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High Court judgment rules West Sahara trade dispute should go to European Court of Justice

The High Court has ruled that a legal claim being brought by the Western Sahara Campaign UK (WSCUK) against DEFRA and HMRC regarding trade agreements with Morocco should be heard in the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Western Sahara Map

20 October 2015

WSCUK is an independent voluntary organisation founded in 1984 with the aim of supporting the recognition of the right of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara to self-determination and independence and to raise awareness of the unlawful occupation of Western Sahara. 

It issued proceedings against DEFRA and HMRC earlier this year arguing that the UK was unlawfully allowing products, originating from or processed in Western Sahara, to be imported into the UK under a trade agreement with Morocco.

Law firm Leigh Day, acting for WSCUK, claims this is unlawful and that it is clear that Moroccan territorial jurisdiction does not extend to the territory of Western Sahara or to the territorial sea adjacent to Western Sahara.

Therefore, goods and products produced in Western Sahara should not to be treated as originating from Morocco for the purposes of preferential tariffs or any other benefits conferred upon Moroccan products by EuropeanUnion.

The same is true in relation to fishing quotas allocated in the seas located off the coast of Western Sahara.

In his judgment handed down yesterday (Monday 20 October 2015) The Hon Mr Justice Blake said:

“I conclude that there is an arguable case of a manifest error by the Commission in understanding and applying international law relevant to these agreements.”

Western Sahara, in north-west Africa, is the subject of a decades-long dispute between Morocco and the Saharawi people.

In October 1975 the International Court of Justice rejected Morocco’s territorial claims over Western Sahara and recognised the Saharawi people's right to self-determination. 

Since 1975 Morocco has supported the settlement of its citizens in Western Sahara, arguably in breach of Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions, which states:

‘The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.’ 

The United Nations and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Norwegian Refugee Council have found evidence of human rights abuses and in his judgment; The Hon Mr Justice Blake drew attention to “allegations of serious human rights abuses by the Moroccan authorities against the indigenous members of the Saharan population”. 

He also noted, “reports of discrimination in the field of business and employment and political expression against indigenous Saharans in favour of Moroccan nationals who have moved into the territory since 1975”.  

Rosa Curling from law firm Leigh Day who is representing the WSCUK said:

“We are very pleased this important issue will now be considered by the Court of Justice. There is clear evidence that Morocco has been unlawfully exporting goods to the UK from land and sea it occupies in Western Sahara.

“The people of Western Sahara are being denied their right to self-determination, including in relation to their natural resources.  This cannot be allowed to continue.”

“The UK government, and in particular, DEFRA and HMRC must take urgent steps to ensure it is not complicit in these unlawful actions.”

John Gurr of WSCUK said: “this is a landmark step forward for the Saharawi people. For too long governments have ignored their obligations under international law and made agreements with Morocco to exploit resources that do not belong to Morocco and that Morocco only controls by military force”.



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