Tensions between Morocco and Spain have increased this month after the Moroccan parliament ratified two laws that delineated its maritime borders.
The laws — Bill 37.17 and Bill 38.17 — which had been stalled in the parliament since 2017 were unanimously passed on 22 January. The first law demarcates the Kingdom’s maritime boundaries and controversially extends the Morocco’s legal authority over the waters off the Western Sahara which is something that was not previously enshrined in law.
Under this law, Morocco has demarcated its Atlantic maritime border as running from Tangiers in the north to La Güera in the south. This would see it extend its sea border by around 1,000 kms stretching from Tarfaya — which is where its existing border ends — to La Güera.
This delineation is overdue. Morocco — in line with its signing of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982 and its ratification in 2007 — was obliged to have defined and submitted its maritime demarcation by 2017. However, due to the sensitivities and complexities of the issue, it has prevaricated over actually delineating its maritime zone until now.
The second of these laws legislates for the establishment of a 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economy Zone (EEZ).
According to the international maritime law a coastal state’s territorial sea is limited to: 12 nautical miles (NM); a contiguous zone between 12 and 24 NM; an EEZ which extends between 12 and 200 NM; while a Continental Shelf can extend up to 350 nautical miles.
Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, declared that the laws were in line with the Kingdom exercising its complete sovereignty over its land and maritime borders.
Unsurprisingly the passing of these two laws provoked an angry response from various quarters including not just Polisario but also Spain. This is because the new demarcation extends Moroccan sovereignty over waters near the Canary Islands and there is a clear overlap between the two.
There are many legal and diplomatic obstacles to Morocco’s latest claims but commentators view the passing of these laws as a way to prevent Spain from unilaterally acting to extend its control and to act as the sole party entitled to delimit the continental shelf between the Canary Islands and the Moroccan coast.
Despite the uproar the new laws have no effect in international law because the demarcation has not been submitted to, or ratified by, the UN. It is highly unlikely that the UN would respond positively if the new demarcation is to be submitted. It would be very difficult for it to sign off on granting Morocco control and sovereignty over waters off the Western Sahara because of the region’s status as a disputed territory. Indeed, the issue is so politically sensitive that the waters off the territory have not been defined since 1975.
This complex dispute will continue to fester. Morocco is not going to give up on its bid to extend its coastal border to include the waters off the Western Sahara. Rabat is determined to strengthen its claims over the territory and will continue to push for greater control including its maritime area.
For its part, Spain is not going to accept anything that appears to threaten its own maritime territorial ambitions. Madrid will also not countenance acknowledging any border demarcation that would enable Rabat to extend its maritime borders along the Western Sahara coastline. This is because of the political ramifications of such an extension, as well as the sense of historical responsibility that — because of it being the former colonial power — Spain has towards the Western Sahara region.
As such there is considerable potential for this issue to rear its head again and to escalate further.