New Zealand accused of complicity in Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara

Sahrawi refugees living in the El-Aiun camp in Algeria appeal to New Zealand in July.

Activists are tracking a ship bound for New Zealand containing an unknown quantity of what they allege is stolen Sahrawi phosphate which is illegally mined and exported by Morocco, the occupying power in Western Sahara. Morocco is the largest producer and exporter of phosphates in the world.

Bruce Munro reported the ship's journey in the July 15 Otago Daily Times. He said it had sailed for 44 days, without divulging the nature of its cargo or the fact that it was headed for New Zealand. Kamal Fadel, Australia’s Polisario Front spokesperson, told the ODT this omission was intentional.

Morocco has occupied the territory since 1975, in defiance of the United Nations. Thousands of Sahrawi people have been tortured, imprisoned, killed and disappeared while resisting the Moroccan occupation. A 2700 kilometre-long wall divides the imprisoned Sahrawis from those who fled into exile.

There has been resistance to Morocco’s occupation. The Popular Front of Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario) Front waged a guerrilla war against the occupation until a 1991 ceasefire was brokered by the African Union. A referendum for Sahrawis to exercise their right to self-determination was agreed on, but the people of Western Sahara are still waiting.

The bulk carrier, the Venture Pearl, is now listed as carrying “fertiliser” and is scheduled to dock in the NZ ports of Tauranga and Bluff on July 26 and August 1. The activists tracking the vessel said it loaded its cargo at the port city of El Aaiún (Laâyoune) in occupied Western Sahara.

Munro wrote: “Worldwide, New Zealand's two largest fertiliser companies, Ravensdown and Ballance Agri-Nutrients, are the sole-remaining, substantial, foreign buyers of Western Sahara phosphate.

“It puts New Zealand in the international, political spotlight because Western Sahara is not a sovereign territory but a region occupied by Morocco.

“The indigenous Sahrawi people accuse the New Zealand fertiliser companies of helping prop up their oppression. In the same way that blood diamonds refer to precious stones mined to finance a warlord's activities, they say what is being mined in Western Sahara is rightly called ‘blood phosphate'.”

Dihani Mohamed, who lives in El-Aiun, told the ODT: “The complicity of the New Zealand government with the companies Ballance and Ravensdown and the silence of the New Zealand people is increasing the suffering of the Sahrawi people in the territories occupied by the Moroccans and in refugee camps.

“Today we live under an apartheid regime that is trying to kill the Sahrawi people through the use of a new weapon, that is, to reduce demographic growth by depriving our people of economic and social rights and exploiting our wealth,” he said.

The international media has largely ignored the occupation, in part because Morocco has routinely blocked journalists from entering Western Sahara. But, in late 2016, Democracy Now! managed to get into Laâyoune, becoming the first international news team to report from the occupied territory in years.

Fadel told ODT that foreign companies that buy Western Sahara phosphates embolden Morocco to maintain the occupation.

"They provide legitimacy and funding to Morocco and deny our people a vital resource that we would need to rebuild our country after decades of conflict and suffering.”

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Adern is aware of Morocco's occupation as she visited Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria in 2008. She even mentioned Western Sahara in her maiden speech in parliament.

Fadel refuted the spokespeople for both New Zealand companies who told ODT their trade is legal under European Union rules. He said NZ must not trade with Morocco until the Sahrawi people have had a genuine referendum on self-determination.

He called on the New Zealand government to “do the right thing” and “put an end” to Western Sahara phosphate imports until Morocco has enabled a genuine referendum of Sahrawi people on self-determination.

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