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Europe turns its back on the Arab Spring’s forgotten nation

Two weeks ago a comfortable majority of European parliamentarians voted down a proposal to seek the opinion of the European Court of Justice on the legality of a 2007 fisheries agreement between the European Union and Morocco. What does this apparently minor event have to do with the Arab Spring, the promotion of civil and political rights and other front-page concerns of international media?

The fisheries agreement gives European fishing fleets access to the territorial waters of Western Sahara, a former colony that was occupied by Morocco when Spain left it in 1976. According to international law, Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara is illegal: under the United Nations Charter the Sahrawi people have an inalienable right to decide freely their future status through a referendum for self-determination. Until this happens, Morocco’s exploitation of the natural resources of Western Sahara, from valuable phosphates to fish, violates a well-established norm that an occupying power cannot dispose freely of the resources of a territory. The United States government expressly excludes the applicability to Western Sahara of its trade agreements with Rabat.

By its decision the European Parliament spared EU governments an embarrassing reminder that the 2007 agreement flies in the face of Sahrawi sovereign rights. France and Spain, Morocco’s steadfast allies and lobbyists, will be satisfied that their support for the Alaouite dynasty has once again trumped European rhetoric about transparency and the rule of law. And the European fishing industry will be able to continue plundering Western Sahara fishing grounds, which are among the ­richest in the world.

In the meantime, among the Sahrawis there is growing disenchantment with the moderate approach taken by their exiled national liberation movement, the Polisario Front. In a recent visit to camps where Sahrawi refugees eke out a miserable life deep in the Algerian desert I was struck by the frustration and rage of the young. Armed resistance was repeatedly mentioned as the sole remaining alternative after decades of failed efforts to secure legal remedies at the UN and elsewhere.

Sahrawis are restless in the occupied territory. Last November Moroccan security forces attacked and burned to the ground a camp in Gdeim Izik, near Western Sahara’s capital El Aáiun, where about 15 000 people had pitched their tents in a spontaneous protest initiative. Although Morocco does not allow international media into Western Sahara, there is credible evidence that several demonstrators were killed or maimed. Noam Chomsky subsequently identified the Gdeim Izik protest as marking the start of the Arab Spring movement.

Since then the occupied territory has witnessed a growing number of confrontations. Two weeks ago seven people were killed in the southern town of Dakhla in clashes between the Sahrawi population and Moroccan settlers. These deaths went largely unreported.

In this fragile environment the latest victory of realpolitik in the European Parliament takes on a wider connotation. It reinforces Sahrawi perceptions that Morocco’s privileged partnership with Europe is rooted in a biased and unquestioning political environment. It also reflects a cynical double standard, as European countries that allegedly support the Arab Spring have chosen to ignore a legitimate claim and the yearning for self-rule and sovereignty of the Sahrawi people.

The European Parliament will have an opportunity to make amends next February when the fisheries agreement with Morocco will come up for long-term renewal; Western Sahara territorial waters should be excluded from its applicability. However, the challenge of Western Sahara is not just about honouring international obligations towards the people of Africa’s last colony. It is also a textbook case of conflict prevention. Unless Europe and the US launch an immediate and credible effort to overcome the political stalemate, there may be dire consequences for the peace and security of the already fragile Maghreb region.

Francesco Bastagli is a former assistant secretary general of the UN; from 2005 to 2006 he served as Kofi Annan’s special representative for Western Sahara and headed the UN mission in the territory

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