New EU – Morocco fisheries agreement in breach of international law

Published on May 29, 2006

The European fisheries ministers concluded a fisheries partnership agreement at the Council meeting May 22nd. The agreement provides for the EU to pay Morocco €144.4 million under four years in return for giving 119 European vessels (100 Spanish, 14 Portuguese, 4 French and 1 Italian) opportunities to fish in Morocco’s Atlantic coastal waters, including the disputed territory of Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony that was invaded by Moroccan forces in 1975.

No benefit for the people of Western Sahara

“The people of Western Sahara do not benefit from the agreement. Only two percent of those who work in fisheries here are Western Saharans. All the others are Moroccan settlers”, said Western Saharan shop owner Muhammad in al-Ayun, the capitol of Western Sahara, to Swedish news agency TT in an interview.

“Morocco is plundering our natural resources and now EU will assist them. It is outrageous”, a Western Saharan man, preferring to be anonymous, said to TT.

The new four years agreement allows Morocco to issue fishing licenses to European vessels in water which it does not legally hold, which is against international law, EU Member States opposing the deal have said. Despite criticism from Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden, only Sweden voted against while Finland abstained.

“I voted against the fisheries agreement with Morocco because Western Sahara is not part of Moroccan territory according to international law” Swedish Minister of Agriculture Ann-Christin Nykvist told the press after the meeting.

“How can the EU on the one hand support the United Nations resolution and not recognise the annexation of the Western Sahara and on the other hand have a fisheries agreement with Morocco that covers the occupied areas? We want to be a neutral part in solving this conflict,” said Robin Rosenkranz, Swedish agricultural counselor in Brussels, according to the Financial Times.

An International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 1975 found no ties of territorial sovereignty between Western Sahara and either Morocco or Mauritania. Just one month later, Spain signed an agreement with these two countries ‘allowing’ them to occupy the territory. In 1979 Mauritania withdrew, and Morocco invaded the remainder of Western Sahara. International law does not recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, and states that Spain had no authority to transfer administration to another power. The UN and other international institutions in line with international law consider Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory. At the same time more than 70 states recognise the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which is also a full member of the African Union.

Since the 1970s, the Polisario Front, the army of the indigenous Saharawi people, has changed its’ focus from its liberation struggle from Spain to a war against the Moroccan Army. Western Sahara is rich in natural resources, i.e. minerals, oil and offshore gas as well as fish.

“In recognizing the inalienable rights of the peoples of Non-Self-Governing Territories to the natural resources in their territories, the General Assembly has consistently condemned the exploitation and plundering of natural resources and any economic activities which are detrimental to the interests of the peoples of these territories and deprive them of their legitimate rights over their natural resource.” Hans Corell, Under-Secretary for Legal Affairs to the President of the UN Security Council, January 2002.

EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg defended the agreement in March. “Morocco is the de facto administrator of Western Sahara. So, the Commission proposal is in conformity with the legal opinion of the United Nations issued in January 2002,” he said. Mr Borg also pointed out that, on this issue, the new agreement is the same as the previous EU-Morocco deal. But the Commission promised, in a meeting with Member States in June 2005, to keep West Saharan harbors and waters outside the agreement.

After the signing of the Agreement in July 2005, EU chief negotiator César Deben stated that Western Sahara waters were “under Moroccan administration” and that the Agreement merely replicated previous agreements with Morocco, in stark contrast to international law and the foreign policies of all EU member states.

Subsidies and joint ventures

EU fleets affected by the non-renewal of the previous agreement, terminated in 1999, received compensation amounting to €194 million. These subsidies included support for the scrapping, the permanent transfer of vessels to a non-EU country, the modernisation of the vessels, and socio-economic measures such as training, retraining or early retirement schemes for the crews. Thanks to such subsidies, 40 shrimp trawlers and 12 cephalopods trawlers have since been working in Moroccan waters under fishing joint ventures. Morocco has the most fishing joint ventures of any (non-EU) third country.

The subsidising of these joint ventures was approved by the EU despite warnings by scientists from the Moroccan National Fisheries Research Institute (INRH – Institut National de Recherche Halieutique), as early as the late 1990’s, that species such as shrimps and cephalopods were in danger of overexploitation. Nowadays both stocks are severely over exploited. The new agreement does not include shrimp and cephalopod opportunities.