Friday

19th Apr 2019

Opinion

MEP: Reality of my three days in occupied Western Sahara

  • Children in the Dakhla Refugee Camp in Western Sahara. The programme of the visit had been fully agreed with the Moroccan authorities, who accompanied us alongside a fleet of 'official journalists' to every single meeting (Photo: United Nations)

In December 2016, the European Court of Justice reaffirmed that Morocco had no sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Therefore, the EU-Morocco trade agreement had been illegally applied to that territory.

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  • Hautala: The reality check came when I decided to have an additional meeting with some Saharawi activists (Photo: European Parliament)

This ruling, a mere statement of fact, brought the frozen conflict of Western Sahara to the forefront of the EU agenda, after more than four decades of European passivity or even discreet complicity with the illegal occupying force in Africa's last colony.

Rather than complying with the ruling and negotiating a separate agreement with the UN-recognised representative of the people of Western Sahara, the Polisario Front, the Commission chose to prioritise at all costs the preservation of its relationship with its partner in Rabat.

In a diplomatic whirlwind, the commission and Morocco negotiated a solution that would allow Western Sahara to continue to be part of any successor agreement and it is now holding its breath while the European Parliament assesses this proposal.

Rather than securing the ECJ-required "consent of the people of Western Sahara", the commission travelled to Rabat in order to "consult" representatives of "the people concerned by the agreement" and to evaluate the potential benefits for "the local population".

Demographic engineering?

The latter objective de facto gives credit to an illegal and massive process of demographic engineering by Morocco, resulting in the indigenous Saharawi population to become a minority in its own territory.

The overwhelming share of the "consulted" stakeholders was composed of Moroccans or local representatives with a direct interest in preserving the status quo ante.

It was estimated that out of the 112 stakeholders that the commission claims to have consulted, 94 of them rejected taking part in the consultation or were never even invited to such talks.

Following repeated prodding from the Greens/EFA parliamentarians, the commission has had to concede that it does not dispose of any data whatsoever on the existing trade with and from Western Sahara.

A delegation from the committee on international trade (INTA), including myself, visited the cities of Dakhla and Laayoune in September.

The programme of the visit had been fully agreed with the Moroccan authorities, who accompanied us alongside a fleet of "official journalists" to every single meeting.

Moreover, the INTA delegation did not travel outside the part occupied by Morocco.

We did however learn that the Moroccan authorities are adamant about their intention to continue labelling products from Western Sahara as Moroccan, even though the ECJ ruling clearly states that Western Sahara and Morocco are "two separate and distinct territories".

The reality check came when I decided to have an additional meeting with some Saharawi activists.

Strange incident

The Moroccan authorities used a textbook method of harassing the human rights defenders: the activists were arrested for reportedly not wearing their seat belt.

After hours of discussions with an inordinate number of plainclothes police officers, definitely more than needed for a minor traffic infringement, and after being told in quite an aggressive way that I should not have meetings outside of the mission, we managed to leave and hold the meeting in the early hours of the morning.

I wonder how traffic police had so much information.

The Sahrawis we met explained that their daily lives are full of such episodes. They showed us several videos of a demonstration that took place on that same day.

Some of the activists ended up in the hospital after suffering from police brutality. All this happened while the parliamentary delegation was enjoying lavish food from the Moroccan-installed local authorities presenting the extraordinary development prospects of a new agreement negotiated with a benevolent Moroccan administration.

Some in the parliament claim that "we should not oppose development" in Western Sahara and that opposing the proposed agreement would be to the detriment of the population bringing trade, jobs and income.

This statement ignores the very fundamental fact: this agreement would consolidate the illegal annexation of Western Sahara by Morocco and run directly against the UN-led peace efforts, by dividing the territory of Western Sahara in two and strengthening one of the parties of the conflict.

What is the incentive for Rabat to engage genuinely in the UN peace talks foreseen in early December, when it has the EU's blessing to continue to disregard international law and when it stands to gain from further benefits from a new trade agreement with Brussels?

If the European parliament gives its consent to this agreement, the ECJ will most likely strike it down.

We need to stand by the principles of international law instead of signing agreements that clearly violate the rule of law and the right of Sahrawi people to reunite and enjoy their right to self-determination. Our reputation and the fate of a people is at stake.

Heidi Hautala is a Finnish Green MEP, a vice president of the European Parliament, and was part of the delegation visiting Western Sahara in September

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