Monday, May 30, 2011

The theft of Western Sahara

When and where did the “Arab Spring” begin? Most observers of the tyrant-toppling uprisings would probably agree they kicked off after the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December last year. Not for the first time, Noam Chomsky has highlighted an omission from the conventional discourse. The wave of protests really started a month earlier in Western Sahara, Chomsky has argued.

On 7 November, Moroccan forces occupying that territory destroyed tents set up by the indigenous Sahrawi people near the town of Laayoune, leading to a series of confrontations. Testimonies gathered by Amnesty International indicate that the tactics used in the operation were extremely aggressive, with elderly women beaten with batons. Amnesty says the tents were erected to highlight the Sahrawis’ “perceived marginalisation and a lack of jobs and adequate housing”. The word “perceived” is unnecessary, I believe. The marginalisation of the Sahrawis is a proven fact; we seldom see anything about Western Sahara – a former Spanish colony invaded by Morocco in 1975 - in our newspapers or on our TV screens.

Rather than imposing sanctions against Morocco over its acts of brutality in November, the European Union has effectively tightened its embrace of the Rabat authorities. Although a four-year fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco expired in February this year, both sides have decided to extend it for a further twelve months.

As EU representatives are constantly harping on about how much they cherish democratic values, the least we should be able to expect is that they would have published the information at their disposal about the agreement’s effects. Yet an evaluation of the agreement conducted at the European Commission’s request remains confidential.

Luckily, I have managed to have a peek at this report – drawn up by the French consultancy firm Océanic Developpement and dated December 2010. It concludes that the agreement with Morocco brings “the least favourable returns to the European taxpayers that we can find” in any of the fisheries agreements the EU has signed with countries beyond its borders.

Under the terms of the accord, the EU gives Morocco 36 million euros per annum. For every euro invested by the Union, the turnover generated is only 83 cents, the consultants calculate. In the 2007-2009 period, EU vessels availing of the agreement caught an average of 44,000 tonnes per year. With demand for fish in the Union reaching about 13 million tonnes per year, the agreement was making only a tiny contribution towards satisfying the requirements of Europe’s markets, Oceanic added.

More disturbingly, the consultants found that the agreement is having adverse ecological consequences. Trawlers are capturing demersal species – living near the bottom of the sea – that are already overexploited, while the capture of sharks in European nets runs contrary to the Union’s own policies on conserving endangered species. European vessels have targeted sharks in the same way as the industrial boats in the Moroccan fleet. Three large Portuguese vessels have been responsible for 70% of all sharks captured (more than 450 tonnes), according to the evaluation.

It’s not surprising that powerful figures in the EU bureaucracy want this evaluation kept secret. By extending the agreement, the Union has ignored advice that it spent good money to obtain.

This is part of a wider pattern. The agreement enabled European vessels to fish in the waters surrounding Western Sahara, on the condition that their activities brought tangible benefits to the Sahrawis. In an opinion made public during 2010, lawyers advising the European Parliament found there was no evidence that the Sahrawis had been aided in any way due to the accord’s implementation. Unless an “amicable settlement” could be found, European boats should be forbidden from entering a 200 nautical mile zone off Western Sahara, the lawyers recommended.

When I interviewed Maria Damanaki, the EU fisheries commissioner, in the autumn last year, she expressed sympathy with that legal opinion. Damanaki said she was “not persuaded” that the agreement was in the Sahrawis’ interests. Despite the clarity of her views, the European Commission still went ahead and clinched a deal with Morocco to prolong the agreement. Damanaki was clearly overruled by others in the EU executive. Can it be a coincidence that the Commission is headed by José Manuel Barroso of Portugal and that several Portuguese vessels are doing nicely from the arrangements?

Mindful of a looming presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy has lately been promoting himself as an unflagging defender of North Africa’s downtrodden. Yet Francesco Bastagli, a former United Nations envoy to Western Sahara, has hinted there might be more than a whiff of hypocrisy emanating from the French president. “France is so unquestioning in its support of Morocco as to block even a reference to Sahrawi human rights in Security Council resolutions,” Bastagli wrote in a 2010 piece for The New Republic.

A report published in April this year by the New York City Bar Association says that if Morocco is receiving money from the EU for fishing off Western Sahara, without giving any to the Sahrawis, then it is violating international law. The same report highlighted how Irish and British companies are involved in exploration for oil and gas off Western Sahara. If they move from exploration to extraction, then their activities would be “unlawful”, the bar association concluded.

The resources of Western Sahara do not belong to Europe. So why are a few European fishing and energy firms allowed to steal them?

·First published by New Europe (, 29 May – 3 June 2011

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