Daily Archives: December 21, 2011

The Lisbon Treaty comes home to roost in Western Sahara

by Rhodri C. Williams

What with all the current speculation over the fate of the Euro, little attention has been given to other EU matters that might make headlines under ordinary circumstances. Last week, however, the European Parliament, long derided as an ineffectual talk-shop stuffed with protest vote populists, got its human rights groove on. By a vote of 326 to 296, the Parliament exercised its right under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty to reject the proposed one year extension of a 2006 EU fishing agreement with Morocco. In doing so, it fired off a belated but significant  shot for the Sahrawis, one of the last remaining colonized peoples that has been denied the right to self-determination.

As described in a rather useful backgrounder from BBC, the Sahrawis formed a resistance movement, the Polisario Front, that succeeded in destabilizing Spanish colonial rule by the early 1970s. However, in their rush for the door, the Spaniards allowed the Sahrawi territory of Western Sahara to be partitioned between neighboring Mauretania and Morocco in 1975. While the former withdrew in 1978, Morocco has pressed its claims, fighting the Polisario Front to a standstill in 1991 while allowing settlers to move to the territory from Morocco and exploiting Western Sahara’s large reserves of phosphates. All this makes Western Sahara a distant cognate to West Papua, which also shook off overseas colonial rule only to be invaded by a more populous (and better armed) neighbor. The parallels with the fate of other North African pastoral peoples slighted by the post-independence uti possedetis lottery, such as the Bedouins and Tuareg, is also striking.

In principle, the Sahrawis enjoy the distinct advantage of having been effectively recognized as a people entitled to self-determination by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled in 1975 that they should be allowed to shape their own political fate through a referendum. However, in practice, the Sahrawis have been marginalized over the course of years of fruitless negotiations over the process of holding a referendum, during which the bulk of their population has lived in wretched refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. All the while, the Moroccan de facto authorities in Western Sahara have consolidated their position and it is now thought that more than half of the population of the territory may consist of settlers from Morocco proper.

In this context, the 2006 fishing agreement has not been a striking economic success for either side but represented something of a political coup for Morocco in its quest for de jure recognition of its authority over Western Sahara. Continue reading