Human rights conditions in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara remain dire according to activists, even though the territory is once again open for business to European fishing companies.
Despite Moroccan pledges to improve conditions for Western Sahara's indigenous Sahrawi, head of the Sahrawi Centre for Media and Communication Mohamed Brahim said the situation is getting worse under Moroccan rule.
“Nothing seems to be improving,” Brahim told Green Left Weekly from Laayoune.
Human rights concerns contributed to the 2011 European Union (EU) decision to allow a controversial fishing agreement with Morocco to lapse.
Under the agreement, the EU paid Morocco in exchange for licences for European fishing vessels to operate in Moroccan waters, including occupied Western Sahara's coastline.
In 1975, Western Sahara was invaded by Morocco, which still controls around 80% of the territory. Morocco and the Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, both claim the entirety of the territory. However, Polisario, which declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1976, only administers a thin strip of Western Sahara's inland eastern desert.
The Moroccan government's claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara isn't recognised by any other country. Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) described conditions in Western Sahara as the “worst of the worst”.
Many of the territory's indigenous Sahrawi people welcomed the EU's decision to end the fisheries deal in 2011. However, when the EU's parliament approved a new fisheries deal in December, Brahim described the move as “robbery”.
“Well, concerning the new fisheries agreement protocol, as a Sahrawi I can say that...[the] ratification by the EU parliament was a great disappointment for us, as it is an indireect legalisation of the Moroccan occupation of ... Western Sahara,” he said.
Since the previous deal lapsed, EU ships haven't been granted fishing licences in Moroccan waters. Now they can return, to the detriment of the Sahrawi, Western Saharan journalist Malainin Lakhal told Green Left Weekly.
He said the only beneficiaries of the agreement are European and Moroccan business interests. “It's a shame to see that in the end the law of the jungle, power of money and corporations, illegality and injustice won over the power of the human and political rights, human principles, international law and the morals Europe is pretending to stand for.
“The European Parliament [voted] for the violation of international law, abuses of human rights and supporting a colonial power and a force of occupation.”
Under the new deal, Morocco will earn 40 million euros a year in exchange for licenses for EU fishers. However, like the previous agreement, the latest incarnation of the deal doesn't exclude Moroccan-controlled Western Saharan waters.
In 2009, the EU's own lawyers deemed fishing in Western Sahara's waters a violation of international law. This was due to the ongoing dispute between Morocco and Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and a lack of evidence that the Sahrawi were consulted or benefited from the deal.
The Australia Western Sahara Association (AWSA) told Green Left that the deal is a “flawed agreement which shows deep disrespect of the rights of the Sahrawi people”.
“The consent of the Sahrawi people was not sought,” AWSA said. “The human rights provisions are said to be the weakest of any fishing agreement the EU has entered into.”
Morocco's ambassador to Australia Mohamed Mael-Ainin, however, describes the fisheries deal as “legitimate and conforming with international law by all standards”, claiming in a letter to Green Left it enjoys the support of the local population.
Moroccan Agriculture Minister Aziz Akhannouch said European funds will go towards fulfilling Rabat's long standing pledge to develop the territory and focus on creating jobs. He said: “Some articles of the agreement stipulate direct investment in [the] western Sahara region in programs and projects of sustainable development in the benefit of the Sahrawi population.”
When US President Barack Obama visited the country in November, he praised the Moroccan government for “promoting economic progress and human development”.
However, Washington's own intelligence on conditions in Western Sahara is far less rosy. In its latest report on Western Sahara, the US State Department notes that human rights violations continue under Morocco's watch, including “torture, beatings, and other mistreatment of detainees”.
“Both international and local NGOs continued to report abuses [in 2013], especially of Sahrawi independence advocates,” the report states.
Sahrawi spoken to by GreenLeft rejected Moroccan claims the deal would improve conditions.
“This is indeed a joke,” Brahim said. “They claim that the €40 million will go towards renovating... infrastructure and... highways, [but] all that is related to the ports and fisheries.
“Sahrawis don't work in the ports … don't even own licences to operate in the ports ...[and] mostly they are kept out of the loop.”
In the wake of the EU decision, Sahrawi protests have been shut down. At least 90 Sahrawi protesters and 35 Moroccan security personnel were injured on December 11 when police cracked down on a rally in Laayoune.
Another rally on December 19 was “violently dispersed”, a report from the Sahara Press Service (SPS) said. However, during this second rally protesters were described by SPS as “peaceful”.
Laayoune-based Sahrawi human rights campaigner Malak Amidane told Green Left the situation is desperate. “Why must we be in the shadows?” she asked.
“We live in poverty...[and] we ask for our natural resources, we ask for our dignity.
“Shame on powerful nations that control my people … we deserve to live as humans!”
[Find out more about the Australia Western Sahara Association.]