Stomaching Human Rights Abuses in Western Sahara

Western Sahara holds one of the worlds largest known deposits of exploitable phosphate rock. Phosphate, a natural element that cannot be synthetically produced, has become a core component of the global food system. Western Sahara is the home of the Saharawi people. Morocco has occupied the territory since 1975 and is currently controlling the phosphorous resources there. Thousands of Saharawi have been forced into Algerian refugee camps. The International Court of Justice has ruled that Morocco has no right to sovereignty in Western Sahara and the United Nations designated the area as a non-governing territory (NGT), a status recognizing the right to self-determination of the inhabitants. Yet, Morocco continues to occupy the land – and exploit its resources – largely without rebuke from the international community.

Phosphate in the Global Food Supply
Phosphates became an integral part of the modern food system during the green revolution of the 1960s. Today, approximately one ton of phosphate is consumed for every 130 tons of grain produced. Phosphorus demand continues to increase with the rising global population. The worlds supply of exploitable and accessible phosphorous is found in only a handful of countries, many of which are in the Middle East and North African region. Of these, Morocco and Algeria are considered the most stable areas for development.
The high demand is encouraged by current farming methods which result in more phosphate being applied to crops than the soil can absorb. Much of the phosphorous is then picked up by run-off before being carried into nearby surface waters. An excess of phosphates in surface water can cause eutrophication and may eventually kill the water body. Agricultural runoff has contaminated one-third of the surface water in the US alone. Despite the importance of the resource and the large amounts released as a harmful waste product, recycling rates of phosphate are low and many potential technologies remain undeveloped.

Morocco in Western Sahara
The Kingdom of Morocco extracts and exports phosphate from Western Sahara in one of the worlds most heavily guarded mining operations. In addition to phosphate, Morocco also exports resources from Western Saharas fisheries and oil reserves. The Kingdom and its allies justify the occupation of Western Sahara by arguing that the land was transferred as a colony from Spain via the Madrid Accords. The United Nations has never recognized this agreement and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling failed to uphold it.3

More than 70% of known exploitable phosphate reserves lie within Morocco and Western Sahara. 2 191 Megatons of phosphate rock were mined last year. Phosphate use in China is increasing at a rate of 5% per year and the country is responsible for approximately 35% of global consumption. A recent China Agriculture University study found that northern Chinese farmers use about 525 pounds of fertilizer per acre, of which 200 pounds is wasted into the environment. 3 Thus, Spain remains the administering power responsible for decolonization of the area.

The ICJ held that Morocco’s claims to sovereignty in Western Sahara were unfounded prior to the Kingdoms invasion of the territory. The UN designated Western Sahara a non-governing territory (NGT), in which, according to the UN Charter, the inhabitants have the right to self-determination. The violence which followed the invasion ended in a ceasefire agreement in 1991, which included terms for a referendum on independence for the territory. A UN peacekeeping force was approved to monitor the territory until the referendum could be held. The peacekeeping force is not permitted to investigate human rights violations. Twenty-two years later, the referendum has yet to take place.

Human Rights Abuses and Crimes
As of 2017, the Moroccan penal code includes provisions against threats to the territorial integrity of the Kingdom. Accordingly, individuals are imprisoned for protesting the occupation or even expressing pro-independence views. The government suppresses human rights organizations and journalists working on the issue. Morocco has also failed to issue Refugee cards or other necessary documents to the Saharawi refugees now living in Morocco, despite the countrys party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Other recently documented human rights violations include restrictions on movement, expression, assembly, displacement, due process violations, torture and resource exploitation.

As part of the right to self-determination, locals living within non-governing territories have the right to make decisions regarding the resources of the territory. In 2017, the people of the self -declared Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) applied to the Eastern Cape Local Division of the High Court for an order to prohibit a foreign vessel from transporting phosphate out of the territory. The Court found a prima facie right to ownership by the SADR and held that the resource had been exploited without their consent.

The refugee camps in Algeria, were some Saharawian refugees have lived for more than forty years, are also cause for humanitarian concern. Although the Polisario Front, the effective Saharawi government in the camps, has invested heavily in education and health, the humanitarian conditions there are deteriorating. International aid to the camps has decreased in recent years, just as tensions among residents show signs of flaring. The youth population, now with access to the internet, has made known that they are not content to spend their adult lives in the camps.

Significant reported human rights abuses were reported during the initial years of the invasion and occupation, including forced displacement, destruction of cultural heritage and livelihood, environmental destruction, destruction of food and water supplies, forced disappearance, unlawful imprisonment, torture, and resource exploitation. Together, these violations could amount to crimes against humanity.

Moroccos Geopolitical Role
The European Union (EU) imports roughly 3.1 billion of agricultural products, including phosphate and chemical fertilizers, from Morocco. In December 2016, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found that given Western Sahara is legally not a part of Morocco, it is not included within EU trade agreements signed with Morocco. Since these trade agreements included exports of resources from Western Sahara, the ECJ ordered an annulment of the agreement. In January 2018, however, the European Commission went ahead and signed the trade agreement with Morocco.
Although the US and the EU have spoken out about human rights abuses in the Kingdom, neither have pressed the subject through economic or political accountability mechanisms.

On the contrary, Morocco holds a privileged relationship with both the United States and the EU. The EU accounted for nearly 60% of the Kingdoms trade in 2017. Morocco also plays an important role in European strategy to limit the number of migrants and refugees able to reach Europe. France, the Kingdoms largest single trading partner, endorses Moroccos autonomy plan in Western Sahara. For the United States, Morocco is an important counterterrorism partner. This interest has resulted in policies prioritizing stability in the region.4 Even the United Nations Human Rights Council, in the 2008 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Morocco, did not extend the report to investigating the governments actions in Western Sahara.
Several civil society campaigns are pushing for a boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) strategy. The BDS approach succeeded in South Africa, where led to the removal of the Apartheid regime. Several large corporate actors have supported this cause, pulling their operations out of Western Sahara. These actors include companies from the EU, the US, and Canada.

Actionable Steps Forward
The current situation puts the worlds largest supply of phosphorus in the middle of a geopolitical situation that has the potential to rapidly intensify. The international legal violations surrounding these considerations have been largely ignored, creating a high level of security for Morocco to ignore the international justice system. These circumstances create insecurity for the future of the global food system. This case has sat in a stalemate for decades but it ought to be addressed before the situation escalates.

A. The International Community
1. The UN Security Council ought to enforce the ICJs ruling, as provided for in Article 94 (2), Chapter XIV of the UN Charter. Although this option has never been used, sanctions on Moroccos ruling family, fines levied against violating companies, as well delegitimizing naming-and-shaming rebukes from the Security Council could both be possible next steps toward accountability.

2. Continue to fund and support the Saharawi refugee camp in Algeria. Funds collected from fines against the kingdom could be directly allocated toward the camps.

3. The Security Council ought also to recommend that the International Criminal Court investigate potential crimes against humanity committed by the Government of Morocco during the invasion and initial occupation of Western Sahara.

B. Morocco’s Trading Partners
1. Moroccos trade partners, as well as companies which have already begun to divest from the Kingdom, should seek to build trade and diplomatic relationships with members of the SADR government, to promote economic empowerment within the community and to strengthen the social structure.

2. Commit to a BDS strategy, including ending all favorable trading relationships with Morocco until a peaceful and fair referendum is held for the Saharawi people. As in the case of South Africa, this strategy can be very powerful but requires commitment from the countrys largest trading partners.

3. The US and the EU should seek alternate partners in their counterterrorism and migratory objectives following this strategy. Algeria could be increasingly engaged for such operations. More sustainable long-term strategies for these challenges could also be considered.

C. The Kingdom of Morocco
1. Assist in the facilitation of a fair and peaceful referendum for the Saharawi people, as previously agreed to, and abide by its results. Allow UN monitors to determine the population eligible to vote.

2. Abide by the ICJ ruling and cease the exploitation of resources which have been legally determined to lay within a non-governed territory.

3. Recognize the Saharawi refugees living within Morocco. Provide the required documents to refugees, in an easily accessible manner, in accordance with your international legal obligations.

D. Polisario Front and the SADR Government
1. Assist in the facilitation of a fair and peaceful referendum for the Saharawi people, as previously agreed to, and abide by its results. Allow UN monitors to determine the population eligible to vote.

2. Continue to utilize the regional court system to establish ownership of resources and to create of record of wrongs committed against the population.

3. Seek to build trade and/or diplomatic relationships with international partners.

E. Civil Society
1. Continue to lobby for BSD approaches toward Morocco at the state and corporate level.

2. Increase advocacy operations, seeking to increase public awareness. Public pressure ultimately led to commitments during the isolation of South Africa.

3. Lobby for investment and development of phosphate recycling technologies, such as those being developed by the National Institute of Health and Ostra Nutrient Recovery Technologies.

F. National Agricultural Policy Makers
1. Fund research into appropriate use standards and upper limits of phosphate application in agricultural production. This research could be done by independent scientists with no connection to the fertilizer industry. Findings can be used to create guidelines and standards for farmers that will ensure minimal phosphate is wasted.

2. Create specific regulatory provisions around these standards indicating how much phosphate may enter waterways around agricultural operations. Create accountability mechanisms, such as a phosphate market, were farmers are allotted a finite amount of phosphorous waste per year. Engage research universities in agricultural areas to monitor and report surface waters for phosphate content.

3. Offer federal stipends for phosphate recycling technological research and development, such as those projects being undertaken by the National Institute of Health. Grants and scholarships for students and faculty working in this area, potentially targeted towards universities participating in monitoring operations.


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