Occupied Western Sahara possesses some of the world’s highest quality phosphate reserves, rich fishing banks, and a potential for generating enough renewable energy to power the entire Maghreb region. Morocco's illegal use of the territory's wealth contributes to prolonging the conflict and the suffering of the Saharawi people.
Morocco’s endeavours to exploit Western Sahara’s resources have received solid backing from international commerce. It is very problematic - ethically, politically as well as legally - when commercial interests cooperate with Moroccan authorities in order to do business in the occupied territory. The companies involved claim that their contribution is intended to provide a positive economic development in Morocco. However, this is distorted truth. First of all, Western Sahara is not a part of Morocco. The “development” is, however, an active contribution in support of Morocco’s illegal claim to its neighbouring country.
A number of international companies are today political actors that reap profits from the conflict. While Morocco finances the occupation by usurping the country’s resources, most of the Saharawis are forced to live in refugee camps in the Algerian dessert, in poverty and miserable conditions and not allowed to any benefits resulting from the profitable commercial activities in their homeland. Morocco's exports of goods out the territory via the controversial Guerguerat passage is directly linked to the resumption of war in the territory in November 2020.
The companies active in Western Sahara generate employment for illegal Moroccan settlers, both through direct investment, and by exporting products to countries abroad. This constitutes a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Working with Morocco to advance its exploitation of Western Sahara’s resources creates an air of normalcy or acceptability of Morocco’s presence in the territory. Companies and governments will often express that their involvement in no way means that they recognise Morocco’s untenable claim of sovereignty over territory. Yet partnering with Morocco - which has no sovereignty or any international administering mandate over Western Sahara - on economic activities in the occupied territory, is a tacit form of recognition.
No one understands this better than the Moroccan authorities. “International agreements which do not exclude ‘the Moroccan Sahara’ from their application, prove that the area is Moroccan”, Morocco’s Minister of Communication said in 2013. “The financial aspect [of the EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement] is not necessarily the most important aspect of this agreement. The political aspect is just as important”, said Morocco's fisheries minister in 2006.
A document leaked from the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows how Morocco uses the Western Saharan natural resources to embroil other countries into its own illegal occupation of Western Sahara – in this particular case, on how “implicating Russia in the Sahara”… “could guarantee a freeze on the Sahara file within the UN”.
It has proven utterly difficult for the UN to broker a lasting and just peace between the two parties to this long-standing conflict. The management of the territory’s natural resources has even been placed on the negotiating table by several UN Special Envoys to the conflict. In that context, it is highly inappropriate to give a sign of political support to Morocco by paying it for access to Western Sahara, or to take part in its activities in the territory for financial self-interest. To do so, is effectively working against the UN’s efforts to decolonise Western Sahara, and as such contributing to the continued insecurity and instability of the wider Maghreb region. The CESCR and the UN rapporteur on right to food both highlighted that Saharawis were disproportionally affected by poverty and not reaping the benefits of the considerable investments being made on their own land.
The Norwegian government has labelled Morocco's oil exploration in Western Sahara for “a particularly serious violation of fundamental ethical norms e.g. because it may strengthen Morocco's sovereignty claims and thus contribute to undermining the UN peace process". We could not agree more.
The companies and governments cooperating with Morocco in Western Sahara have not tried to obtain the permission to do so from the people of the territory. This violates their right to self-determination.
In 1975, the International Court of Justice confirmed that there are no ties of sovereignty between the territory of Morocco and that of Western Sahara, and that the people of the territory – the Saharawi people – have a right to self-determination.
In five consecutive rulings from 2016 to 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union has concluded that Morocco has no sovereignty over Western Sahara, nor any international mandate to administer it, as the territory is separate and distinct from Morocco. As a consequence, the Court ruled, EU agreements with Morocco cannot be extended to Western Sahara in a lawful manner, unless with the explicit consent of the people of the territory – the latter being the natural corollary of the people of Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. The ruling of 29 September 2021 confirmed the legal standing of the Polisario Front as the internationally recognised representative of the people of Western Sahara.
Upon reviewing Morocco’s performance under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2015, the UN Treaty Body on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights urged Morocco to respect the rights of the Saharawis to be informed and to give their prior consent to the exploitation of their resources. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee emphasized the need of obtaining the Saharawi people’s “prior, free and informed consent to the realization of developmental projects and [resource] extraction operations”, after having reviewed Morocco’s slate under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The High Court of South Africa ruled in February 2018 that the owner of a cargo of phosphate rock aboard a vessel detained by the South African authorities, is the Saharawi Government, and not Morocco's state-owned phosphate company which, the Court stated, was not entitled to sell the commodity.
At the request of the UN Security Council, the UN Legal Counsel issued an Opinion in January 2002 on the legality of the exploitation and exploration of Western Sahara’s mineral resources. The Opinion concluded that any economic activity in the territory would be in violation of international law if not undertaken in accordance with the wishes and the interests of the people of the territory.
While Morocco finances the occupation by appropriating the country’s resources, most of the Saharawis are forced to live in refugee camps in the scorching Algerian dessert. For their mere survival, they depend practically entirely on international humanitarian aid – though Morocco’s profitable commercial activities in their homeland would pay for their needs many times over.
Saharawis who stayed behind in their country during the war, are living under the yoke of a brutal occupation. Western Sahara is today among the countries in the world scoring the lowest on rankings of civil and political freedoms. Morocco’s human rights violations in occupied Western Sahara are reported by reputable international organisations - such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc - and also by the UN. Though Morocco’s main ally France prevents the UN peace keeping mission from being allowed to report on violations they witness, the few UN Special Rapporteurs that have visited the territory are unison in their conclusions that Saharawis are treated abominably. In 2013, the Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary Detention documented widespread use of arbitrary detention and torture. Since 2015, Morocco has refused any further visits.
In 2010, dozens of Saharawis were imprisoned, most for having taken part in the organisation of a peaceful protest camp erected by Saharawis of all ages in a desert area outside of the capital city El Aaiún, called Gdeim Izik. The camp demanded socio-economic rights for the Saharawis. It started with a handful Saharawis bringing their tents establishing a little camp. As days went by, the group had grown to a parallel society consisting of over 10.000 people, united in their lament of being treated as second-class citizens in their own land, while Moroccan authorities and settlers are profiting on the back of exploiting Saharawi resources. On 8 November 2010, after months of silent protest, the police intervened. Since then, participants of the Gdeim Izik protest camp have been in jailed, many of them unfairly judged to life sentences. One of them is the secretary-general of the Committee for Protection of Natural Resources. Read about the group here.
It is ethically wrong to benefit from Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara – either through trade, direct investment or participation in Moroccan projects in the territory - while the people of Western Sahara, holding the sovereign rights to the land and its resources, are being denied their most basic human rights and needs.
Moroccan state-owned companies commission foreign consultancy firms to assess how the population benefits from their operations in Western Sahara. These reports are widely circulated to clients and partners profiting from the trade. Such an approach naturally has very problematic aspects:
The value of the exports of fishmeal from the occupied territory to Turkey, alone, equals three times the entire amount that is donated in multilateral aid to the refugees in one entire year. The EU today pays Morocco more to get access to Western Sahara’s fish banks than they give in aid to the refugees. While agricultural produce from the territory is imported into the Union labelled as from ‘Morocco’, vegetables have been largely cut from the refugees’ food baskets over expense-concerns. And while international companies are powering Morocco’s plunder via renewable energy, access to electricity is everything but a given in the refugee camps.
But despite the hardship, what Saharawis consider to be the worst offence, is that of being denied their right to self-determination, increasingly being translated as consent. All Saharawi organisations – from the occupied territory, the refugee camps and diaspora – have time and again protested corporate and governmental deals being made with Morocco for access to their land, while ignoring their wishes, their right to decide. Basically, ignoring their existence. Unimaginable with regard to Palestinian or Crimean resources – but daily practice in Western Sahara.
There is reason to assume that an occupying power that benefits from exploiting the land it occupies, will not manage the territory’s resources in the most sustainable way. And in the case of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, there is evidence to back up that assumption.
A 2011 independent analysis commissioned by the EU, already demonstrated the near total depletion of the fish stocks off Western Sahara. Regardless, fishing activity to date remains rampant. Moroccan fishermen are active in the waters, often using retired European fishing vessels as demonstrated by the 2014 “Exporting Exploitation” report by Greenpeace in collaboration with WSRW. Greenpeace called for a halt in “exploiting the fishing grounds off the coast of Western Sahara and Morocco, unless and until it can ensure that fish stocks are managed in a sustainable manner and that the fishery takes into account the wishes and benefits of the people of the territory”.
The abovementioned analysis reports of dolphin catches by pelagic trawlers in the zone between Boujdour and Cap Blanc. Investigations have also shown that turtles are regularly caught in fishnets. All turtle species living in Morocco and Western Sahara are considered in danger or in critical danger of extinction by the IUCN.
WSRW has through the years received footage of mistreatment of marine mammals, and also of massive discards of fish, pumped or dumped back into the ocean or discarded on land because they are the wrong species or size.
The EU’s 2017 evaluation report on the Union's fish deal with Morocco revealed that except for sardines, all pelagic species “in the south” - i.e. Western Sahara - were either fully or overexploited, as a result of years of intense fishing by local, EU and other foreign fleets. This dramatic conclusion was repeated by the UNFAO Fishery Committee for the Eastern Central Atlantic 2018 and 2019.
Large-scale unregulated fishing takes place in the maritime border area with Mauritania. WSRW often observes vessels that are permitted to fish in Mauritanian waters, cross the maritime border with Western Sahara to fish. All kinds of nationalities are involved: EU-flagged vessels, but also Chinese, Georgian, Turkish vessels or former Russian vessels flying Cameroon or Belize flags.
The situation isn’t much better in other sectors. Tiling produce in the desert is not a sustainable undertaking: it is incredibly water intensive. The fossile underground water reserves in the area around Dakhla, which ought to be used for the benefit of the people living there, are being depleted by the agro-industry - as also confirmed by leaked US Diplomatic cables. These products are then transported in trucks to Agadir for sales to international markets.
Phosphate workers, both in Western Sahara and in Morocco, have complained about the health risk they are exposed to. But OCP, the Moroccan state-owned phosphate company that also exploits Western Sahara’s phosphate reserves, denies that poisonous byproducts of the phosphate industry cause illnesses and death, and have disastrous environmental effects. Phosphogypsum, a radioactive waste byproduct generated during fertiliser production that ought to be kept as far from people as possible, is simply dumped into the Atlantic. A 2006 study by Morocco’s national fisheries research institute (INRH) found significant contamination of cadmium in shellfish around OCP’s discharge points. Another scientific study from 2013 recorded high levels of heavy metal contamination in saltwater lagoons near OCP sites.