“The Polisario Front has the right to represent the Sahrawi people” in court

Published on: Changed:

Western Sahara, a non-autonomous region that has been disputed for decades between Morocco and the Polisario Front, was again at the center of the debate on Wednesday. A European court ruling gave the separatists “the right to represent the Sahrawi people in the courts and in commercial matters”, as Erik Hagen, a member of the NGO Western Sahara Resource Watch, explains to France 24.

The decision was awaited by the separatists from the Polisario Front, which was the reason for the seizure by the European Union Court of Justice of what is considered “disputed” between Morocco and the EU regarding Western Sahara. The European Court of Justice agreed with them on Wednesday, September 29, by annulling the two commercial partnership agreements.

In a joint statement issued in Brussels shortly after the Court’s announcement, the EU and Morocco promised to continue their “strategic partnership”. The Polisario Front welcomed “a triumphant victory” and welcomed a “historic” decision for the Sahrawi cause.

Western Sahara, at the center of attention, has been a non-autonomous territory since 1963, according to the UN. It has been disputed for more than 45 years between Rabat and the Sahrawi separatists, backed by Algeria. The former Spanish colony of 266,000 km² and populated by more than half a million inhabitants is essentially controlled by Morocco, which occupies 80% of this almost desert territory with a subsoil rich in phosphates and a coastline full of fish.

>> To read: Western Sahara: 45 years of conflicts and negotiations “at a standstill”

This situation has lasted since 1975, when Spain ceded the northern and central part of the territory to Morocco and the southern part to Mauritania. The Polisario Front immediately rejected this annexation, quickly backed by Algeria, which did not appreciate that the future of the Sahrawi territories was decided without consulting it. The separatists demand a self-determination referendum on Western Sahara, constantly rejected by Morocco.

The area has been separated since 1980 by a “defense wall” built by Morocco, which was followed by an exodus of local people. It is estimated today that between 100,000 and 200,000 Sahrawi refugees live in these camps, located 1,800 km southwest of Algiers, near the border with Morocco. In 1991, the war between Morocco and the Polisario Front ended in a ceasefire, but on the condition that a referendum on self-determination could be organized.

Erik Hagen, a member of the NGO Western Sahara Resource Watch, analyzes this decision for France 24.

How can the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union to annul two treaties between the EU and Morocco be seen as a setback for Rabat?

Erik Hagen: Western Sahara is the most important international issue for Morocco. Discount is always looking for different methods of gaining political and diplomatic legitimacy in this matter: this takes the form of trade agreements with multinational companies, international merchandise exports or fisheries agreements.

Wednesday’s decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union affects its two main agreements with the EU.

Rabat has the right to certify companies from Western Sahara for export to Europe. Among them, 144 Moroccan or international companies are located in the Saharawi territory. The fact that the agreements are now no longer valid prevents Morocco from exporting products to the EU. This will also lead to the European fleet withdrawing from waters adjacent to Western Sahara for the first time (Editor’s note: The canceled fisheries protocol concluded between the EU and Morocco should allow 128 European vessels access to the Moroccan Atlantic territories waters off the coast of Western Sahara).

What does this European judgment change for the Polisario Front?

The Court’s position, which states that the Polisario Front is the representative of the Sahrawi people, is a legal recognition – this confirmation was contained in a UN resolution – and above all a political signal. The opinion of the European Court of Justice is clear: what is important about this ruling is that the Polisario Front is reaffirmed in its right to represent the Sahrawi people in the courts and in commercial matters.

Furthermore, the Court noted two important words in its judgment in relation to the decisions of the Council of Europe of 2019. It first noted that the Council’s replacement of the word “consent” with the word “consultation” was incorrect when extending trade agreements to Western Sahara.

Similarly, the Court found that the replacement of the word “people” with the word “population” was also incorrect. Where the word “population” may refer to Moroccans who have traveled to settle in Western Sahara since 1975 and Sahrawis who have sought refuge in Algeria, the Sahrawi “people” are a legal entity entitled to self-determination – which Polisario Front wishes to Western Sahara.

Will this ruling lead to a change in the international status of Western Sahara (officially a non-autonomous territory)?

This ruling confirms the legal status of the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi people, but it will not change the international status of Western Sahara. Since the first judgments, in 2015, Western Sahara has been separated from Morocco in the eyes of European justice, they are different territories.

With this ruling, European governments, institutions and even companies are likely to have to change their practices towards Western Sahara. It is no longer just a matter of “hearing” the local people, there are now legal, political and ethical aspects to be taken into account in this court decision.

Leave a Comment