The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), a Dublin-based pressure group, says it has made a formal complaint to the Irish government about oil exploration firm San Leon Energy and its activities in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
The complaint has been filed with the National Contact Point (NCP), a unit within the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation which oversees Irish companies’ compliance with corporate guidelines set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In its complaint, GLAN alleges that San Leon failed to secure the consent of the Western Saharan people (also known as the Sahrawi) before drilling for oil on their land, thereby contravening their human rights.
San Leon, which is headquartered in Dublin and listed on the London Stock Exchange’s junior market AIM, has a stake in a number of exploration licenses including the Tarfaya and Zag licenses in Western Sahara, granted by Morocco’s Office National des Hydrocarbures et des Mines (ONHYM). Morocco has claimed Western Sahara as an integral part of its own territory since the mid-1970s but its claim is not widely recognized and the area is viewed by the United Nations as a non-self-governing territory.
There appears to be no ongoing activity in either the Tarfaya or Zag license areas. In its annual report for 2017, San Leon said it was in “ongoing discussions” with the Moroccan authorities over the Zag license. The company said ONHYM had contacted it during the year “to take control of the bank guarantee on Zag and to request a further payment for work not performed”. San Leon said it believed the situation “should be subject to force majeure due to the security situation”. It also said there was no activity currently planned “on any other Moroccan assets” and the carrying values of those assets, including both Tarfaya and Zag, was reported at zero.
San Leon did not respond to questions for this article about its activities in Morocco or Western Sahara.
In its complaint to the NCP, GLAN has asked the body to determine whether San Leon is complying with the OECD guidelines. These rules are described by the Irish government as “voluntary principles and standards for responsible business conduct” and, as such, the NCP has a limited range of tools it can use.
If the NCP finds the company is not in compliance, GLAN has asked it to recommend that San Leon relinquish its license rights in Western Sahara and apologize to the Western Sahara people. It has also asked the NCP to call on the Irish government to advise companies against operating in Western Sahara without gaining consent from Sahrawi representatives.
“San Leon’s activities in Western Sahara contribute to the maintenance of an illegal annexation and denial of the internationally-recognized right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination in their territory,” said GLAN legal advisor Valentina Azarova. “Companies like San Leon benefit from Morocco’s illicit economy in Western Sahara and contribute to the severity of ongoing human rights violations.”
It is not clear if the Irish authorities would be willing to advise companies against operating in Western Sahara, as GLAN would like. However, government ministers have in the past opposed commercial ventures in the territory.
Speaking in the Irish parliament in January 2011, then foreign minister Brian Cowen, said “any exploration and exploitation activities that proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara would be in violation of the principles of international law… The government would expect that any Irish company operating abroad would have due regard to the principles of international law and the rights of the inhabitants of the territory.”
GLAN says its complaint is supported by a number of non-governmental organizations from Western Sahara, including the Sahrawi Campaign Against the Plunder, the Association for the Monitoring of Resources and for the Protection of the Environment in Western Sahara, and the Sahrawi Committee for the Protection of Natural Resources, as well as the Polisario Front, the internationally recognized representatives of the Sahrawi people.
San Leon is the latest in a long line of companies to be drawn into the dispute over Western Sahara. In recent years a succession of legal actions have been taken against companies operating in the territory or buying resources from there, including ones involving phosphate exports and fisheries.
The Irish parliament is currently considering the Economic Activity in Occupied Territories Bill, which targets business activity in disputed territories. The bill is currently at the committee stage in Seanad Éireann, the upper house of parliament. At the time the bill was launched it was seen as being mainly aimed at Israeli occupation of the West Bank, but GLAN says the bill is also relevant to the situation in Western Sahara. However, the Irish government has indicated its opposition to the bill.