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POLISARIO brings an action against EU’s plunder before the European Court of Justice
Refugee Camps © Joanna Allan

Morocco is working in cahoots with the European Union to pillage Western Sahara’s fish despite opposition from the European people. The plunder is a crime under international law.

According to its Charter, the European Union (EU) ‘is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law.’ It is no overstatement, then, to say that the EU’s conduct with respect to the exploitation of natural resources in occupied Western Sahara is in complete contravention of all the organisation’s founding principles as well as constituting the war crime of pillage. Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) is currently in the midst of leading an international campaign to put a stop to one such example of EU plunder in the region: the EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement.

Whilst campaign groups are in the midst of fighting the Agreement, the POLISARIO is mounting its own pressure. In a landmark development announced in the Official Bulletin of the European Union on 23 February 2013, the POLISARIO have brought an Action to the European Court of Justice against the Council of the European Union, calling for the annulment of wider agricultural agreements, including the liberalization in trade of fisheries products, between the EU and Morocco. This is the first time that the POLISARIO has taken legal steps to tackle the plunder of its people’s natural resources and marks an exciting turn in campaigns against the EU’s actions in the territory. In an interview with Western Sahara Resource Watch on 27th February 2013, POLISARIO Head of Peace Negotiations Emhammed Khadad explained why they have brought the Action before the Court,

‘International law is crystal clear on the issue of Non-Self-Governing Territories. The EU has no right to enter into trade agreements with Morocco for resources that belong to the Saharawis. We hope that through this effort, justice will finally prevail’

Should the POLISARIO’S case be successful, it could set a precedent for all bodies currently exploiting, or in negotiations to begin exploiting, Saharawi natural resources. Perhaps such organisations should be carefully watching the progress of this case and think twice before participating in pillage.

Western Sahara has been occupied by its neighbour Morocco for almost four decades. Today, 180,000 Saharawis continue to forge out an existence in the refugee camps that they built during the 1975 exodus, whilst similar numbers live under a brutal Moroccan regime in the occupied zone of Western Sahara. Discrimination and human rights abuses against the Saharawi people are common, whilst torture, rape, false imprisonment, forced disappearance and murder of pro-independence activists are common. Indeed, Freedom House's 2013 Annual Survey ( ) of political rights and civil liberties across the world, puts Western Sahara and Tibet in joint first place for the dubious distinction of ‘Worst of the Worst,’ [1] whilst earlier this month the European Union passed a resolution on the 22nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council in which it ‘(e)xpresses its concern at the continued violation of human Rights in Western Sahara.’ (See: )


Western Sahara suffers from the so-called ‘resource curse’. The territory holds massive phosphate reserves, incredibly rich fisheries, huge potential for solar and wind farms, and possibly crude oil off its coast, which several national governments, private corporations and even the EU are keen to get their hands on. Ever unscrupulous, the latter bodies will pay Morocco to get a share of these resources, which is illegal. And illegal with good reason: it funds the Moroccan occupation; the availability and benefit of the natural resources will have been diminished should the Saharawi people gain their freedom; it undermines UN efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict; and it gives an impression of legitimacy to the Moroccan occupation.

Morocco occupies Western Sahara illegally, in contravention of over 100 UN Security Council resolutions. Neither the UN, nor any country in the world, recognises Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. Morocco has no right to sell Western Sahara’s resources. The right of non-self-governing peoples such as the Saharawis to sovereignty over their natural resources is well enshrined in international law. There is only one scenario in which the occupier can develop the colonized country’s natural resources: when the peoples of said country are consulted and affirm that such an action is in line with the wishes and interests of the colonized people, and when the development is of benefit to them and promotes their wellbeing. The POLISARIO, the political representatives of the Saharawi people, as well as Saharawi civil society, have repeatedly made it clear that the exploitation of their natural resources by Morocco is not in line with their wishes and certainly do not benefit their interests and wellbeing. Never have they been consulted on the matter by any of the bodies involved in the exploitation. Saharawis in the occupied zone of Western Sahara and in exile regularly protest against the exploitation of natural resources, videos of which can be seen on the Stop the Plunder You Tube Channel (, often facing violent repression as a result.

In an article discussing the legal framework surrounding the exploitation of Saharawi natural resources, the lawyer J.J.P. Smith outlines the corporate criminal and civil liability that surrounds the plunder of Western Sahara’s resources. The conclusion: ‘the basis to criminalize corporate taking of Saharawi resources is straightforward. What is remarkable is that there has not previously been a discussion of the possibilities for criminal prosecution given the scale and continuity of the appropriation of the resources.’

Corporations and individuals involved should remind themselves of the international legal definition of the war crime of pillage:

1. The perpetrator appropriated certain property.
2. The perpetrator intended to deprive the owner of the property and to appropriate it for private or personal use.
3. The appropriation was without the consent of the owner.
4. The conduct took place in the context of and was associated with an international armed conflict.
5. The perpetrator was aware of factual circumstances that established the existence of an armed conflict.


In March 2007, a four-year Fisheries Agreement between the EU and the Kingdom of Morocco came into effect. The Agreement was controversial from the outset, given that the southern coordinates of the Agreement were not stipulated, leaving Morocco to interpret where European vessels could fish. As might be expected, Morocco allowed European fishermen access to Western Sahara’s fisheries. The EU could have avoided this by explicitly precluded Western Sahara from the Agreement, just as the United States government did when signing the US-Morocco Free Trade Agreement in 2004. But it chose not to, instead paying €36m of European taxpayers money to practice plunder. Indeed, some EU Member States, such as the Swedish government, which called the Agreement a violation of international law, strongly opposed it from the outset.

Following the end of the Agreement in 2010, the Council of Ministers controversially prolonged it for a year. However, when it reached the European Parliament on 14 December 2011, following Western Sahara Resource Watch’s international Fish Elsewhere Campaign and an Opinion for the European Parliament’s legal service which deemed the Agreement a violation of international law, it was rejected. In addition to the legal and ethical questions surrounding the Agreement, European parliamentarians were also put off by the ecological and environmental damage caused to ecosystems off Western Sahara’s coast. As various environmental committees found, European vessels over-exploited the fisheries, caused serious degradation to the marine environment through oil wastage, were responsible for several thousands tonnes of bycatches and discards, and heightened the risk of extinction of species such as sharks, turtles and dolphins.


Last year, the European people, through their representatives in the European Parliament, rejected the EU Fisheries Agreement. They did not want an illegal, morally repugnant, egotistical and ecologically destructive deal brokered in their name. Nevertheless, with flagrant disregard for democracy, transparency, the opinion of its own parliament and international law, the European Commission is currently in negotiations with Morocco to renew the Agreement. The latest talks ended on 11 and 12 February 2013 in Rabat.

The current stumbling block for sealing the deal is not a legal, moral or ecological question, however, but a financial one: Morocco wants no less than €36m per year, which the EU is reluctant to pay. This shows the true, unscrupulous face of the European Commission. It pays lip service to human rights and democracy, but the EU’s true priorities lie in material and financial gain at any moral cost. More than half a decade after the last European colonial powers left Africa, they are once again actively participating in the plunder of a still-colonized African country. In protest, Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) is spearheading the Fish Elsewhere Campaign, which includes a petition currently signed by more than 250 organisations and over 4000 individuals. WSRW is hopeful that this support for the campaign will send a strong message to European Parliamentarians once again persuading them to reject the ethical black hole that is the proposed EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement.


In news just breaking as we publish this special issue, readers can see the first media coverage from Western Sahara Resource Watch; and in Spanish online media outlet La Razon:

* Joanna Allan is a Board Member of Western Sahara Resource Watch:


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