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Thirty Years in the Desert

Saharan Fish and the EU

by NICK DEARDEN

A decades-old, impoverished refugee population, tens of thousands of settlers, a 1000-mile wall, a stalled peace process and now an intifada in an occupied territory. This is not a description of Palestine, but a territory known as Western Sahara, a few hundred miles from the Canary Islands, which was occupied by Morocco in 1975. In 2006, Saharawi refugees will commemorate 30 years–a lifetime to many of them–in the Algerian desert waiting for the international community to live up to its promises to give them a referendum on self-determination over their homeland.

A world away, in Brussels, the European Union is putting the finishing touches to an agreement which will hinder that process still further. The EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement is similar to a host of deals being signed down the West African coast, allowing European fishing access to African waters to make up for the over-fishing of European waters in recent decades. But this deal has one exception: it will allow EU boats to fish in the illegally occupied water of a country which the West has done its best to forget.

International law has been clear on Western Sahara since 1975 when the International Court of Justice ruled that Morocco had no claim to the Spanish colony. Two weeks later the Moroccan Army marched in regardless, and refugees fled for their lives into the Algerian desert. Although the United Nations General Assembly "deeply deplore[d]" the Moroccan Occupation, and the Security Council called for immediate withdrawal, no action followed. Then, as now, the great powers of the world preferred to accommodate the expansionist dreams of the Moroccan monarchy than implement justice for a few thousand refugees.

Liberation was left to the Polisario Front, representatives of the Saharawi in exile, who fought and recaptured some of their land. In the last three decades they have built a society in the desert, with 95% literacy and a democratic government in which women play a leading role, and which has ruled out forever the use of terrorism as a means of obtaining justice. Former UN Envoy to the territory (and Secretary of State under Bush senior), James Baker, said that it was a society the West should be championing "from a strictly human-rights standpoint", if only it wasn’t so important to "maintain close relationships with Morocco".

When Polisario agreed to lay down its weapons in 1991, it was on the promise that the UN would organise a referendum. Even when the Polisario made its ‘historic compromise’–that illegal Moroccan settlers too would be allowed to vote in their referendum–in a proposal that obtained unanimous support from the UN Security Council, Morocco blocked it. The proposal’s designer, Baker later resigned, saying recently: "I’m sure the Saharawi are going to say, wait a minute, what do we have to do here to get a shot at self-determination?" The lack of will by the West to go any further than sticking their hand in the air once a year, is played out in Minurso, the UN mission to Western Sahara, which was aptly described by former deputy chair Frank Ruddy as "a mission that is doing so little that if all of its members went on strike no one would notice".

Now EU countries plan to compound their failure by stealing the wealth of those it has deserted from under their noses. Commissioner Borg, responsible for European fisheries, protests that the Agreement doesn’t even mention Western Sahara. But that’s exactly the point. By failing to define Morocco’s southern border, it allows Morocco to decide where to apply the Agreement, knowing full well that they will apply it to Saharawi waters. El Ayun, Western Sahara’s capital, alone accounts for 40% of Morocco’s total fish catch, by far the largest proportion from any port.

The Saharawi will see almost no benefit from the Agreement. Unsurprisingly, it’s the corporations that control fishing in Western Sahara, mostly Moroccan or Spanish, that will gain most. Even through the employment that filters down to ordinary workers, the majority are likely to be Moroccan settlers, and not Saharawi.

Previous agreements with Morocco have also allowed fishing in Saharawi waters. But this is different in that trade unions, NGOs and politicians from across Europe have come together to try and stop the inclusion of Western Sahara in the new Agreement. This renewed interest may be due to the thirty-year anniversary of the occupation, or because even the US, when signing its Free Trade Agreement with Morocco in 2004, specifically ruled out application to Western Sahara.

It probably helped that last year Morocco embarked on new round of human rights abuses in the occupied territory itself. The occupied territory is still home to tens of thousands of Saharawi who didn’t leave in 1975 and now live alongside Moroccan settlers in a police state, unable to advocate independence or display their flag. This blanket of silence was broken last summer as a small ‘intifada’ broke out after peaceful demonstrations were fiercely repressed by Moroccan security forces. One young demonstrator, Hamdi Lambarki, was beaten to death. Many other human rights activists were arrested and incarcerated in El Ayun’s infamous ‘Black Prison’, where prisoners have been on hunger strike against ill-treatment and torture.

It isn’t too late to stop the EU plunder. A coalition is rapidly building across Europe to ensure that human rights and international law come–for once–before Western profit. It’s time to bring an end to the longest running conflict in Africa, and end the Occupation of Africa’s last colony.

The Agreement will come before the European Parliament in the next two months. To contact your MEP go to: www.fishelsewhere.org

NICK DEARDEN works for the London-based War on Want. He can be reached at: ndearden@waronwant.org