The Not-So-Curious Case of the Western Sahara Sea

Reflecting on the merger of trends in the proliferation of maritime claims and disputed States.

Shipwreck along the coast of western sahara. CREDIT: IMAGE BY Jurgen, https://www.flickr.com/photos/300tdorg/3518340136.

Shipwreck along the coast of western sahara. CREDIT: IMAGE BY Jurgen, https://www.flickr.com/photos/300tdorg/3518340136.

On 5 March 2016, the government of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), led by the Polisario Front, deposited with the UN Secretary-General the coordinates and charts of its precise exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims, taking advantage of a visit of Ban Ki-Moon to Western Sahara.

"The coordinates and charts showing the EEZ outer limits will now be communicated to all UN member states trough their Permanent Missions in New York", according to the Polisario Front's press release. "In clarifying the outer limits of Western Sahara's EEZ, the SADR Government made clear that it is not willing to tolerate the illegal exploitation of its natural resources, including rich offshore fisheries resources, nor ongoing efforts by Morocco and complicit foreign companies to explore the seabed resources in Western Sahara's waters".

The EEZ claim, which extends 200 nautical miles offshore of the Western Saharan coast, was initially deposited on 22 January 2009 without precisely defining maritime borders with Morocco, Spain (Canary Islands), and Mauritania. The SADR had indicated at that time that where its maritime entitlements overlap with those of its neighbours, it will negotiate and conclude agreements delimiting maritime boundaries in accordance with international law. The SADR has also purported to grant oil and gas exploration and exploitation licences on blocks of its maritime zones, and has voiced its opposition to the granting by Morocco’s state petroleum agency of licences on blocks seaward of Western Sahara.

CREDIT: IMAGE By Kmusser [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.

CREDIT: IMAGE By Kmusser [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Given that the status of the SADR as an independent State remains in dispute,[1] its maritime zone claim (and granting of oil and gas licences on this basis) raises complex issues of public international law. Claims to maritime zones are contingent upon sovereignty over the coastal area concerned. As the International Court of Justice put it in the North Sea Continental Shelf cases, "the land is the legal source of the power which a State may exercise over territorial extensions to seaward".[2] Robin Cleverly and Stephen Fietta, in their recent monograph on maritime delimitation, rightly point to "the need to resolve land boundary, island, or other sovereignty disputes related to land territory as a necessary precursor to any maritime delimitation exercise".[3]

Maritime policies of unrecognised or de facto States (or entities) are likely to attract more and more attention, as a number of such entities take steps to assert rights over their (potential) maritime domains. Suffice it consider the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (see our previous post here), Somaliland, or Abkhazia. Looking ahead, this relevance and intricacy of this issue will develop further in light of additional claims of self-determination which remain unsettled in various regions, as well as the expansion of continental shelf claims beyond 200 nautical miles from shore.


[1] The United Nations, the United States and the League of Arab States do not recognise the SADR as an independent state; however, it is a member of the African Union and has been recognised by approximately one-third of the world’s countries. See, e.g., Report on Legal Issues Involved in the Western Sahara Dispute: Use of Natural Resources (New York City Bar Association, Committee on United Nations, April 2011).

[2] North Sea Continental Shelf (Germany/Denmark) (Germany/Netherlands), Judgment, ICJ Reports 1969, p. 3, para 96.

[3] Stephen Fietta and Robin Cleverly, Practitioner's Guide to Maritime Boundary Delimitation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) 28.