beaten to death. Many other human rights activists were arrested and incarcerated in La’youn’s infamous ‘Black Prison’.
Now a coalition is rapidly building across Europe to ensure that human rights and international law come – for once – before Western profit.