EU-Morocco fish pact: Fish before peace?

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The proposed EU fisheries agreement with Morocco is undermining UN efforts to make Morocco enter into serious peace talks, writes Erik Hagen.

“This week-end more than 20 people were injured by Moroccan police as they protested peacefully against the EU’s plans to fish in Western Sahara. Videos of Saharawis being beaten while shouting slogans against the EU plans are now all over the internet. These Saharawis have a right to be heard. A people’s right to self-determination is explicitly carved out in Article 1 of the UN Charter. Today, on the International Day of Human Rights, the European Parliament will decide whether or not to ignore that right for the people of Western Sahara through a controversial fisheries agreement. Do Human Rights and international peace mean anything for the EU when the Union’s own short-term interests are at stake?

It is not strange that the Saharawi people are boiling over with frustration against the EU. The proposed EU fisheries agreement with Morocco is undermining the UN efforts to make Morocco enter into serious peace talks. Such fisheries will not take place in Moroccan waters, as both the protocol and several parliamentarians claim, but in waters that are not considered internationally as Moroccan. No state in the world recognizes the waters off Western Sahara as part of Morocco. The territory is treated as a colony by the UN General Assembly, and parts of it are under illegal Moroccan occupation. The Saharawis that speak out are brave. Opponents of the international business in the territory were this year sentenced to lifetime in jail by Moroccan military courts. Organisations are not allowed.

Back in 2011, the European Parliament rejected the previous such fisheries agreement. Their main objection was one of respect of international law. With regard to that imperative concern, this new proposed agreement is no better than the previous. That is why the Saharawis now take to the streets.

Concerns over international law divided the European Council on the issue, as late as this autumn. “Under all circumstances I would have thought that it was obvious that an agreement of this kind that does not make a distinction between the waters adjacent to Western Sahara and the waters adjacent to the territory of Morocco would violate international law”, stated the former UN Legal Counsel on the previous fisheries agreement, which covered the exact same waters. The Legal Counsel is the most authoritative voice on the matter: it was he who wrote a key legal opinion to the UN Security Council on a similar matter in 2002.

Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki once tried to push through an exclusion of Western Sahara from the application of this agreement, but this was later rejected by Spanish interests. According to international law, if such activities are to take place in Western Sahara, the absolute minimum would be that wishes of the people of the territory be taken into account. But the Saharawis have not consented. During the negotiations, dozens of Saharawi civil society groups, illegal according to Morocco off course, have specifically asked that the fish pact should not cover their waters. The Western Sahara liberation movement, party to the peace talks, has objected fiercely. Yet, none of them were included in the EU fish talks.

In addition to failing the test on respecting their right to be heard, the agreement does not benefit them. The defenders of the agreement miss the point of who is supposed to benefit: it is the people of the territory, not Morocco, nor the EU. This is underlined by both the UN opinion in 2002 and the 2009 European Parliament legal opinion. The ‘people’ is different from the ‘population’. The first is a term used in key UN conventions referring to those with right to self-determination. It is the people of such territory that have the right to vote. The people of Western Sahara have been identified through the UN identification process in the 90s. Among those, are 10.000 Saharawis who last week lined up in the refugee camps in Algeria to protest the EU’s plans. The ‘population’ – a term which the defenders of the agreement use – is something else. Half the people of Western Sahara live as refugees, having fled from the occupation. The ‘population’ of the territory consists mostly of Moroccans. There are more settlers than ‘people’ in Western Sahara today. There are even more armed forces than ‘people’. Of course such an agreement could be interpreted to benefit the population – one can just ask the Moroccan government. The problem is that the use of ‘population’ is flawed – the Moroccan government does not speak in name of the people of the territory.

Several states have voiced concern over business in Western Sahara. The former UN legal chief and several governments, such as Norway, clearly state that such activity undermines the UN peace efforts. This was also stated in a letter from the President of the Pan-African Parliament to the President of the European Parliament last week. They are right. What interest would Morocco have in serious UN peace talks as long as they can partner with the EU in Western Sahara? The Moroccan government has itself stated that EU fisheries is of political, not financial importance.

  This fisheries agreement is mostly Spain’s agreement. Most of the licenses go to the massive Spanish fishing fleet. If the EU choses to ignore international law and Human Rights, of consideration for its short term interests, it has a cost. Not only for the reputation of the EU as a defender of such principle, but also for the people and stability.

Does the EU care about those people’s rights? What message would it send the frustrated Saharawi’s if the EU choses to look away from their rights? What message does it send to the violators, in Morocco or elsewhere? 

The EU must be careful that its potential undermining and ignoring of international law in trade agreements with Morocco today not only has consequences for the people of Western Sahara, but also how the EU is perceived as a proponent of such principles. One cannot be a selective defender of law.”

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