Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic
Western Sahara declares offshore
The declaration on 21 January 2009 of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
by the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the sovereign
authority for Western Sahara, confirms its exclusive rights to the oil,
gas and fisheries resources offshore of the territory of Western
Sahara. Already recognized by over 80 countries, the SADR’s
declaration of an EEZ is a further step toward full statehood,
consistent with international law.
The EEZ provides the legal framework for the SADR’s offshore licensing
regime, which is currently receiving international bids for offshore
oil and gas exploration activities (see
http://www.sadroilandgas.com). The declaration bears out the
illegality of all natural resource-related activities in Western
Sahara’s waters not authorized by the SADR Government, including those
undertaken by Morocco and other foreign interests. It is now
recognised widely that fishing by EU vessels in Western Sahara’s waters
pursuant to the 2005 EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement is in
flagrant violation of international law (see below).
The area widely referred to as ‘Western Sahara’ lies on the Atlantic
coast of North-West Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria
to the North-East and Mauritania to the South and South-East.
Western Sahara is classed by the United Nations as a Non-Self-Governing
Territory, and remains as the last colony in Africa on the agenda of
the UN General Assembly Special Committee on Decolonization.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony from 1884 to 1975, when it was
informally referred to as “Spanish Sahara”. In 1975, under
international pressure for decolonization, Spain withdrew from the
territory, and secretly signed the Madrid Agreement, purporting to
grant territorial control of Western Sahara to Morocco and
Mauritania. A 1975 ruling of the International Court of Justice
declared that neither Morocco nor Mauritania had legitimate claims to
sovereignty over Western Sahara and that the indigenous ‘Saharawi’
people must be granted their right to self-determination.
The Frente POLISARIO (the Saharawi liberation movement) proclaimed a
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in February 1976, and engaged
in a war against both Morocco and Mauritania, eventually forcing
Mauritania to withdraw its claims on the territory. Mauritania
recognised the SADR as the legitimate sovereign authority in Western
Sahara in 1979. As Morocco forcefully annexed greater portions of
Western Sahara, Algeria allowed refugees to settle in the desert near
its south-western town of Tindouf.
An armed conflict between the POLISARIO and Morocco continued until
1991, when a ceasefire was brokered on the promise that a referendum on
independence would be held soon after, to be carried out by the UN
Mission for a referendum on the Western Sahara (MINURSO) pursuant to UN
Security Council resolutions 658 (1990) and 690 (1991).
Persistent Moroccan objections to UN efforts to establish an electoral
roll prevented the referendum from going ahead, and several UN
diplomats resigned in frustration at unacceptable Moroccan interference
in all aspects of the UN’s work. Seventeen years later, Morocco
continues to obstruct efforts to hold the referendum, while a
generation of Saharawi refugees has grown up in camps in Algeria.
The current political situation
The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic has been recognised by more than
80 countries, and is a full founding member of the African Union.
No country or international organisation recognises Moroccan
sovereignty over Western Sahara. Meanwhile, Morocco continues to
exploit the territory’s natural resources in violation of international
UN-mediated efforts to find a solution remain deadlocked. A plan
developed by former US Secretary of State James Baker and endorsed by
the UN Security Council in 2003 was accepted in good faith as a
compromise by the POLISARIO, but came to nothing when Morocco rejected
the effort outright. Most recently, a series of UN-led talks in
2007 and 2008 between the POLISARIO and Morocco have failed to produce
a breakthrough. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced on 7
January 2009 his intention to appoint former US Ambassador to Algeria
and Syria, Christopher Ross, as his new Personal Envoy on Western
Sahara, with responsibility for facilitating a new round of
negotiations between the parties.
In the meantime, there are continued and systematic human rights abuses
in the occupied territory. A 2006 report by the Office of the UN
High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented Morocco’s
excessive use of force against peaceful Saharawi demonstrators, along
with incidents of arbitrary arrest, harassment, and intimidation of
human rights activists. While the report has not yet been made
public, it found that almost all human rights violations in the
occupied territory stem from the non-implementation of the fundamental
right to self-determination. These findings were confirmed by a
similarly critical report by Human Rights Watch, published in December
2008. Both reports recommended that the UN Security Council
expand the mandate of MINURSO to include a human rights monitoring
component, as is the case for all other UN peacekeeping missions.
Natural resource issues
The natural resources of Western Sahara – particularly phosphates and
offshore fisheries – continue to be pillaged by Morocco in violation of
international law, to the tune of at least US$2 billion annually (see http://www.wsrw.org for more
information). Some estimates put this figure much higher.
The awarding by Morocco of oil and gas exploration licenses in Western
Sahara to Kerr McGee and Total in 2001 was condemned by the SADR, and
triggered a request by the UN Security Council for a legal opinion by
then-UN Legal Counsel Mr Hans Corell (Sweden). The opinion,
issued in January 2002, found that oil exploration and exploitation
activities in “disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of
Western Sahara” violate international law applicable to
Non-Self-Governing Territories. Total and Kerr McGee withdrew
from the territory in 2004 and 2005 respectively, and a number of other
operators have indicated they will not become involved in the territory
without SADR permission.
Corell stated at a recent international conference that these same
legal principles apply in respect of fisheries activities, and
confirmed the illegality of the 2005 EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership
Agreement under which EU-flagged vessels (mainly Spanish) fish off the
Western Saharan coastline. On this issue, Corell said:
“As a European, I feel
embarrassed. Surely, one would expect Europe and the European
Commission – of all – to set an example by applying the highest
possible international legal standards in matters of this nature”.