On February 27, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that a fisheries agreement between Morocco and the European Union is not applicable to Western Sahara, which Morocco has occupied since the former colonial power Spain withdrew in 1975. The ruling followed a decision by a court in South Africa earlier that month, holding that 50,000 tonnes of phosphate mined in Western Sahara was illegally sold by the Moroccan government. Both court cases were initiated by civil society organizations that are part of a growing international solidarity movement for the Sahrawi cause. Is this boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for an independent Western Sahara, often called Africa’s last colony, finally gaining traction?
Western Sahara is a non self-governing territory in United Nations parlance – bordered by Morocco proper to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. After colonial Spain withdrew from the area, an armed struggle ensued between neighboring Morocco and the indigenous Sahrawis, who are led by the Polisario Front. Under the auspices of the UN, an armistice was agreed upon in 1991, which continues to be monitored by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, known by its French acronym MINURSO. Currently, the largest part of Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco – which calls the territory its “southern provinces” – and is separated by a 2,700 kilometre-long trench-cum-wall and minefields from the rest of Western Sahara. The remaining unoccupied part of the territory makes up the Sahrawi Arabic Democratic Republic (SADR), a self-declared entity run by the Polisario.
“The ECJ decision is a huge victory for the Sahrawis,” Beccy Allen, who volunteers as an English teacher in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, told Muftah. “EU law now states quite clearly that Western Sahara is excluded from any fisheries deal between Morocco and the EU because Western Sahara is a completely separate territory. Morocco cannot continue to sell fish and fish products from the waters of Western Sahara into the European market.” Allen lives in London where she volunteers for the Western Sahara Campaign UK, the NGO that brought the case to the ECJ.
Western Sahara Campaign UK is part of an international solidarity movement focused on BDS, a non-violent strategy that eventually resulted in the downfall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and has since been used by Palestinians and their allies. Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) is an international network of organizations and activists researching and lobbying against companies working for Moroccan interests in occupied Western Sahara. For years, WSRW, which is also part of the BDS campaign, has been trying to convince investors not to hold stocks in companies that buy phosphates from the Moroccan state company, OCP. Morocco and Western Sahara combined hold 50 billion metric tons of phosphate rock reserves, which is more than 70% of global phosphate reserves, according to U.S. Geological Survey data of 2018.
As a result of WSRW’s lobbying, over the past years, several large Scandinavian pension funds have relinquished their interests in companies involved in exploiting Western Sahara’s natural resources. The largest importer of phosphate rock, the Canadian corporation Nutrien, announced in January it will stop buying phosphate from Western Sahara. Last year, a ship with 55,000 tonnes of phosphate destined for New Zealand was chained in Port Elizabeth, South Africa after a court order blocked its movement. The shipment will be auctioned off in the coming months with the proceeds going to the Sahrawi people.
Because of outside pressure, the U.S. oil company Kosmos Energy has also left Western Sahara, marking the end of seventeen-years of large multinational companies exploiting the occupied territory’s oil resources. The announcement came only weeks after Swiss-UK multinational Glencore terminated its operations in the territory. Glencore was the largest foreign company present in Western Sahara.
Amidst these developments, the peace process between Morocco and the Polisario remains stalled. The 1991 ceasefire agreement provided for a transitional period to prepare for a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and integration with Morocco. For years, Morocco has advocated for autonomy for the Sahrawis under Moroccan sovereignty. For its part, the Polisario Front will only agree to a referendum on independence, not autonomy. The last direct talks between the parties occurred in 2012, with a referendum yet to be organized by the MINURSO peacekeeping mission.
Still, pressure to resolve the conflict appears to be building. Last August, UN Secretary General António Guterres appointed Horst Köhler, former German president, as his personal envoy for Western Sahara. Since then, Köhler has met with the interested parties, including the Polisario, Algeria, which is the Polisario’s main ally, South Africa, France, and the African Union. On March 6, Köhler also spoke in Lisbon with Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita.
On March 21, Köhler reported to the UN Security Council on his efforts, in a closed-door meeting. According to news reports, UNSC president and Dutch ambassador Karel van Oosterom said that council members expressed “their full support” for Köhler’s diplomatic efforts to “relaunch the negotiating process with a new dynamic and a new spirit.” Breaking the deadlock remains challenging, however. Christopher Ross, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Algeria and Syria, was the UN Secretary General’s special envoy for Western Sahara from 2009 to 2016. As Ross explained to Swedish journalists Fredrik Laurin and Lars Schmidt, there must be a drastic shift on some level – national, regional, or international – to jump start the peace process.
None of the political developments so far have reached this point. This makes the BDS strategy an even more important one for the Sahrawi people and their allies, when it comes to advocating for Western Sahara’s self-determination.