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Thursday, 24 February 2011
Page: 1454

Ms PARKE (4:44 PM) —I would like to take this opportunity to talk about the issues related to the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and the implications of this conflict for Australia. But first I thank the member for Page for the motion she moved on this topic and I thank all members who spoke in support of the motion. I note that the debate has been welcomed by the Australia Western Sahara Association, which will be celebrating the Saharawi national day this Sunday, 27 February. I also want to thank the Maritime Union of Australia and the Australian Workers Union for their efforts to raise awareness of the plight of Western Sahara; that is the kind of broader social and humanitarian engagement that is typical of organised labour in this country, and I applaud it.

The Western Sahara is a territory on the north-west coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. It is one of 16 remaining United Nations-created, non-self-governing territories whose status has remained fragile in the aftermath of the colonial empires in Africa. In 1975 the territory, then known as Spanish Sahara, was divided between Mauritania—which subsequently renounced all claims to it in 1979—and Morocco in a treaty with Franco’s Spain that was strongly opposed by the local Saharawi people and against an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that all concerned nations had previously agreed to abide by. The ICJ held that, while some of the region’s tribes had historical ties to Morocco, these were insufficient to establish ‘any tie of territorial sovereignty’ between the Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco. Furthermore, the court specifically rejected the notion that lands inhabited by nomadic peoples may be acquired on the basis of occupation as terra nullius. This aspect of the ICJ’s judgment was quoted by Justice Brennan in the historic Australian High Court decision in Mabo. Finally, the ICJ declared that the Saharawi population held a right of self-determination and that any proposed solution to the situation had to receive the explicit acceptance of the population.

That same year, 1975, Morocco invaded Western Sahara, ignoring the position of the United Nations and many in the international community who favoured a referendum to determine the region’s future. Morocco’s occupation led to a 16-year war which ended in 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front and set up a peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, to organise a referendum on self-determination, which has not yet taken place. The two sides remain deadlocked between Morocco’s proposal to only grant Western Sahara some autonomy and Polisario’s call for a referendum with full independence.

This is a deep and protracted conflict, though it is little known; and it is a conflict in which certain Australian companies have, one way or another, taken a side. Despite being a poor, sparsely populated place, Western Sahara is rich in minerals and fisheries resources. The Moroccan government controls Western Sahara’s coastline and most of its mineral deposits, which include one of the world’s largest exploitable deposits of phosphate, which is used in the production of superphosphate fertilisers. Currently, three Australian companies are importing that phosphate, namely Wesfarmers CSBP in Western Australia, Incitec Pivot in Victoria and Impact Fertilisers in Tasmania. I note that a Norwegian insurance company, KLP, has blacklisted Wesfarmers on account of its trade with Morocco in phosphate pillaged from Western Sahara.

These Australian imports hurt the people of Western Sahara in two ways. First, they effectively condone the circumstances in which the Saharawi people are deprived of the income from their own natural resources. This in turn is an obvious impediment to their push for self-determination and self-sufficiency. Second, there is an implication that, by allowing companies to import phosphate into Australia from Western Sahara, Australia is in some way condoning the current Moroccan occupation. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website notes:

… given the status of Western Sahara as a Non-Self-Governing Territory, there are international law considerations with importing natural resources sourced from the Western Sahara. We recommend that companies seek legal advice before importing such material.

Speaking of legal advice, former United Nations legal counsel Hans Corell—who, incidentally, was my ultimate boss for much of the time I worked as a legal officer at the United Nations—advised the Security Council in 2002 in a written opinion on the case of Western Sahara that it is against international law to exploit mineral deposits in non-self-governing territories without the consent of the indigenous people of that territory; and also that, wherever such resources are developed, this must only occur for the direct benefit of those people. Neither of these conditions is currently being met.

I call on members to consider the role of Australian companies in connection with the exploitation and trade of Saharawi resources and whether this is in keeping with our general commitment as a nation to support self-determination, to oppose oppression and to reject the transgression of fundamental human rights.