Sahrawi human rights depend on businesses prioritizing ethics over profits

Sahrawi human rights depend on businesses prioritizing ethics over profits

Pam Bailey
Editor, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies

As an inducement to defy its population’s strongly pro-Palestine beliefs and normalize relations with Israel, the U.S. government has announced it will reverse decades of respect for international law and recognize Morocco’s longtime claim to Western Sahara. However, the U.S. government should not be allowed to decide the identity of a people. A 1979 U.N. resolution established the right of Sahrawis to “self-determination and independence,” and although the international community has failed to follow through and facilitate a vote, it continues to be the prevailing consensus. 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres responded to the U.S. action by saying “the solution to the question [of the status of Western Sahara] should be based on Security Council resolutions. The U.N.’s position is unchanged.”

The solution to the question of the status of Western Sahara should be based on Security Council resolutions. The U.N.’s position is unchanged.

-U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

Unfortunately, experience has shown that U.N. pronouncements will not be sufficient to blunt the impact of the U.S. “gorilla” (think Palestine). What is needed is for businesses to step up to the plate and stop working with Morocco to profit off of Western Sahara’s natural resources.

First, a bit of background: Spain occupied Western Sahara until it gave in to pressure from the people (including armed revolt) and withdrew from the territory in 1975. Unfortunately, their freedom was short-lived. While the Polisario Front declared independence for Western Sahara, calling it the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Moroccan forces moved in to claim the territory for its own. A 16-year war followed, ending in a 1991 cease-fire, with Morocco controlling most of the territory and incentivizing its people to settle in Western Sahara to shift the demographic balance (while thousands of Sahrawi refugees were forced to live in camps in Algeria). Most governments consider this resettlement illegal, although little has been done to penalize Morocco. (Again, think Palestine.)

Polisario agreed to the 1991 ceasefire based on the promise of a referendum on independence—which has yet to be held due to Morocco’s resistance. Last month, Morocco launched a military incursion into the U.N.-controlled buffer zone between the two sides, and Polisario responded by declaring the ceasefire null and void. Then came the U.S. decision to add fuel to the fire.

What could make a difference now? U.S. President-elect Joe Biden could say his administration disagrees with Donald Trump’s action and instead continues to support a U.N.-negotiated settlement (and then actively push for it to happen). But perhaps even more effective would be for businesses to respect international consensus as well. For example, a subsidiary of German mega corporation Siemens AG (Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy) is partnering with Moroccan state company Nareva to operate wind parks in the occupied territory. Another company in the alternative-energy industry that operates in the occupied territory is Italy's Enel Green Power, which soon will kick off construction of a 300 MW wind farm.

"For their projects on occupied land, Siemens and Enel are in cahoots with a company that is not only owned by the king of the occupying regime, but that is now also reported to be reaping the benefits of a move that has sold-out the international legal order, as well as the peoples of Palestine and Western Sahara," says Tim Sauer from Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW).

A similar situation exists in the fisheries market. The European Union’s highest court ruled in December 2016 that Western Sahara cannot be included in the union’s trade deal with Morocco, saying the Saharawi people must consent. Yet the EU continues to import fisheries products from occupied Western Sahara, indirectly supporting Morocco’s illegal claims to the territory.

History and experience in other areas of the world have shown that it will be difficult—if not impossible—for the United Nations to insist on respect for its resolutions if businesses do not lead the way.

A lucrative part of this trade is the import of fishmeal and oil. The largest importer of Western Sahara fishmeal is the Bremen-based company Köster Marine Proteins GmbH (KMP). The company owns the city’s Köster Terminal, the continent’s biggest fishmeal terminal, and advertises itself as Europe’s leading fishmeal distributor. On its website, KMP states that it purchases its fishmeal from Morocco, with no mention of Western Sahara. Yet WSRW reports that KMP has imported fishmeal from 16 countries in the past. “This diversity of suppliers suggests it is possible for the company to use suppliers from other countries should it choose to do so,” the organization says.

Still another industry that exploits Western Sahara via Morocco is the mining of phosphate for fertilizer. For example, Ravensdown and Ballance Agri-Nutrients are two farmers' collectives in New Zealand that continue to import phosphate rock from occupied Western Sahara.

Earlier this year, New Zealand’s minister of foreign affairs wrote that "the government has consistently made it clear to companies importing from Western Sahara that they must comply with international law and seek independent legal advice, and that they import at their own risk."

History and experience in other areas of the world (again, think Palestine) have shown that it will be difficult—if not impossible—for the United Nations to insist on respect for its resolutions if businesses do not lead the way. Instead of placing profits and expediency over human rights, businesses must pay attention to the implications of where they source their supplies.

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