What started as just another hail-mary claim from one of the many separatist groups in the world recently shifted into a potential escalation which makes the international community and global governance bodies uneasy. At stake, are the security of global trading lines, the consideration regulating entities are given around the world, and their capacity to solve contingencies.
The story started in the 1960s, when Spain rescinded its controlling authority over Western Sahara, mostly a strip of desert sand, but home to some people named the Sahrawi. Unable to administer the land for lack of government structures, neighboring Morocco took over, after UN clearance. Spain had conducted little or no investment into the area's development, but Morocco saw the potential of the strip. Nowadays, its imports allow for around 100 Gigawatts of electrical power to be produced in the land, enabling the extraction of resources and the development of the local economy.
The Polisario has been trying, ever since the area became economically interesting, to gain control of the entire Western Sahara and oust Morocco altogether, a matter which is being handled by the United Nations. Last May, as the UN negotiation process was about to be stirred again, the Polisario attempted to beef up its position so that it could arrive at the bargaining table and put the gun on Morocco's head. It therefore showered courthouses around the world with requests that any goods originating from Western Sahara , en route to their final destination, be seized wherever they are. Naturally, most courthouses know that their role is to rule upon legal disputes, and not political ones which are left to governing bodies - in keeping with the rule of separation of powers.
However, one courthouse had apparently never heard of this fundamental democratic rule, in South Africa. In Port Elizabeth, the local court ordered that the cargo Cherry Blossom, on its way to New Zealand with fertilizer phosphate rock, be arrested in the harbor as it stopped to refuel . Since then, the Polisario has been throwing its weight around, through its unofficial press organization -- the Western Sahara Resource Watch, sending threatening mails to businesses around the world and trying to strike while the iron is hot. "PCS has imported phosphates from Western Sahara for processing in Geismar, Louisiana, for decades. We would like to inform you that trade with and transportation of mineral resources from occupied Western Sahara is politically controversial, highly unethical and potentially against international law.", it sent to a Louisiana company last month .
The United Nations has been very silent on the matter, as any coverage would highlight how a local separatist group can baffle its authority.
The scent of sulphur around the Polisario comes in two waves. The first is that the motives may well be more financial than democratic. Its claim is to allegedly enforce the Sahrawi people's wish for independence. However, scrutiny on the matter shows a disturbing fact : the Sahrawis stretch across the strip of desert, all the way into Algeria, where they are parked in dire conditions, in refugee camps. On the Moroccan side of the Sahrawi environment, because companies have been developing business in a sustainable way for decades, life is far better for the Sahrawis who find employment, pay, quality housing, services and security. So, despite many reasons to defend the Sahrawi in Algeria, but with danger at key, the Polisario chose to fight on easier ground, where there is less risk, and more money, leaving the Algerian Sahrawis to their dreadful fate. In fact, the European Parliament called upon the commission to investigate, earlier this month, regarding exactions and human rights abuses reported in the Tindouf refugee camp, co-managed by the Polisario and the Algerian Army. "Critics, however, continue to allege that the Saharawis are prisoners in the camps, restricted by both the Polisario Front and their Algerian sponsors from leaving in large numbers. ", the OSF reported.
The second scent is the open defiance to international law. For many decades, the international community has striven to reach a certain set of agreements, and modi operandi to sort out differences. Among these agreements, the protection of international trade, definitions of competent authorities, and the creation of international justice bodies. By cutting through the robe of the law, the Polisario is threatening to send it all to the ground, and shows no intention of returning to a more law-abiding attitude. As Xanthe Hall, who writes for Open Democracy, says"we need international law to provide that structure for global security and stability -- now more than ever." Michael Rubin, adds for AEI: "Increasingly, however, South African grandstanding and a judiciary willing to put partisan ideology above law threatens to derail international processes, reward terror, and effectively encourage piracy.".
Despite the matter having made relatively little noise in mainstream media, this affair has tremendous potential ramifications. For the first time, a local court has taken it upon itself to declare itself competent on a matter outside of its jurisdiction, effectively grabbing the case out of the United Nations' hands. The UN has struggled, ever since its creation, to maintain its authority, challenged by nature by sovereign states which possess their armed forces, unlike the UN. If the UN does not find a way to resume its control on the Western Sahara question, and restore its negotiation process to its initial course, this could be the beginning of a new era, where its voice will no longer be heard at all.