Systematic human rights abuses, police brutality, violations of international law and fundamental rights, the Sahrawi people of Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara, have endured decades of repression at the hands of Moroccan occupying forces. Since replacing Spain as coloniser, Morocco has attempted to control a territory about the size of the UK using military force to suppress free speech and pro-independence protests. Europe has largely stood by watching a tragedy unfold on its doorstep. In recent plenary and committee votes, MEPs further consolidated the EU’s shameful record on this subject.
While the 1975 annexation and the resulting conflict forced tens of thousands of Sahrawi people into refugee camps in the desert, European
countries and Morocco have remained fixed on exploiting the occupied territory’s resources, such as fertile fishing grounds off the coast. Finally, in 1991, the Moroccans and the Polisario Front independent movement signed a ceasefire. The two parties agreed to hold a referendum on national self-determination for the Sahrawi. However, Morocco has
persistently worked to defer the referendum, which has still not taken place.
Moroccan authorities also continued to block journalists and human-rights organisations from entering the territory and investigating abuses.
Court rules against Morocco
In 2016, the European Court of Justice reaffirmed that Morocco had no sovereignty over Western Sahara, meaning that the EU’s agreements with Morocco cannot cover the territory. At last, it looked like the Sahrawi cause
would be at the forefront of the EU agenda, after four decades of European
passivity and complicity with the illegal occupying force.
However, while the Court’s judgment meant the European Commission
would first need to obtain the consent of the Sahrawi people before finalising
agreements with Rabat, the Commission went on to relaunch a new trade
deal, the EU-Morocco Association Agreement. What followed was a sham
effort at ‘consultation’ by the Commission, involving a strange assortment
of groups such as Morocco’s largest mining firm, officials elected illegally
under Moroccan occupation, Moroccan state-owned companies and private
Things became even murkier in November 2018 when it was revealed that
the European Parliament’s lead negotiator on the trade deal, French liberal
MEP Patricia Lalonde, was a board member at a secretive Morocco-based
foundation, EuroMedA, alongside former Moroccan government ministers
and state officials. Lalonde resigned from her role and is now (January
2019), undergoing an investigation by the European Parliament into possible
conflicts of interest.
Despite the whiff of scandal and abundant signs of unethical behaviour
surrounding the dossier, MEPs proceeded to vote on it. They sadly went
on to consolidate the illegal annexation by extending various EU-Morocco
deals to cover Western Sahara. This clear violation of international law
and the rights of the Sahrawi people to determine their future is extremely
damaging to efforts towards peace in this conflict. What is the incentive for
Morocco to engage in peace talks when it has Europe’s consent to carry on
ignoring international law? This also undermines our own EU legal order as it
contradicts the European Court of Justice ruling.
Of course, for Morocco, this is all good news. The regime is set to receive
millions of EU funds every year in return for allowing the exploitation of
resources that do not belong to it.
A people looking for justice
But amid all of this – negotiations, votes, rulings, resolutions – the fate of the
people of the Western Sahara is at issue. A people who endure, who just
want to live their lives, enjoy basic rights free from violence, to be citizens of
their own country. Many demonstrate in search of social justice, against the
assassination of activists, against the plundering of their natural resources
by Morocco and the EU. When will Europe stop ignoring these calls for
fundamental rights and dignity? When will we stop signing agreements with
repressive regimes in violation of EU and international law? When will we
show some respect for the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination?
Our reputation, and more importantly, the lives of our fellow humans, rides
on how we answer these questions.