Energy company drills through human rights in the Western Sahara

Published on 22 January 2015 in Opinion Craig Browne (author) Craig Browne


On the evening of December 13, 2014, a 240 meter-long drillship drifted through the night and into Western Saharan waters. Despite its size and long-awaited arrival, the hulking vessel went relatively unnoticed. With the ability to burrow through the sea floor at a depth of over 12 kilometers, it took up residence approximately 70 kilometers from the shore of Western Sahara. Known as Africa’s last colony, the territory of Western Sahara is claimed by Morocco while the indigenous Sahrawi population and the United Nations recognize the area as independent.

The vessel—the Atwood Achiever—is a $600 million drillship operated by Kosmos Energy, a Texas-based oil and gas exploration and production company. With this move, Kosmos hoped to attract billions of dollars in foreign investment and jobs to Morocco. Kosmos states on its website that it has been “working with the Kingdom of Morocco with the objective being to ensure that if commercial deposits were to be discovered in offshore Western Sahara, they could be developed in a manner that both reflects international best practices on resource management and transparency as well as complies with international law (including the 2002 UN opinion).”

Three questions stand out here. Why is Kosmos dealing with the Moroccan government if it is drilling in Western Saharan water, given the territory’s disputed nature? Why is Kosmos so concerned about international law? And what is the 2002 UN opinion exactly?

Big Business and Human Rights

In 2002, the UN’s top legal officer, Hans Corell, determined that if “further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed without respect to the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, the contracts would be in violation of the international legal principles dealing with non-self-governing territories.” Corell was responding to seismic testing carried out by oil companies Kerr-McGee and TotalFinaElf, in their ultimately aborted search for hydrocarbons in the area. This is the 2002 UN opinion that Kosmos was referencing.

When news that the Atwood Achiever was heading to Western Saharan waters first came to light, several leading Sahrawi activists penned a letter to the CEO of Kosmos, Andrew Inglis. In it, they asked Kosmos to withdraw its plans for drilling. These activists believed these efforts would only benefit “the people that are undermining our rights; the king of Morocco, the Moroccan government in Rabat and the Moroccan settlers in our homeland.” These concerns echo the official position of the government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the Sahrawi authority currently in control of approximately one quarter of the territory of Western Sahara.

Activists and others have claimed that protests against Kosmos’s actions in Western Saharan waters have been met with violence from Moroccan authorities. Since Kosmos has declared its interest in promoting human rights, it would seem logical to conclude that the company would abhor people being beaten for expressing displeasure with its operations. Indeed, the Moroccan government regularly responds with disproportionate force and violence against peaceful demonstrations in the Western Sahara.

The Voiceless Sahrawis

On Nov. 12, 2014, Reg Manhas, Kosmos’ Senior Vice President for External Affairs, replied to the activists’ letter. Manhas said that Kosmos had met with elected officials, business leaders, tribal leaders, and representatives from civil society organizations, the tourism industry, and the fishing community in order to present Kosmos’ exploration project. He added that these meetings were attended mostly by Sahrawis. Manhas therefore implies that most Sahrawis are supportive of this project. Yet Manhas’s statement neglected the complicated reality of the Western Sahara conflict.

Since the Green March took place in 1975, the Moroccan King and government have encouraged an increasing number of Moroccans to move into Western Sahara. Through incentives, such as tax breaks and appeals to nationalist sentiments, Moroccan authorities have engineered a new reality on the ground: Moroccan settlers outnumber indigenous Sahrawis by a ratio of at least 2:1. This is settler colonialism at its finest.

In order to provide a lasting, equitable solution to the issue, a referendum has been touted to take place at various times during the past 40 years. This could either recognize Sahrawi self-rule or Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. However, the overwhelming presence of settlers makes the possibility of a fair referendum on independence essentially impossible, whichever way Sahrawis vote. They also raise serious questions about who Kosmos has been meeting with.

It is extremely hard to believe Kosmos could have been speaking mostly with Sahrawis (at least with those who had come of their own free will, independent of coercion from the Moroccan government) and come to the conclusion that its work would have positive rewards for the indigenous population.

It is indeed likely that the discovery of hydrocarbons could benefit locals greatly, but considering political realities, it is more than probable that local Moroccans, and the central government based in Rabat, would benefit the most.

In his letter, Manhas noted that a commercial discovery would “provide a foundation upon which the people can build whatever political solution results from the UN-led process.” But a lucrative oil field would only further complicate the political stalemate and increase Morocco’s de-facto control of the territory and its resources. Indeed, as quoted in the Financial Times, Hans Corell recently stated that “the more resources are found in Western Sahara and its maritime zone, the less will be the incentive for Morocco to fulfill the UN resolutions and international law.”

If abundant natural resources were found and developed, independence for the Western Sahara (which is not supported by the Polisario, the Western Sahara independence movement, or by many Sahrawi activists) would become less favorable to the Moroccans. Control over an area boasting substantial resource wealth would be a boon to the Moroccan authorities—it would further dissuade them from granting independence to Western Sahara.

Corporate Hedging

When Manhas says that Kosmos does not have a role to play in the political process, he is, therefore, being woefully naïve and ignoring the asymmetry in power that structures the conflict.

If Kosmos was actually speaking to Sahrawi activists and representatives of the Western Sahara government (SADR), it would find that most of the indigenous population does not support drilling in Western Sahara waters because it violates international law and gives more power to Morocco, as the occupying force in the territory.

This means that either Kosmos is being played by a highly skilled Moroccan regime, fluent in the language of deceit, or the company is fully aware of the realities on the ground, and has chosen to ignore them. In either case, Kosmos should more carefully consider the skewed power dynamics in the conflict, the importance of international law, and the position of the Sahrawi people, before disregarding human rights for the sake of profits.

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