وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا
“Hold fast to the rope of Allah all together, and do not separate.”
Morocco’s control of the ‘last colony in Africa’ is at the centre of campaigners’ legal challenge to the labelling of Saharan produce and the tax breaks it receives
Ian Black Middle East editor
Accurate labelling of consumer produce is a familiar part of the struggle for Palestinian rights under Israeli occupation and a striking example of global citizen empowerment. Now campaigners for the freedom of Western Sahara are making similar demands to try to undermine Morocco’s control of the territory.
In the first case of its kind, British government departments are facing action in the high court over complaints that goods that originate in Western Sahara, often described as “the last colony in Africa”, are illegally benefiting from preferential tariffs granted to Morocco by the EU.
British consumers are also being misled: sweet mixed baby tomatoes – sold by supermarket giants Tesco and Morrisons – have been labelled as produce of Morocco when in fact they were from giant agribusinesses in the Sahara, some of them owned by the wealthy King Mohammed VI, others by powerful Moroccan conglomerates or French multinational firms. None is owned by the indigenous Saharawi people.
Pro-Palestinian groups have waged a Europe-wide campaign to ensure that goods originating in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank do not benefit from Israel’s agreements with Brussels. In both cases, activists say, the intention is to raise the economic costs of occupation and boost international awareness. But the Saharan case is less well known and the concept of “conflict tomatoes” used in an NGO report on the issue has never really caught on.
The Saharan conflict has attracted scant recent attention. It dates back to 1975, when Spanish colonial rule ended and the international court of justice rejected Morocco’s claims to the territory and recognised the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination. Fighting ended with a ceasefire in 1991, but UN diplomatic efforts have achieved nothing despite 10 rounds of informal talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Saharawi liberation movement.
Morocco says Western Sahara is part of its historical patrimony. The most it is prepared to offer is local autonomy for what it calls the kingdom’s “southern provinces”. Police regularly block public gatherings organised by opponents of Moroccan rule. Activists are routinely detained and tried in military courts.
Morocco is gaining from tax breaks for tomatoes from a country it is occupying, which is unethical
John Gurr, Western Sahara Campaign UK
“This is not a large-scale issue for consumers in Britain,” concedes John Gurr of Western Sahara Campaign UK (WSCUK), which is seeking judicial review of the actions of HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “But Morocco is gaining from tax breaks for tomatoes from a country it is occupying, which is unethical. The case is against HMRC because of the tax break, which they shouldn’t be getting. It is not primarily a labelling issue. It’s about Morocco doing business in a way that it shouldn’t be allowed to do. It supports Morocco in its strategy of wiping Western Sahara from the map.”
Lawyers acting for the WSCUK argue that products originating in the Sahara and imported into the UK are being wrongly treated as Moroccan for the purposes of the 2012 EU–Morocco Association Agreement.
“The people of Western Sahara are not only being denied a right to self-determination but are also having their resources plundered by an illegal occupation by Morocco,” said Rosa Curling of law firm Leigh Day.
“The UK government, and in particular Defra and HMRC, must take immediate steps to ensure it is not complicit in these actions.” Defra’s involvement pertains to the operation of an EU-Morocco fisheries agreement.
The EU says it considers Western Sahara a non-self-governing territory and Morocco as the de facto administering power, in line with UN practice. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said last month that although the 2012 agreement with Morocco does not provide specific rules on product labelling, the European commission has its own monitoring mechanisms.
The Dutch government has said parallels can be drawn between the cases of imports from the occupied Palestinian territories and Western Sahara. But it blames the lack of consensus on imports from the latter on the limited attention that the conflict with Morocco has received. Campaigners are hoping this unusual legal move may help change that.