EU set to join in Western Sahara fisheries plunder

| 6th December 2013
Sardine discards from the Adrar in Western Sahara's territorial waters. Photo: Western Sahara Resource Watch.
Sardine discards from the Adrar in Western Sahara's territorial waters. Photo: Western Sahara Resource Watch.
On 10 December, the European Parliament will vote over a huge fisheries partnership agreement with Morocco. If the agreement is approved the environment, human rights, peace and international law will all suffer. Erik Hagen reports...
For Europe's Parliamentarians to retain a shred of honour, they must firmly repudiate this ghastly agreement.

As the EU cultivates its 'good neighbour' relations with Morocco it is is turning a blind eye to those things it would rather not see.

Morocco holds Western Sahara - a country whose right to independence is recognised by the United Nations - under a terrifying military occupation. And the EU is set to join, in clear violation of international law, in the plunder of Western Sahara's fish.

Morocco is the only occupying power on the African continent. Its government refuses to respect the more than one hundred UN resolutions that call for the Sahrawi people's right to self-determination; or to follow up former peace agreements for a referendum in Western Sahara.

Every year Morocco receives international criticism, including from the European Parliament, for the way it cracks down on those who peacefully fight for their right to self-determination. But these protests have little effect on Morocco's actions.

For example, Morocco has outlawed civil society organisations in Western Sahara - and ferociously enforces its ban. In February 2013 Sidahmed Lemjiyed, a leading activist with the unregistered group CSPRON, was jailed for life by a Moroccan military court after calling for an end to the international plunder of the territory. On the same day over 20 other activists were sentenced for periods between 20 years and life for organising a demonstration.

But in spite of these abuses, Morocco is the African country with the closest ties to the European Union. And just two countries have acquired an almost exclusive power to define the EU's foreign policy towards Morocco and Western Sahara.

One is France, Morocco's faithful ally and well-disposed trade partner. The other is Spain, Morocco's next door neighbour and the former coloniser of Western Sahara - and the inheritor of a 1975 Franco-era fisheries deal with Morocco, under which Spain approved Morocco's military occupation of Western Sahara, and Spain won the fishing rights. In all processes concerning Moroccan affairs, France and Spain lobby intensely in the institutions of the EU and the UN.

All the groupings of the Saharawi civil society have asked the EU to respect international law and have insisted that Morocco cannot sit down and negotiate their country's future with the EU.

The USA and two EFTA (European Free Trade Area) states, Switzerland and Norway, have excluded Western Sahara from their co-operation agreements with Morocco - refecting the fact that the territory is not internationally recognized as part of Morocco.

But not the EU. First, the EU took over the 'Franco fishing agreement' between Spain and Morocco, while allowing Spain to keep the lion's share of its 'rights' under it. And in July 2013 Morocco and the European Commission signed a wholly new fisheries partnership agreement, which would allow all EU boats to fish off the coast of Western Sahara in return for a payment to Morocco of €160 million.

This is the agreement which will come before the European Parliament for approval next week, on Tuesday 10 December. One EU country, Sweden, has already stood up to denounce the deal - clearly stating that if the deal is passed, the EU will be violating international law.

For Europe's Parliamentarians to retain a shred of honour, they must firmly repudiate this ghastly agreement.

In November, disturbing images were revealed of a Belize flagged vessel in Western Sahara discarding 60 tonnes of dead sardines back into the ocean. The reason: they were too small for the onshore Moroccan canning factory.

This one vessel, the Adrar, is said to have dumped 1,000 tonnes of fish into the waters off Western Sahara only this year. And it is just one of many vessels of an increasingly large Moroccan fleet fishing the shores of Western Sahara. The weak, corrupt Moroccan fisheries monitoring system does not pick up on such abuses, or the wider environmental destruction. 

According to Greenpeace, the combined fishing pressure of the Moroccan fleet and a new influx of EU fishing vessels is grossly unsustainable. It is calling for the European Parliament to reject renewed EU fisheries in the occupied waters next Tuesday, 10 December.

Backing up its call, Greenpeace has just published its report Exporting Exploitation - How retired EU fishing vessels are devastating West African fish stocks and undermining the rights of local people.

Among its revelations are that dozens of vessels have begun to join in Morocco's illegal fishing in Western Sahara over the last few years. And that over half of them originate in EU states. It appears that EU fishing boats are, in fact, already operating in Western Sahara's waters - even after they are meant to have been decommissioned, and before the partnership agreement has been approved.

Sustainability considerations have already been thrown overboard. In 2011 - even as the European Parliament debated the future of the 'Franco fisheries agreement' - the Parliament's Legal Office published an Evaluation which found that the fisheries were destructive for all fish stocks. Moreover funds allocated for environmental efforts had not been touched by Morocco during the entire preceding agreement period of four years.

The Evaluation turned up further problems. The existing agreement did not bring any development benefits to the Saharawis. It was considered by the UN to be in violation of international law. And it was most financially ruinous fisheries agreement the EU had ever signed with a third country. 

Yet, even as all the arguments for further fishing in Western Sahara were falsified by the EU's own analyses, the defenders of the deal - led by a group of Spanish parliamentarians - stressed the need for continued fisheries, due to political concerns for Morocco.

Since then, Morocco has not only increased its own fleet, but has signed another massive agreement: over Christmas 2012, Morocco entered into a 200,000 tonnes / year fisheries agreement with Russia.

The EU has also just signed an agreement with Mauritania covering the very same fish stocks, swimming right over the maritime border. The EU plans in Western Sahara would come on top of all that, with an even larger agreement than they've had before.

And the agreement due for approval is severely deficient as regards human rights. It is the first such agreement since 2010 devoid of human rights guarantees - despite a clear mandate from the Parliament to include them. The deal was only signed in the summer break - free from the usual scrutiny that would have applied.

This development happens at the same time as half the people of Western Sahara are living as refugees. One refugee child out of four is suffering from acute malnutrition. The EU will pay far more to Morocco for the unsustainable fishing in Western Sahara's waters, than it has given as humanitarian aid to the refugees who are the rightful owners of the fish.

"As a European I feel embarrassed", said the former UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs on the previous fisheries agreement. For several years the EU Commission has misinterpreted and abused the legal opinion written by the UN legal chief for the UN Security Council.

He has described the EU's fisheries agreements as being point-blank contrary to international law and emphasizes that the EU is putting a spoke in the wheel of the UN-mediated peace process in Western Sahara.

This week, even the President of the Pan-African Parliament sent a letter to the President of the European Parliament urging for a no to the fisheries agreement. Such an agreement would "undermine the efforts deployed by the UN and the AU [African Union] to find a peaceful and lasting solution to the conflict", he stated.

The facts are clear. The proposed fisheries deal is environmentally destructive. It brings no benefits to the people of Western Sahara, nor is it in accordance with their wishes. It rewards Morocco, the illegal occupying power, with a massive cash payment. It undermines international efforts to negotiate the freedom and independence of Western Sahara.

It deliberately excludes any mention of human rights, in a place where human rights are being grossly and systematically violated. And it is in clear and direct violation of international law. For Europe's Parliamentarians to retain a shred of honour, they must firmly repudiate this ghastly agreement.

Erik Hagen is Chairman of Western Sahara Resource Watch.



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