The Swedish industrial group that in recent years has refused to answer questions on its participation in Morocco's phosphate plunder in Western Sahara now claims the exploitation of the conflict mineral is legal.
In 2013, it was revealed that the Swedish company Atlas Copco had supplied the controversial Bou Craa phosphate mine in occupied Western Sahara with critical drilling equipment.
After six years of refusing to answer questions about the legality of its operations in Western Sahara, Atlas Copco now defends Morocco's phosphate industry in occupied Western Sahara. The statement, issued on Twitter on 10 April 2019, establishes that Atlas Copco considers Morocco's operations in the occupied territory to be in line with international law.
"Our view is that the extraction of phosphate made by our customer follows the rules of international law. The UN classifies the territory as non-self-governing, which means that certain rules apply but not that there is an absolute ban on sales", Atlas Copco stated.
Through this interpretation, Atlas Copco reveals that it holds the diametrically opposite interpretation of international law from near all large private and public institutional investors in the Nordic countries, who hold that Morocco's exports through its state company OCP are illegal. The central aspect in terms of assessing whether such operation is legal or not, is to ascertain whether the people of the territory have consented. However, neither Morocco nor its state owned company have ever asked for permission to operate the mine on the land that it illegally occupies. The Government of Sweden is of the same opinion.
In addition, it can be added that the people of the territory do not even benefit from the trade. Both of these aspects are underlined by the Nordic investor community. See for instance this analysis from the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Gobal, upon exclusion of OCP's foreign clients.
Atlas Copco's statement that the territory is non-self-governing is correct, but Morocco has no rights to administer the territory. It follows from the laws of decolonisation that peoples of non-self-governing territory have a sovereign right to decide on the future of the territory and its resources.
The sudden statement of Atlas Copco comes after six years of uncertainties.
As the news about Atlas Copco's sales of drilling equipment to the territory broke in Swedish media in 2013, and several of its investors raised the issue with the company, Atlas Copco published a statement on its website called "Business near occupied and Non-Self Governing territories". In 2017, the article had been changed into this statement.
As late as 17 March 2019, Western Sahara Resource Watch sent a letter regretting that a series of questions regarding the company's interpretation of international law had remained unanswered. WSRW also questioned why Atlas Copco considers Western Sahara to be part of Morocco (as it suggests on its website) and it enquired why it has removed its policy on Western Sahara from its website. Additionally, WSRW highlighted that based on the correspondence with the company, "it is not today possible for us – nor for the Saharawi people who own the resources which Morocco is illegally exploiting with the help of Atlas Copco equipment – to know how you assess these matters." The letter hasn’t received a response.
Now, that has been clarified: Atlas Copco sees no problem with the Moroccan government's mining in a non-self governing territory without the consent of its people, and seems to ignore the collateral damage that may be posed by its clients’ operations in an area of conflict.
"We condemn Atlas Copco's will to continue supplying the mine in Western Sahara with key equipment. Atlas Copco contributes to the deprivation of resources from its owners, the Saharawi people, and it contributes to the financing of the occupation of the territory. The promises given by Atlas Copco to its investors from 2013 have seemingly been empty. As the company's policy has deteriorated since the first revelation in 2013, in spite of the engagement by investors. WSRW calls on investors in the company to halt further engagement and exclude the company from its portfolios", Erik Hagen of Western Sahara Resource Watch stated.
In 2018 the Atlas Copco group was split into two listed companies: Atlas Copco AB, with a focus on industrial customers and Epiroc AB focusing on customers in the mining, infrastructure and natural resources sectors. It is not clear to WSRW whether Epiroc has taken over any of Atlas Copco's contractual obligations in Western Sahara. WSRW today raised an inquiry to Epiroc about the matter.
A diminishing number of companies and countries are importing phosphate rock from Western Sahara. Read about that development in the WSRW report P fof Plunder 2019, published in April 2019.
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The WSRW report P for Plunder 2021 to be published in April 2021 will contain information on all 22 vessels that departed occupied Western Sahara from 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2020.