In violation of international law two major Canadian companies are buying the non-renewable resources of Africa’s last remaining colony.
Saskatoon’s PotashCorp and Calgary’s Agrium have partnered with Morocco’s state-owned OCP to export phosphate mined in Western Sahara, a sparsely populated territory in northwestern Africa that was ruled by Spain until 1975. When the Spanish departed, Moroccan troops moved in and a bloody 15-year war drove tens of thousands of Sahrawi into neighboring Algeria, where they still live in camps.
No country officially recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The UN calls it “occupied” and the Fourth Geneva Convention as well as the Rome Statute prohibit an occupying power from exploiting the resources of territories they control unless it’s in the interest of, and according to, the wishes of the local population.
In 2002 the UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Hans Corell described the exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources as a “violation of the international law principles applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories.”
Over the past few years PotashCorp has been the largest customer of Western Sahara phosphates, buying 750,000 tonnes of rock annually. To deflect from its complicity in violating international law, the company says OCP’s operations benefit the Sahrawi people. A 2014 PotashCorp statement claimed:
“OCP has established a proactive affirmative action campaign to the benefit of the local people and, importantly, is making significant economic and social contributions to the entire region. As a result, we believe those who choose to make a political statement about OCP are effectively penalizing Saharawi workers, their families and communities.” For its part, the POLISARIO Front national liberation movement claims these deal with OCP contravene international law and prop up Morocco’s control. So does the African Union. An AU Summit last June denounced Morocco’s ongoing occupation of Western Sahara, specifically highlighting its “illegal exploitation of the Territory’s natural resources.”
International solidarity activists have called on businesses to stop exploiting Western Sahara’s resources. In response companies in Australia and Norway have agreed not to buy phosphate mined there. The Ethical Fund of Vancity, B.C.’s largest credit union, divested from PotashCorp in response to its refusal to stop purchasing Western Sahara phosphate. So have several European pension funds and banks.
When the Council on Ethics for Norway’s $800 billion pension fund decided to divest of PotashCorp in 2011 it explained:
“This is not only due the fact that the local population is not receiving the benefits; the current manner of exploitation is also contributing to maintaining an unresolved situation and consequently, Morocco’s presence in a territory over which it does not have rightful sovereignty. In the view of the Council, there is a concrete, mutually beneficial relationship between OCP’s violations of norms and the companies purchasing phosphate from Western Sahara.” The world’s top exporter of the mineral, OCP is Morocco’s largest industrial company. King Mohammed VI oversees it.
Last May the Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland and Meritus Mutual Funds submitted a motion to PotashCorp’s annual general meeting asking the company to initiate an independent assessment of its human rights responsibilities in Western Sahara and to make it public. The vote failed, but the issue is unlikely to go away.
PotashCorp and Agrium have a choice. They can further sully their reputations by contributing to Sahrawi oppression or stop purchasing the non-renewable resources of a people seeking self-rule.
Yves Engler is the author of The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy.
This article was first published by Counterpunch.