Western Sahara: stalemate or progress?

by Nina Markowska, Engagement Manager at GES

It has been 40 years since Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara, and 40 years since the proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). It has been 25 years since the Saharawis were promised a referendum in which they would decide their future. All these years later the referendum is still only a promise, and over 100,000 Saharawis remain in exile, living in Algerian refugee camps and relying almost exclusively on humanitarian aid.

Although it is easy to believe that there is very little hope the situation can be resolved, a closer look might reveal cracks that are slowly but surely showing in the impasse. Especially for someone who follows the situation in Western Sahara closely, it might seem that more things have happened in the last few months than in the last few years. And this is probably not far from the truth.

Recent events have been a mixed bag of good and bad news. In early autumn 2015, the opening of IKEA’s first store in Morocco was blocked by the kingdom’s authorities. The official reason: lack of a “conformity permit.” But it was the suspected unofficial reason that triggered a full-blown diplomatic crisis – Sweden’s alleged plans to recognise SADR as an independent state. Although Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs denied these allegations, saying that the official policy was merely under review, it was enough to spark protests outside embassies in both countries. Additionally, Morocco threatened to boycott all Swedish companies, as a retort to Sweden’s long-lasting campaign to boycott Moroccan products – an accusation which was also denied by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The tension was relieved only by the Swedish foreign minister’s official announcement in January 2016 that Sweden had decided not to recognise SADR’s independence as it could potentially damage the UN process of mediation.

Speaking of the UN, only a couple of months later, in March, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon paid a long-awaited visit to Tindouf, a Saharawi refugee camp in Algeria, in an attempt to push negotiations over a referendum for self-determination forward. His two-day visit included a meeting with the President of SADR, a meeting with youth representatives from the refugee camps, and a briefing at the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) outpost in Western Sahara. The events were obviously closely followed by Morocco and it did not take much for a controversy to arise. Ban Ki-moon had described Morocco’s presence in the territory as “occupation” and, not surprisingly, the Moroccan government accused the Secretary-General of dropping his neutrality and impartiality. What is more, Morocco ordered the UN to expel dozens of civilian staff members and close a military liaison office for MINURSO, a decision that could hinder the mission’s full functionality. Although the UN chief later expressed his regret about a “misunderstanding” caused by his words, discussions with the Moroccan government to re-stabilise the status of the peacekeeping mission are yet to commence. In the meantime, the UN Security Council extended MINURSO’s mission until April 30, 2017 – again, with no mandate to monitor human rights. Adding this particular mandate to MINURSO’s mission has been advocated by Western Sahara support groups for years. They claim that human rights abuses are continuing in the territory, and efforts to deal with this issue have proved insufficient. Today, MINURSO remains the only modern UN peacekeeping operation without a human rights component.

Given the convoluted situation, it is understandable that the Saharawis’ impatience and frustration are growing. Continuous lack of any significant progress and recent tensions between Morocco and the UN spark fears of the conflict re-erupting in Western Sahara, even though a full-on war is unlikely simply because of the imbalance between the military capabilities of Morocco and SADR. The situation of Western Sahara was once described as a second Israel-Palestine, only without the media attention. Perhaps the controversies and tensions are exactly what is needed to draw the world’s attention to Western Sahara? Perhaps the recent death of SADR’s long-standing President, Mohamed Abdelaziz, marks a turning point in the history of the conflict, and his successor will open a new chapter?

But is there anything that companies and shareholders could do to contribute to resolving the situation or at least not get caught up in the conflict? For years, GES has been encouraging companies involved in doing business in Western Sahara to conduct human rights due diligence or some other form of risk assessment that would ensure that their actions adhere to international norms, and that the interests and wishes of the Saharawi people are integrated into their operations. It is definitely challenging but not impossible. Companies can of course opt for exiting the occupied territory entirely. Such decision has been made in recent months by Total and EuroChem, although the companies have not been motivated purely by human rights-related challenges.

Investors are becoming increasingly active on the matter. In May, a shareholder proposal at PotashCorp’s AGM, calling the company to commission and make public an independent assessment of its human rights responsibilities in relation to sourcing phosphate rock from Western Sahara, was backed up by 31.6% of shareholders. It is an impressive result and a significant change since last year’s voting, when the same resolution received a 6.72% support. Hopefully, such events will make more shareholders aware of the risks related to being present in Western Sahara, and motivate them to demand more of companies in terms of conducting their business there in a responsible manner.

As the saying goes, little by little does the trick. While it is probably not the most enticing strategy for many, it might be the only strategy for Western Sahara for now.

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