International Business and Fundamental Human Rights: The Case of Western Sahara

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The European Union's interest in exploiting the fishing resources of Western Sahara has ignited the debate over Morocco's right to a region that the United Nations has classified as a Non-Self-Governing Territory. This paper examines the genesis of the debate and briefly discuses its ethical implications for companies that opt to do business in Western Sahara.

Keywords: International law, Self-determination, Exploitation, Human rights, Corporate responsibility

INTRODUCTION

There is hardly a mention of Western Sahara in international circles today without its linkage to the principle of self-determination. This is largely because of the struggle of the Western Saharans (the Saharawis) against the occupation of their territory by Morocco, an ongoing struggle that has left its imprint on the evolutionary process of the principle of self-determination. In order to understand how the struggle has been fuelled by the competitive business environment created by globalization it is helpful to consider the historical developments that have given rise to the Western Sahara problem.

BACKGROUND HISTORY

Western Sahara (formerly known as Spanish Sahara) was settled by a mix of thirteenth century Arab and sub-Saharan African immigrants who by the eighteenth century had blended into "a group of nomadic tribes called the Ahl Essahel" (Brazier, 1997:12). Although Spanish settlement in Western Sahara dates back to 1884 when Spain proclaimed the area a "protectorate," it was not until 1934 when the French overcame Western Saharans' (Saharawis') resistance that Spain established its colonial rule over the territory (Hodges, 1983; Brazier, 1997). Even then, the Saharawis carried on their pastoral economy and maintained their system of justice until their brief uprising in 1957-58 (Hodges, 1983). Thus Spain's interest in the territory remained minimal until it discovered that the territory had phosphates. The discovery heightened Spain's interest in Western Sahara. The heightened interest resulted in the introduction of political changes by the Spanish government in 1958, changes that began to transform Western Sahara into a colonial entity. Shortly after, the wind of political independence began to blow over the African continent. In the light of the wind of change, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 1960 resolution of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

Under pressure from the UN General Assembly, Spain endorsed the 1966 UN doctrine of selfdetermination. But in 1967 when the Saharawis formed a liberation movement and demonstrated for their right to self-determination, Spain brutally repressed the demonstrations and banned the movement. In 1973 the Saharawis formed a new movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Sanguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front). The new movement resorted to armed struggle against colonialism. Meanwhile, Morocco and Mauritania having gained their own independence from France, and motivated by their desire for the natural resources of Western Sahara and by their political ambitions, began to make sovereignty claims to the territory. But neither was actively involved in fostering the Saharawis anti-colonial struggle against Spain. Thus the Saharawis turned to Libya and Algeria for support (Hodges, 1983). As the United Nations and the then Organization of African Unity (OAU) now African Union (AU) increased pressure on Spain to grant independence to

Western Sahara, Mauritania and Morocco intensified their claims to the territory. Morocco claimed that its sultans had historically exercised sovereignty over the territory. On its part, Mauritania based its claim on the ethnic and cultural ties it has had with Western Sahara (Mercer, 1976; Thompson, 1980). However, Spain claimed that before its occupation "the Western Sahara had been terra nullius" (Thompson, 1980:172). As Rezette (1975) notes, "this is historically and legally an open question and hence should, properly speaking be settled by the International Court at Hague" (Rezette, 1975: 149). …