What New Zealand owes the Western Sahara

Michael Dobson, Contributor Former climate advisor, Independent Diplomat


Mark Wynne is the CEO of Balance Agri-Nutrients, a New Zealand fertilizer company that imports hundreds of thousands of tonnes of phosphate every year from an illegal mine in a brutally occupied territory called Western Sahara. Fortunately for Mark, the Western Sahara is in north-west Africa, which is not a part of the world New Zealanders spend much time thinking about, despite the fact that our primary export industry is currently built upon on this deeply unethical trading relationship.

Such ignorance means that when a vessel carrying Saharan phosphate is stopped – as happened last week in Port Elizabeth, South Africa – Mark can throw up his hands, claim that the Western Sahara situation is “very complex” and “deep-running” and (I’m not making this up) “geopolitical,” and thereby avoid having to explain to New Zealanders why it is okay that his company buys millions of dollars worth of illegal phosphate every year.

Mark’s apparent inability to make head or tail of the situation is passing strange, however. Mark Wynne is a very experienced international executive, responsible for managing a multi-million dollar contract with the Moroccan company that mines the phosphate in question (in a territory Morocco occupies by force, on the basis of a claim to legitimacy that no country has ever recognized). If the true extent of his knowledge of the situation is (again, not making this up) that “It really takes someone like the United Nations to resolve it,” I would suggest that Balance shareholders find a new CEO, pronto.

Anyone with a working internet connection and a spare 30 seconds could inform Mark that the United Nations Security Council created MINURSO – the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara – in 1991, but that the self-determination referendum promised to the Sahrawi people in 1991 (in return for ending their war against Moroccan occupation) has never been carried out. In the meantime, Morocco has been busily selling Sahrawi phosphate as fast as it can to anyone craven enough to buy it. Dedicate a full ten minutes to the issue, and here’s some of what you will find:

    Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have produced reports recording “numerous disturbing testimonies” of torture of Sahrawi pro-independence activists by Moroccan authorities. The U.S. State Department calls such reports of torture “credible”.

    Only eleven companies in the world still import West Saharan phosphate. Balance is one. Ravensdown, another New Zealand fertilizer company, is another. Two of the biggest fertilizer companies in the world – Yara International and Mosaic – have ceased trading in Saharan phosphate because of human rights concerns, and seem perfectly capable of maintaining successful fertilizer businesses that dwarf the entire New Zealand industry without depending on it.

    While Morocco claims that the millions of dollars that Balance and Ravensdown pay it for the phosphate ultimately benefit local Sahrawi, the Harvard International Review has this to say in response: “Companies may not solely rely on Morocco’s claims… to ensure that the local population benefits from revenues they provide to the Moroccan government. Such an arrangement lacks the transparency and accountability... Morocco retains full control and discretion over revenues generated from Western Sahara resources, and there is no way of monitoring or verifying its claims of revenue and expenditures, or holding Morocco accountable for failure to match expenditure with revenue.”

    Visitors to the occupied territory are constantly monitored and accompanied by Moroccan authorities, as befits a police state. The idea that any government-organized tour of the territory will provide a reliable impression of the opinions of the Sahrawi regarding their occupiers is laughable, as is the idea that the trade in Saharan phosphate is legal because it happens with the consent of the Sahrawi people.

    Lest there be any doubt, a legal opinion issued by the African Union in 2015 spells the matter out plainly: “any exploration and exploitation of natural resources by Morocco, any other State, group of States, or foreign companies engaged by Morocco in Western Sahara is illegal since they violate international law and resolutions of the UN and the AU.”

    Tens of thousands of Sahrawi people live as refugees in the Algerian part of the Sahara desert, in some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth. The camps have existed for forty years. They will continue to exist until a referendum on the territory’s future is held and the situation resolved. The possibility of reaching such a resolution is actively and substantially undermined by any company that provides Morocco with a financial incentive – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year – to do everything it can to retain control of a territory that does not belong to it.

The truth, of course, is that Mark Wynne undoubtedly knows all this. He’s not stupid. He just thinks you are.

I asked my friend Mulay Smara, a Sahrawi who grew up in the Algerian refugee camps and now lives in the United States, what he thought of Wynne’s comments. This was his response:

“I would say that the New Zealand people would never want to have their resources taken without their consent, let alone by an occupying nation. Our future [as Sahrawi] is based on what is left of our resources. We suffer on a daily basis, in the camps and in the occupied territory, while New Zealand companies profit. That kind of morality should be questioned by ordinary New Zealanders. I’ve known many wonderful friends from New Zealand, and to see such complicity with Morocco is heartbreaking.”

I visited the Algerian camp where Mulay grew up last year. (I subsequently talked to Kim Hill about it, which you can hear here, and also took some photos.) It is impossible to spend time with a people as generous, dignified and resilient – and as steadfastly committed to the United Nations as the world’s arbiter of peaceful decolonization – as the Sahrawi, and not come away enraged at the obfuscatory drivel that people like Mark Wynne are so well paid to produce. (Not that Balance and Ravensdown are the only ones content to look the other way: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs meets with the New Zealand Fertilizer Association and even offers suggestions on the drafting of their Western Sahara press releases.) The idea that the occupation of Western Sahara is too complicated an issue for New Zealanders to make a moral assessment of, or too remote for them to care about, is horseshit. The occupation is wrong, and brutal. We empower it by our indifference.

Fortunately, the tide is finally turning against the trade. The stopping of the ship in Port Elizabeth follows a judgment from the European Court of Justice in December last year that trade deals between the EU and Morocco cannot apply to the Western Sahara. Far too late, the New Zealand Fertilizer Association has finally started discussing alternative sources for phosphate (alternatives that could, of course, include phosphate from within the territory of Morocco itself). Such alternatives should be pursued with alacrity, impelled by our commitment to the importance of international law, territorial integrity and self-determination, and basic human decency.

New Zealand has underwritten the suffering of the Sahrawi people long enough. (SPS)