Western Sahara, formerly a Spanish colony, has been occupied by Morocco since 1975. Although the decolonization of Western Sahara has been on the U.N.’s agenda for 40 years, Morocco (together with its allies) has managed to freeze this process, while further entrenching its hold of the occupied territory.
One of the reasons behind Morocco’s aggression and annexation was Western Sahara’s abundance of natural resources, and ever since the occupation began, Morocco has plundered these resources for economic profit. Western Sahara has one of the largest phosphate reserves in the world and is famous for its rich fishing waters, perhaps the richest along the African coast. Furthermore, the prospects for locating oil and gas deposits has attracted exploration in the territory.
In a recent development, which is all too familiar, an Irish oil company San Leon Energy began drilling south of Morocco’s border, on the north-western coast of occupied Western Sahara. For the oil drilling – and other resource extraction – to have legal validity, however, it ought to be carried out with the consent and in the interest of the occupied population. But not only has the local population of Western Sahara not been consulted, the Sahrawi people have explicitly stated their opposition to San Leon’s activities.
In a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) Mohamed Abdelaziz stated, “We urgently request that the Secretary-General condemn these activities, which are in clear violation of international law, and call on Morocco and complicit foreign companies to stop the illegal exploitation of the natural resources of Western Sahara.”
The SADR’s position echoes that of the U.N. and the international community. In 2002, the Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Hans Corell wrote, that if the exploitation of natural resources “were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the international law principles applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories.”
Contradicting countless U.N. resolutions and the clearly stated position of the SADR, San Leon claims that its “operations are in keeping with our obligations under international law and work for the betterment of all persons in the Southern Provinces of Morocco.” “Southern Provinces” is the term that the Moroccan government uses for Western Sahara.
San Leon is far from the only foreign actor engaged in legally dubious economic activity in occupied Western Sahara. The most profitable economic activity for Morocco in the occupied territory is the phosphate industry. A recent study by the watchdog organization Western Sahara Resource Watch identified nine companies that imported phosphate originating in Western Sahara in 2014 alone. The major importers were companies based in Canada and Lithuania.
Perhaps the most controversial act of the EU with regard to Western Sahara was the re-signing of a fisheries agreement with Morocco in 2013. In 2011, the European Parliament had suspended the agreement. In his speech before the parliament, professor of international law Pål Wrange stated, that were the fisheries agreement extended “it will make the EU and its member states further liable for a violation of international law, namely as a recognition of and assistance to serious breaches of international law by Morocco.”
Under the renewed fisheries agreement Morocco, in return for an annual payment of US$62 million (€40 million), European fishing vessels are granted licenses to fish in its waters, including in Western Sahara. This is legally questionable – as noted by Wrange – because it indirectly accepts Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara. In 2014, the representatives of the Sahrawi people demanded an annulment of the fisheries agreement and took their case to the European Court of Justice.
A somewhat similar dynamic is at play with regard to Israel’s settlement enterprise in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. While taking the position that Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank is “illegal under international law, constitutes an obstacle to peace and threatens to make a two-state solution impossible”, the EU’s continued trade in settlement produce supports the sustenance of the settlements. Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq even maintains that, “Without the economic support generated by trade with international stakeholders, the very existence of settlements, in particular in the Jordan Valley area, would be seriously threatened.”
It seems that the EU continues to prioritize its economic and strategic interests over international law in its bilateral relations with Morocco. The EU’s and Morocco’s annual trade amounts to nearly US$46 billion (€30 billion), accounting for more than 50 percent of Moroccan trade altogether. In fact, the EU is the biggest trading partner of both Morocco and Israel. In both cases, the EU’s economic leverage is exceptional, and its ability to exert pressure on the occupying parties, if it so wanted, is considerable.