Denmark promises to support Western Sahara

Denmark has made positive promises that are meant to secure respect for human rights, access to natural resources and a legitimate process of self-determination in Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony.

So let us for once take what a government, such as the Danish, says on human rights and democratisation at face value and forget about the grubby business of realpolitik that goes on behind the scenes. In other words, let us be positive and not cynical of what Denmark has to say on these matters, no matter how many times such pessimism has been proved right.

Adopting such a positive frame of mind, there seems to have been something of a breakthrough in Denmark’s position on Western Sahara in recent months. From previously having mainly collaborated with Morocco on trade issues and giving empty public statements supporting Western Sahara, with notable examples such as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement from 2008, Denmark is now seemingly promising something that is concrete and can be judged against her future actions.

Firstly, Denmark has clearly promised that she will not support a renewal of the EU-Moroccan Fisheries Partnership Agreement unless a new agreement benefits Western Sahara indigenous population, the Saharawis and is in accordance with international law.

As Henrik Høegh, the Danish Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, stated in a documentary on Danish Radio in November, “if no proof is given on how the proceeds [from the Fisheries Partnership Agreement] have been used, my recommendation is that we vote against a new agreement. If we are to support this, it is important that international law is respected.” He has reiterated this promise in several answers to questions posed in the Danish parliament’s committee on food, agriculture and fisheries, most recently on January 12 where he said that “Denmark has continuously stressed the importance of the agreement benefitting the local population of Western Sahara to the Commission,” that “Denmark has stressed that we see it as essential that any potential new agreement must document that it is beneficial to the population of Western Sahara,” and that “Denmark will not be party to any agreement that is in breach of international law.”

Ole Poulsen, Head of Section at the Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, who has advised the Danish government on the fisheries agreement, recently stated that Morocco has presented no proof of the fisheries agreement having any benefits for the Saharawis. This is so, even though the European Commission requested Morocco to present a report on the fisheries agreement’s impact on the local population of Western Sahara a year ago. “We haven’t had a concrete answer to how the agreement benefits the local population … it is very problematic,” he concluded when interviewed for a documentary on fisheries in Western Saharan shores on Danish radio. Mads Ovlisen, chairman of the Danish Government’s Council on Corporate Social Responsibility, agreed in asking rhetorically whether it can “in any way be ethically correct to pay an occupying power [Morocco] for natural resources from an occupied country [Western Sahara]?”

Secondly, according to Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lene Espersen, the issue of “human rights, and particularly freedom of assembly and press freedom, is an essential part of the ongoing bilateral dialogue between Denmark and Morocco.” Relations between the EU and Morocco are governed by the EU/Morocco Action Plan that speaks of a wish to “deepen … political, economic, social and cultural relations, as well as … security cooperation” between the two, and the EU-Morocco Association Agreement, that “emphasises the importance of the principles of the United Nations Charter, in particular the observance of human rights, democratic principles and economic freedom.” Lene Espersen insists that ”Morocco is obviously bound to respect its human rights obligations,”  and Denmark has been increasingly outspoken in criticizing Morocco’s human rights record in Western Sahara. Espersen recently said that she was “very concerned” about the recent developments in Western Sahara, specifically the brutal Moroccan clamp down on a protest camp near Aaiun (Laayoune), that the incident was “highly regrettable,” and that “Denmark will follow up on the situation of those still imprisoned,” and “support an international investigation” into the protest camp clamp down in answers given to the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs. The minister has therefore said that she would “like MINURSO [the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara] to have the mandate to monitor the human rights situation” in the occupied territories in Western Sahara.

And finally, Denmark is now unequivocally supporting a referendum on the status of Western Sahara. “Denmark supports the efforts of the UN in finding a mutually acceptable solution based on the principle of self-determination for the population of Western Sahara,” Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lene Espersen, said in an answer to the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs.

Denmark has thus taken a leading role in assuring the self-determination, benefits from their resources and respect for the human rights of the Saharawi people. Along with the other Nordic Countries, Denmark is speaking out against the renewal of a Fisheries Partnership Agreement that clearly violates international law and for the respect for human rights in Western Sahara. One can only hope that Denmark will practice what it preaches and vote against this agreement in the European Commission and help ensure that human rights are respected though e.g. giving Minurso the mandate to monitor human rights in Western Sahara.

All this is prudent in more than one way – especially if Denmark wants to continue using its development and foreign policies in an attempt to squander potential terrorism or defer the thousands of refugees on the doorstep of the EU in Northern Africa. Then perhaps promoting democracy is a better idea than propping up dictatorships such as Tunisia. As recent developments there have shown, dictatorships are no guarantee for stability or prosperity, quite the contrary. And as the president of the American Defence Forum Foundation, Suzanne Scholte, said recently, “Western Sahara has the greatest potential of any Arab country to become a pro-Western democracy.”

If the Danish government believes that we have misunderstood their position on Western Sahara, however clear it seems to be, then it is most welcome to clarify it.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION: Western Sahara has been illegally occupied by Morocco since 1975. As an occupying force, Morocco has no right to sell Western Sahara’s natural resources or violate the human rights of its citizens, but must instead work towards the a referendum on the status of Western Sahara. The Charter of the United Nations (article 3) clearly states that those nations who are “responsible” for non-self-governing states such as Western Sahara must ensure “ensure … their just treatment, and their protection against abuses,” “take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples,” “promote constructive measures of development,” and “transmit regularly to the Secretary-General for information purposes,” none of which Morocco can be said to be doing presently.

The International Court of Justice rejected Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara when they occupied the country in 1975, and the illegality of Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara has been maintained by the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly in over 100 resolutions. The USA, Britain and Denmark, and the rest of the “coalition of the willing,” on the other hand, invaded Iraq in 2003 under the pretext of Iraq not complying with UN resolutions.

Regarding Western Sahara’s resources, former Under-Secretary General for Legal Affairs, Hans Corell’s UN Opinion from 2002 concluded that the selling of these resources was only legal if the population of Western Sahara agrees to and benefits from it, something a European Parliament Legal Opinion from 2009 and numerous statements from Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Western Sahara’s government in exile, conclude they do not. The latter furthermore stated that “in the event that it could not be demonstrated that the FPA [Fisheries Partnership Agreement] was implemented in conformity with the principles of international law concerning the rights of the Saharawi people over their natural resource, principles which the Community is bound to respect, the Community should refrain from allowing vessels to fish in the waters off Western Sahara by requesting fishing licences only for fishing zones that are situated in the waters off Morocco.”

Corell recently reiterated his point, in an interview with Swedish radio, saying that he believed that the European Commission had misinterpreted his opinion. Corell also restated his argument from the Legal Opinion in saying that “if the [fisheries] agreement is not signed with the interest of the people of Western Sahara, or after consultation with them, and the benefits do not go to the people of the territory, then it would be in violation of international law. I am afraid we have this situation in this case now.” The EU pays Morocco 36.1 million Euros annually to allow EU vessels to fish in its waters.

The Human Rights situation in Western Sahara is also highly reprehensible, something that many Human Rights organisations have accounted for in numerous reports and other publications. Human Rights Watch speaks of Moroccan authorities acting with “impunity” and the ”evidence of torture and serious mistreatment ”against the indigenous population of Westerns Sahara, the Saharawis; International Crisis Group speaks of the Moroccan regime’s “disproportionate use of force” and it  “frequently resorting to torture and arbitrary arrests;” and Amnesty International speaks of Saharawis being “subjected to forms of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment – including rape.”

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