Legal advice stating that European vessels have no justification to fish off Western Sahara – a territory occupied by Morocco – has provoked a row between the main political institutions in Brussels.
Under the terms of a 2005 fishing agreement between the European Union (EU) and Morocco, boats may operate in Western Sahara, provided their activity benefits the indigenous Sahrawi people. But a new paper written by lawyers advising the European Parliament has found that there is no evidence of Sahrawis being aided due to the accord’s implementation, which began in 2007.
The paper advocates that efforts should be made to find an “amicable settlement” under which the Sahrawis can actually derive benefits from the agreement. But if no such settlement is forthcoming, it urges that European boats should be forbidden from entering a 200 nautical mile zone off Western Sahara.
Despite these findings, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, is refusing to concede that the agreement has been problematic. An EU fisheries official said the Commission is “convinced” the deal is “indirectly and directly benefiting the Western Sahara region.”
“The agreement ensures that the activity of EU vessels takes place in a transparent and controlled environment and has facilitated EU investments in the region,” the official, who request anonymity, told IPS. “The EU fleet lands part of its catches in Morocco, including ports in Western Sahara, which has a positive impact on the local economy. The FPA (fisheries partnership agreement) is therefore making a positive contribution to the economy of Western Sahara and the livelihood of its inhabitants.”
Morocco, which invaded Western Sahara after its former Spanish colonisers quit the territory in 1974, is to receive a total of 144 million euros (196 million dollars) as a result of the four-year fisheries agreement. According to the Parliament’s legal advice, the agreement “explicitly acknowledges that the Moroccan authorities have full discretion” about how the money it receives is spent, even though the accord officially aims to promote ”responsible and sustainable” fishing practices.
Aicha Dahane, a Sahrawi refugee living in Britain, said that nobody she knew in Western Sahara had been consulted in any way when the agreement was being negotiated. Nor was she aware of any Sahrawi who had found employment due to the accord’s implementation.
She accused the EU, too, of having skewed priorities as it gives only 10 million euros per year in humanitarian aid to Sahrawis in refugee camps in Algeria, to where 100,000 people – half of Western Sahara’s population – fled in the 1970s. “The EU pays more money to Morocco for fish than it does to our refugees in Algeria,” she protested.
The EU’s approach to Western Sahara contrasts markedly to that taken by the U.S., which excluded the disputed territory from a 2004 trade agreement between it and Morocco. In its attempts to justify the extension of its fishing agreement to Western Sahara, the European Commission argued that doing so would be in accordance with a 2002 United Nations legal opinion. But Hans Correll, the author of that opinion, stated six years later that he was ”embarrassed as a European” that his arguments had been interpreted in this way. Correll insisted that the EU could only fish off Western Sahara if it had been granted permission by the territory’s people.
Sara Eyckmans, a campaigner with the group Western Sahara Resource Watch, said the European Commission had so far produced “not one shred of evidence” to support its claims that the Sahrawis were being aided by the agreement. “This is disappointing and shocking for us,” she added.
She argued, too, that the accord violated the international law of the sea, which states that fishing cannot take place in waters that have not been claimed by a particular country. While Morocco has made a claim to the territory of Western Sahara, it has not asserted its jurisdiction over the surrounding waters.
The Parliament’s lawyers state that Western Sahara is to be considered a ”non-self-governing territory”. International law requires that the wishes of a local population of such a territory must be respected when their natural resources are exploited for economic gain, the lawyers say.
Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara has been contested by numerous resolutions of the United Nations. A 1975 verdict by the International Court of Justice also found that Morocco did not have any legitimate claim over the territory.
A political process aimed at determining the future of Western Sahara has been at an impasse for many years. In 1991, the UN brokered a ceasefire to end the armed conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the representatives of the Sahrawi people, which erupted in 1976. While a referendum on the constitutional status of Western Sahara was promised in the 1990s, Morocco has so far prevented the poll from taking place. (IPS)