‘Imagine if someone kicked down your front door, moved into your house, locked you in the cellar and sold your belongings,’ says Lamine Baali, representative of Western Sahara’s liberation movement, the Polisario Front. ‘This is what the Moroccans are doing in Western Sahara, with the help of the EU.’ Speaking on the eve of the expiry of the Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the European Union and Morocco, Baali is adamant that the agreement should not be renewed in its present form. Signed in 2006, it controversially granted licences to 119 EU vessels – predominately Spanish – to fish the waters off Western Sahara’s 1,100-kilometre coastline. But disagreements over the ethics and legality of fishing Western Saharan waters have meant that renewal of the accord, at least in the short-term, will not happen, and from 1 March fishing boats under European flags will have to leave the area.
With Western Sahara’s vast mineral resources and rich sea resources – which the EU has paid Morocco $49 million to fish – it is easy to see why Morocco maintains an occupation that has lasted over 35 years and is reluctant to cede control. But the failure to renew the fisheries agreement demonstrates a growing sense of unease at the exploitation of the territory’s resources.
Last year the publication of a previously confidential legal opinion showed that the European Parliament’s Legal Service viewed the fishing by European vessels in Western Sahara’s waters to be in violation of international law. This view supports that of the UN Legal Adviser, Hans Corell, whose 2002 legal opinion for the UN Security Council on Western Sahara’s natural resources made clear that exploitation of the territory’s resources could only be considered legal if the Saharawi population were consulted and benefited. But there has been no consultation and according to human rights activist Aminatou Haidar, ‘The Saharawi do not benefit at all from this agreement. Instead it only intensifies their oppression.’
The Spanish and French are already lobbying hard for the renewal of the agreement, but speaking from Brussels just weeks before the agreement was due to expire, Sara Eyckmans of the campaign group Western Sahara Resource Watch, was confident that there would be ‘a lull’ in the continuation of the agreement. ‘It is not clear which line the Commission will take,’ she explained. ‘EU vessels will definitely be forced to leave but it is possible that some of them will just change flags and come back to fish under, say, a Moroccan flag.’
Another concern is that a new EU-Morocco agreement of reciprocal liberalization measures on agricultural and fisheries products, signed on 13 December, will open another opportunity for resource exploitation. Like the fisheries agreement, this new accord, still to be agreed by the European Parliament, does not exclude agricultural and fisheries products originating from Western Sahara.Stefan Simanowitz