Europe’s profits in occupied Western Sahara

Western Sahara – Exploitation – Natural resources

Since the 1970s, the Western Sahara region has been militarily occupied by Morocco. Morocco thus violates the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people who have been dislocated in the process, many of whom now live in refugee camps in Algeria. Since 2018, ECCHR has been investigating if Germany is complying with its international obligations concerning the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. Furthermore, we explore how European companies could be held accountable for the economic exploitation of the unlawfully occupied territory – which also violates the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination.

In this context, ECCHR is seeking to verify the Western Saharan origin of imports to Germany. In July 2018, ECCHR filed a Freedom of Information request to the customs office in Bremen to find out whether a ship coming from the Western Saharan port of Laayoune declared the origin of its goods as Moroccan or Western Saharan. The customs office refused to disclose the information, arguing this was a trade secret. This makes it impossible for the public to check if Germany is in compliance with its international obligations. ECCHR lodged an appeal against this decision. Another updated Freedom of Information request from May 2019 was again indiscriminately refused in August 2019. ECCHR also appealed this decision.


In the occupied Western Sahara territory, European companies are involved – through import, export or the provision of technical services – in phosphate mining, wind power projects as well as in agriculture and fishing. However: the economic exploitation of the Western Sahara without the Sahrawi people’s consent violates international law.

The Sahrawi people have not agreed to the economic activities on the occupied territory and do not receive their share of the profits. Despite UN efforts, there is no end in sight for the occupation – in part because it continues to be profitable.


After Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975, the region never attained economic or political independence. In the course of a badly executed process of de-colonialization, Morocco occupied 85 percent of the territory. Today, Western Sahara is accepted as a non-self-governing territory by the UN (Article 73 of the UN Charter).

A judgment by the European Court of Justice from 2016 (C 104/16-P) also made clear that Western Sahara is not part of Morocco. Goods from the region such as fish meal or tomatoes must thus be labelled in Europe as coming from “Western Sahara” not from Morocco. If German customs were deliberately authorizing the import of products from Western Sahara as “Moroccan” goods, this would amount to an unlawful acknowledgement of the occupation.

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Freedom of Information Acts

The Freedom of Information laws set out the citizens’ right to access documents held by state authorities. This aims to uphold the transparency of the state.

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Corporate responsibility

In Pakistan, workers died in a fire at a textile factory because fire safety measures had been neglected. In Peru, people living near a copper mine became ill after pollution leaked into the groundwater. In Bahrain, critics of the regime were arrested and tortured after police used commercial surveillance software to tap their phones and computers. In these three examples, responsibility for human rights violations can be traced back to foreign companies in Germany, Switzerland and the UK, respectively.

Both in economic and legal terms, transnational corporations are the winners of the globalized economy. They are often caught up in a broad range of human rights violations, but the people running the firms are only rarely called before the courts, and even more rarely convicted for their wrongdoing.

However, taking legal action against transnational corporations for violations in their global supply chain is slowly becoming a more viable option. Social movements and NGOs from the Global South are increasingly using legal tools to address human rights violations involving foreign companies by taking action in the countries where these firms are headquartered.

ECCHR aims to use legal mechanisms to help break down unjust economic, social, political and legal power relations around the world. In its Business and Human Rights program, ECCHR assists the political and social struggles of those affected by corporate human rights violations by supporting strategic legal interventions in Europe.


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