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Govt doubts legality of Norwegian exploration in Western Sahara

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Ronny Hansen, Coordinator of the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara

«We expect concrete actions to stoop the TGS project»

Ronny Hansen, Coordinator of the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara

afrol News, 13 February - Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen has voiced sharp critiques against the seismic company TGS-Nopec. The Norwegian company is involved in the mapping of the continental shelf off Western Sahara, ordered by occupying power Morocco. Mr Helgesen questions the legality of the operation.

The Deputy Foreign Minister made these comments in a speech at an ethical investment conference arranged by TGS shareholder Storebrand, Norway's principal insurance company. According to Mr Helgesen's speech, which has been obtained by afrol News, TGS-Nopec's operations "are problematic because the Moroccan claim on Western Sahara is disputed and the population there demands self-determination."

- International law limits the right to exploit natural resources in disputed areas, unless this is done for the best of the local population and with an aim of self-determination, Mr Helgesen pointed out. He also referred to a UN legal opinion on Moroccan oil exploration off Western Sahara, which concluded that this should be avoided.

- One of the questions is whether there is a juridical limit between purely exploratory activities on one side and exploitation on the other side, said Mr Helgesen. "According to the Norwegian viewpoint, one cannot distinguish between exploration and exploitations of petroleum resources in relation to a question of sovereignty of this type," he concludes.

According to the Deputy Minister, this distinction "neither is done in the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea." Norwegian authorities therefore could "not recommend this type of exploratory activities in which TGS-Nopec are involved, even if Morocco still has not taken a final decision to whether it is actually going to exploit the possible resources."

Ronny Hansen, coordinator of the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara, applauds the comments made by Mr Helgesen. "The way we and the legal experts advising us are seeing this, it means that the Foreign Ministry is challenging TGS on the proper 'legality' of their project in Western Sahara, both in a Norwegian legal perspective and within international law," he states to afrol News.

The distinction between exploitation and exploration "is just what TGS has been clinging to until now, by saying that, even if the exploration that naturally follows our work will be illegal, out exploration activities are not illegal," comments Mr Hansen. "Mr Helgesen is now breaking down this distinction."

The Deputy Minister also commented on the ethics of Norwegian state and communal enterprises investing in TGS-Nopec while this company is into legally disputable operations. "According to our view, Norwegian business should restrain itself when it comes to activities in localities disputed by international law. The government however has no formal reason to instruct businesses or other institutions running by business principles, such as the Public Pensions Fund, not to engage in these," he said.

The Norwegian Public Pensions Fund is the biggest shareholder in TGS-Nopec, and the state-owned institution has been harshly criticised for investing in businesses that undermine the foreign policy of the country, when it comes to the Moroccan-Saharawi conflict. Contrary to the Public Pensions Fund, a large number of Norwegian communes, NGOs and individuals have sold their shares in the company, protesting its presence in Western Sahara.

- We in the Support Committee now expect the Foreign Ministry to come into line with its own wording and take concrete action to stop the TGS project in occupied Western Sahara, says Hansen, who has led the campaign to divest in TGS-Nopec. "The Ministry of Finance also has gotten a letter from us urging them to make the Public Pensions Fund divest from TGS. We are expecting a rapid answer from them," he adds.


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