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Adjournment speech: Western Sahara

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 13 Apr 2018

Monday, 26 March 2018

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:00): Western Sahara is Africa's last colony and it has implications for Australia. The importation of phosphate mineral rock from the occupied part of the territory to this country needs to stop. The evidence that this fertiliser represents the illegal exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources is now overwhelming. More and more countries are refusing to be involved in this illegal trade. I thank the Australian Western Sahara Association and Kamal Fadel, the Sahrawi republic representative to Australia and New Zealand, for their informative briefing on these issues.

Western Sahara has been listed for decolonisation by the United Nations for more than 50 years. A resolution has been adopted every year by the United Nations General Assembly. It is time Australia recognised the Sahrawi people's right to self-determination. Uniquely, the International Court of Justice has concluded on the status of Western Sahara and the right of the Sahrawi people to exercise self-determination. In its 1975 Western Sahara advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice determined that Morocco did not have any claim to sovereignty over or territorial rights in the territory. However, Spain attempted to hand over the territory to Morocco and to Mauritania—which had pursued a territorial claim that was also rejected by the International Court of Justice—on the basis that the three states would assure for the Sahrawi people their self-determination. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara, abandoning its claims and acknowledging its actions to have been wrong. Since 1975, senior international- and national-level courts have adopted the ICJ's reasoning—the British high court in 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2016 and the South African high court in 2017. Clearly, these are issues that the Australian government should take note of.

More than a quarter century after the United Nations' commitment to administer a self-determination referendum for the Sahrawi people in a manner similar to Timor-Leste, the matter has become stalled. Half the Sahrawi population—more than 160,000, now moving into third-generation refugees—have lived in refugee exile since 1975. Documented human rights abuses, including social and economic marginalisation, persist for those in the occupied part of the territory, which was reported on by independent organisations, including Human Rights Watch. Both the African Union and the United Nations General Assembly refer to Western Sahara as an occupied territory. Criminal investigations are proceeding in Spain, including about alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Morocco's invasion and early presence in the territory.

Many countries, including Australia, have come into contact with Western Sahara through the resources exported by Morocco from Moroccan territory in Western Sahara. Matters of human rights and territories' stalled decolonisation do not feature in most capitals where governments simply defer to the United Nations. Unlike Namibia, for example, the United Nations is unwilling to monitor human rights or natural resource exploitation in Western Sahara, so it is high time the international community adopted a different and more proactive approach. In many ways this is happening, and Australia needs to catch up. The most significant resource exported by Morocco from Western Sahara is high-quality phosphate rock for agricultural fertiliser. Australia's Incitec Pivot Ltd—IPL—purchases this fertiliser. Two other Australian fertiliser manufacturers have actually withdrawn from the trade since 2010. IPL has ordinarily received three shipments annually with a total value of A$14 million.

The Polisario Front, the government of the Sahrawi republic, and civil society organisations have long protested against the stripping of resources from Western Sahara. These concerns are the basis of the successful 2016 Court of Justice of the European Union decision, and for a related case now in that court about the longstanding European Union-Morocco agreement for fishing in Sahara waters. After years of requests and warnings to companies involved in the phosphate trade, the Sahrawi government acted to detain a cargo of the resource by application to South Africa's high court in May 2017. The cargo had been carried aboard a vessel that stopped in that country to refuel. It was thought the ship was bound for Australia, but it was revealed to belong to one of two importing companies in New Zealand. In June last year, the high court made a preliminary ruling that the Sahrawi government and people were the rightful owners of the cargo. The Moroccan exporting companies that had defended the matter then abandoned the proceeding. Now the cargo is expected to be sold by Sahrawi authorities because it cannot realistically be returned to Western Sahara. In the meantime, shipments to a single company in India and two to South America have stopped. The position of the Australian company IPL in light of these developments has not been declared.

The Sahrawi government official responsible for resource matters, M'Hamed Khadad, has said:

This is yet another sign that the days of business as usual are over when it comes to the plunder of Western Sahara's natural resources … We're seeing a major momentum shift as companies are waking up to the fact that there will be consequences all over the world for those who are involved in the illegal exploitation of our natural resources.

It is time that IPL made clear what their intentions are.

On 10 January this year, the Advocate General of the European Union underlined that the European Union and Morocco cannot include Western Sahara in a bilateral fisheries agreement as Western Sahara is a separate territory from Morocco. He underlined that Western Sahara is under occupation and that international humanitarian law applies.

On 25 January last year, there were further developments significant for Australia. The company Nutrien intends to end its trade in phosphate rock from Western Sahara. Nutrien is a newly formed Canadian company, following the merger in January this year between PotashCorp and Agrium. Mr Chuck Magro, Nutrien's president and CEO, has confirmed that notice has been given to end imports to Canada by stopping the contract with Agrium at the end of the year.

It is time that Australia supported the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. This should include ensuring the protection of their sovereign rights to their resources. As stated above, there are few companies now involved in the trade of Western Sahara's phosphate rock. Several withdrew in 2017, as I have outlined. These cases underline the substantial reputational and legal risks facing IPL if it continues to purchase this resource. IPL's involvement in the illegal trade of Western Sahara phosphate has repercussions for Australia's reputation and international standing. I do urge that the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, considers the question of Western Sahara. A starting point is to support the efforts of the United Nations to deliver a referendum to the Western Sahara people. A second option is to firmly declare that imports of resources from the territory will not be permitted into Australia. For more than 40 years, the people of Western Sahara have dealt with violence, exile and the exploitation of their resources. For more than 40 years, so many of them have been in refugee camps. By Australia taking these actions, they can bring justice to the people of Western Sahara.


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