Danwatch: Denmark warns businesses over Western Sahara
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Copenhagen (DanWatch) - Denmark is joining an increasing number of governments with official policies against trade in non-renewable resources from Western Sahara. The Danish position echoes the non-trade policies of fellow Scandinavian governments Sweden and Norway. Danwatch, 17 July 2008.

Published 17 July 2008

17 July 2008

“Taking the principles of international law regarding non-renewable resources from Non-self Governing Territories as a point of reference, it is the opinion of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs that such exploitation should not take place,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-statement.

“Denmark supports that the status for Western Sahara should be settled in a peaceful process under the auspices of the UN, and that until the time when a final status is found, actions should not take place that are in violation of the local populations’ interests relating to the resource basis of the territory,” it said.

The Ministry opens up for an exception to the rule if the exploitation is to the benefit of the local population.

While occupied by Morocco, the mineral rich Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of so-called Non-Self-Governing countries since the 1960’s. 

The statement was prompted by a request from DanWatch for an official Danish position on trade linked to the disputed territory. 

“Although the principles of international law and human rights are in general not directly binding for Danish companies, the Ministry will at all times encourage Danish companies to be aware of their international responsibility,” the statement went on to say.

Foreign trade in phosphate, fish and other resources from Western Sahara is strongly criticized by representatives of Polisario, the exile government, who says Morocco is harvesting the economic benefits of the trade.

DanWatch earlier this year reported that the Danish shipping company J. Lauritzen had been involved in transportation of phosphates from Western Sahara to New Zealand. 

The Danish move was welcomed by Polisario:

“What we understand from the statement is that the Danish Government upholds the norms of international law applicable to Non-Self-Governing Territories including Western Sahara, and therefore it discourages all kinds of involvement of Danish companies in the exploitation of the "non-renewable resources" of Western Sahara under Moroccan occupation, because that will be a breach of those norms,” Sidi M. Omar, a high ranking Polisario official, told DanWatch.

“We hope that other countries would follow suit, especially those whose nationals and companies are acting in the occupied Western Sahara,” said Mr Omar.

Pedro Pinto Leite, an international lawyer and co-editor of a recent book on international law and the question of Western Sahara also welcomes the Danish statement - cautiously:

“This statement is in line with the positions of the Norwegian and Swedish governments. It constitutes a clear warning to the Danish companies not to violate what is agreed to be international law in the question of Western Sahara ,” Pinto Leite said.

“However, the statement refers to the “benefits” of the local people, but it does not mention how the companies can know whether it is to the benefit of the local people or not. Are one to ask Morocco or Polisario?” he said, underlining that there is clear evidence that the interests and wishes of the Sahrawis are not being respected by Moroccan industries and government. 

The Portuguese lawyer points to another contradiction implicit to the Danish statement: 

A recent EU fisheries agreement with Morocco has opened up waters off the coast of Western Sahara to EU fishing fleet. Of all EU member states, only Sweden voted against the agreement, keeping in line with the government’s policies on trade in natural resources from Western Sahara.

Given that the Danish statement is sincere, Pedro Pinto Leite believes it could have some positive influence:

“It can support a Swedish call for a review of this agreement and perhaps even request its cancellation before the European Court of Justice,” said Pedro Pinto Leite.

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