French-made weapons used to occupy Western sahara

Aircraft and warships sold by French companies to Morocco have recently been implicated in Morocco’s occupation of the territory of Western Sahara, an open source intelligence investigation by Disclose and its partners found.

Western Sahara, a former Spanish territory on the northwest coast of Africa, has been occupied by neighboring Morocco since 1975. A massive berm — the second longest defensive fortification ever, after only the Great Wall of China — divides the areas controlled by Morocco and those inhabited by native Sahrawi people. Presently, Morocco controls eighty percent of the territory.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 Moroccan citizens have settled in Western Sahara with the help of the Moroccan government in the course of the occupation, according to a 2016 report by the U.S.-based nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. In turn, more than 100,000 Saharawis people have been displaced; many have lived in refugee camps in Algeria for generations.

"In Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, the overwhelming presence of security forces, the violations of the rights to life, liberty, personal integrity, and freedom of expression, assembly, and association create a state of fear and intimidation that violates the rule of law and respect for human rights of the Sahrawi people,” reads a 2013 report by the same organization.

Thousands of people have been killed and tortured resisting Morocco’s occupation. By allowing french companies to trade with Morocco, the French government may be complicit in the violation of numerous international humanitarian rules.

French-made warships and aircraft help Morocco occupy Western Sahara

Most of Morocco’s french-made Mirage F1 fighter aircraft were renovated as part of a €350 million contract signed in the mid-2000s between the Moroccan government and a joint venture of French companies Safran and Thales, according to press reports. Disclose has analyzed satellite photos and video footage, finding that F1s were present at the Laayoune airbase — in Western Sahara — in August 2017, December 2017, and January 2018. Satellite photos show the F1s being serviced by a vehicle.

In a 2018 interview, the commercial director of Airbus Helicopters for Africa stated that more than 100 Airbus helicopters were in service in Morocco. He also indicated that Airbus was responsible for maintaining the flying condition of these helicopters. The helicopter manufacturing division of Airbus is headquartered in Marignane, France.

Satellite images place four Aerospatiale Gazelles and four Aerospatiale SA 330 Puma helicopters at the Laayoune air base, in Western Sahara, in 2015, 2017, and 2018. In 1992, the helicopter divisions of Germany’s Deutsche Aerospace and France’s Aerospatiale merged to become the Eurocopter Group, which later took on the name Airbus Helicopters.

French-supplied warships

According to press coverage at the time, in 2011, a 70-meter heavy patrol ship developed and sold by the French company Radico Marine to Morocco was ceremonially handed over to the Moroccan Navy in Lorient, France. Satellite photos place the vessel at the Western Saharan port of Dakhla in December 2018.

In 2015, the Moroccan Navy commissioned the construction of a 50-meter “landing craft tank” barge capable of unloading on beaches and wharves from the French naval engineering firm Piriou. Satellite photos confirm that the vessel was present in Agadir, Morocco in January, February, and March 2019, and in El Marsa, Western Sahara, in April 2019.

Piriou handled renovation of the 65-meter Moroccan naval patrol vessel “Rais Bargach,” which was completed in France in July 2017. Satellite photos confirm this vessel was present in Dakhla, Western Sahara, in June 2019.

Responses

In response to requests for comment from Disclose and its investigative partners, the Prime Minister's office provided a statement that, translated from French, reads in part, "France exercises a strict, transparent and responsible control on exports of war materials.” The emailed response specifies that the "question of the conditions of use of weapons is examined at the time of the evaluation of the application for authorization (before the license's issue)," and that "authorization is granted based on the information available at the time of this review." The statement concludes: "If the conditions of use envisaged during the granting of the export license change, France then endeavors to convey this information and to act in all possible ways to drive a de-escalation, in accordance with its the role as a permanent member of the Security Council, and with the fundamental principles of its diplomacy."

The Conseil des Industries de Défense françaises, an association of defense industry groups, replied to requests for comment with the following statement, translated from french: "The action of industrialists falls within the strict framework of french regulations of the sale of military equipment for export. No sale of systems is carried out without prior authorization issued by an interministerial commission placed with the Prime Minister and presided on by the Secretary General of Defense and National Security. The industrialists are willing to apply the law in all its rigor and scope and are in compliance with international principles relative to the rights of man and of businesses.”

Camille Baker

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