Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Europe assaults Western Sahara

There is one surefire way of allowing the internet damage your sanity: spend too much time reading politicians’ blogs. Take a recent post from Maria Damanaki, whose career has taken her from agitating against the Greek dictatorship in the 1970s to being the European commissioner for fisheries today. “Blue should become green,” she declared in her blog on EU efforts to lessen the ecological destruction wrought by illegal fishing.

Those efforts might have some credibility if the Brussels bureaucracy was not actively encouraging European vessels to act unlawfully in the waters of Western Sahara.

In 2005, the EU and Morocco signed a lucrative fisheries agreement. Entering into force two years later, its small print stated that European fishermen may operate in Western Sahara, which Morocco has occupied since 1974, provided that their activities benefit the indigenous Sahrawi people.

To date, the European commission has not only failed to produce evidence that the theft of fish from their waters aids the Sahrawis, it has sought to justify that theft on false premises. In a new letter sent to the organisation Western Sahara Resource Watch, the commission selectively quotes a Swedish lawyer’s opinion to contend that economic activities affecting an occupied territory would only be illegal if they disregarded the “needs and interests” of the people under occupation.

This is not the first time that the commission has misrepresented the views of that lawyer, Hans Correll, whose 2002 paper had been prepared for the UN. Speaking at a 2008 conference in Pretoria, Correll said it was “incomprehensible” that EU officials could find anything in his paper that would support their case. Correll then noted that all of the payments made as a result of the fisheries accord would go to Morocco and that the Rabat authorities would explicitly enjoy full discretion over how to use them. He was so incensed about how the agreement did not refer to Morocco’s responsibility to respect the Sahrawis right to self-determination that he said: “As a European, I feel embarrassed. Surely one would expect Europe and the European commission to set an example by applying the highest possible international legal standards in matters of this nature.”

It is instructive that 100 of the 119 European vessels granted access to Western Sahara’s waters through the agreement are registered in Spain, the territory’s former colonial overlord. Spain’s manifest commercial and geo-strategic interests in this murky affair undermines the EU’s claims to be neutral in the dispute over the territory’s future. If it was neutral or even-handed, the EU would be heeding a statement issued by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (officially recognised as the representatives of the Sahrawi people by some 75 countries) in January last year. On that occasion, the SADR asserted its people’s exclusive rights to exploit the natural resources in a 200 nautical mile zone surrounding the territory.

Those resources do not appear limited to fish. In 2001, Morocco announced that it had handed licenses to the French and American energy firms Total and Kerr-McGee so that they could search for oil off Western Sahara. The companies have subsequently withdrawn from the contracts under pressure from human rights campaigners. But the perception that Western Sahara has rich oil reserves – oil fields have been found in neighbouring Mauritania - helps explain why policy-makers in both the EU and US have been so eager to strengthen their relations with Morocco. In April, 54 members of the Senate – a bipartisan majority – put their names to a letter calling on the US to effectively approve Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara.

While this grubby power game continues, the Sahrawis who fled to Algeria in the 1970s have no prospect of returning home. Unicef has described how most of the estimated 150,000 Sahrawi refugees know only the sights of their camps – “vast, flat wastelands with the harshness of one of the hottest deserts in the world”. A scarcity of fresh food there has left one in ten women suffering from anaemia.

It is not true that these refugees are completely forgotten about. In 2009, the European commission said it was “committed to assisting these vulnerable people until a political solution can be found for their plight”. It released €10 million in humanitarian aid but failed to explain that the amount it will be paying Morocco over the four years of the fisheries accord’s duration will exceed €144 million.

Isn’t there something rotten about how Europe throws a pittance at the poor, while it empties the seas of their homeland?

•First published by The Guardian (10 July 2010), www.guardian.co.uk

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