The UK is being taken to court over its new trade deal with Morocco

The UK is being taken to court over its new trade deal with Morocco

By: Toby Shelley
Date: 12 April 2021
Campaigns: Trade

The Western Sahara Campaign (WSC) is taking the UK government to court over a trade deal with Morocco – again.

And the Polisario Front has taken the EU to court over a trade deal with Morocco – again.

The issue at stake in both cases is – again – the il/legality of neo-colonial trade agreements granting preferential access to European markets for produce plundered from the Western Sahara under Moroccan occupation. In both cases, the contention is that the deals breach international law because the Sahrawi people have not given consent. Polisario is recognised by the UN as the representative of the Sahrawis yet no attempt was made to consult with it, let alone win its consent.

The produce concerned is largely fish taken by Moroccan and European vessels from the sea off Western Sahara since over-fishing and climate change emptied Moroccan waters. But you may find your supermarket stocking cherry tomatoes from Dakhla.

In 2015, WSC brought successful judicial review proceedings against the UK government against a previous version of the EU-Morocco Association Agreement and the EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in favour of WSC, a judgement then approved by the High Court of England and Wales. It was found that the EU agreements could not be applied to the territory of Western Sahara, nor could Morocco be understood to exercise jurisdiction over the territory, as this would contravene the principle of self-determination and the rule of international law that a treaty may not impose rights or obligations on a third party – the Sahrawis – without that party’s consent.

So, how did it all end up back in court? The UK having now left the EU, there are two strands to this. On the EU side, at the behest of the fisheries lobby, the European Parliament accepted a fig leaf of phoney ‘consultation’ and passed the deal with Morocco, throwing Sahrawi rights to one side. The outcome of Polisario’s case against this is expected in the summer and the liberation movement is quietly optimistic.

For its part, the UK government was keen to present an ‘oven ready’ trade agreement at the moment when Brexit came into effect. In a bid to circumvent both the 2015 High Court ruling and parliamentary debate, it used a statutory instrument to introduce a trade deal with Morocco at the beginning of this year, mirroring the EU’s deal. Precisely because it mirrors the EU deal, it suffers the same flaw, the Sahrawis have not given consent for the exploitation of their resources.

This will be the first challenge to a post-Brexit UK trade agreement. That, in itself, is an embarrassment to the UK government. But the inappropriateness of the government manoeuvre is exacerbated by the statutory instrument being introduced just weeks after armed conflict had resumed in Western Sahara.

On 13 November last year, Moroccan forces moved into a demilitarised zone between Western Sahara and Mauritania, destroying a Sahrawi civilian camp set up to protest against Morocco building a road through the zone to facilitate export of goods plundered by the occupation. Thirty years after the ceasefire came into effect, premised on a referendum of self determination for the Sahrawis, and after 18 months during which the UN had not appointed a special envoy to blow on the dying embers of the peace deal, this breach of the ceasefire was the final straw for Polisario. Every day since then, its guerrillas have struck at Morocco’s 1,600 mile long defensive wall. Predictably, Morocco has responded with violence against civil rights activists in the occupied territory and Sahrawi political prisoners.

To date, the UN has done nothing but wring its hands. Its mission in Western Sahara is redundant. It was put in place to supervise a referendum in 1991. In the absence of the political will in the Security Council to enforce a referendum, it was reduced to ceasefire monitoring. Covid measures had already pared its monitoring patrols and now there is no ceasefire. The only post-Cold War UN force without a human rights mandate, it cannot even protect the people of the territory.

Take a look at the permanent members of the Security Council. Among the five are France – Morocco’s mentor in chief – the US, which under Trump recognised Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara, and the UK, which is complicit in profiteering from the occupation.

The WSC is asking supporters of the Sahrawis to write to their MPs to demand they put pressure on the UK government to insist that the Security Council lives up to its responsibilities.

A protest in support of the decolonisation and independence of Western Sahara in Madrid, 2018. Photo: Renato Martinho/Shutterstock