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. In the words of one Swedish parliamentarian quoted in the BBC:

Isabella Loevin of the Swedish Green Party told the European Parliament this week: “74% of the EU fleet capacity does operate in the waters of Western Sahara and the people of this region have not been consulted on the matter.

“It is extremely clear that Morocco only wants to keep the fisheries agreement with the EU for one reason – to legitimise Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara by making the EU an accomplice in this criminal act.”

In fact, the EU has been split over the issue, with countries with large and vociferous fishing fleets positioned near Western Sahara (guess which?) having generally dominated the debate. Sweden, which happily subsists on its mildly toxic local stock from the Baltic Sea, has taken a particularly hard line against the agreement, with some observers calling for outright diplomatic recognition of Western Sahara as an independent state. (Sound familiar?)

In a less strident vein, prominent Swedish international lawyer (and colleague, by way of a human rights course I lecture in), Pål Wrange provided the EU Parliament with a succinct and credible set of legal reasons to reject what he referred to as the ‘disgraceful agreement’ with Morocco. However, it was not at all clear that they would. As late as November 22, the Parliament’s fisheries committee had overridden a critical report and recommended approval of the extension. However, the vote in plenary went against the extension, leaving Dr. Wrange to observe that the Parliament had rescued the EU from itself.

Interestingly, a subsequent resolution that passed by a much higher margin explained what would be necessary to fix the agreement.

In a separate resolution, MEPs stressed that a new protocol must be economically, ecologically and socially sustainable and mutually beneficial.

In the future, the allocation of fishing opportunities should be based on scientific advice and EU vessels should be allowed to fish only surplus stocks. Financial support for the development of local fisheries must be used properly and more efficiently while monitoring of where the money goes must be improved.

MEPs also called on the Commission to ensure that a new protocol fully respects international law and benefits all affected local populations, including the Sahrawi people.

While Sahrawi representatives must doubtless feel vindication at finally receiving some recognition from Morocco’s trading partners, one might imagine that some umbrage could nevertheless be taken to the above statement, which not only relegates their political claims to a clear secondary status vis-a-vis better stock management, but also treats them as essentially equivalent to all other “affected local populations”, presumably including the settlers they fear are there in order to nullify the rights affirmed in their favor by the ICJ decision. Given the carefully calibrated huff that Morocco has gone into, further negotiations are sure to follow. It will be interesting to see how far European institutions will be willing to go in balancing the moral and economic issues at stake.

4 responses to “The Lisbon Treaty comes home to roost in Western Sahara

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