Western Sahara: UN Legal Counsel renders opinion on oil prospecting contracts

Hans Corell

5 February 2002 – The United Nations top legal officer has determined that oil prospecting by foreign companies in disregard of the interests of the people of Western Sahara would violate international legal principles dealing with territories administered by another country.

In a letter made public today at UN Headquarters in New York, Legal Counsel Hans Corell responded to a Security Council request for an opinion on the legality of certain contracts signed by Morocco with foreign companies to explore for mineral resources in Western Sahara.

Mr. Corell noted in his analysis that the contracts in question, which deal with oil reconnaissance and evaluation, did not entail the exploitation or physical removal of the mineral resources, adding that “no benefits have as of yet accrued.”

The Legal Counsel concludes that as such the specific contracts dealt with in the Security Council’s request were not in themselves illegal. If, however, further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed without respect to the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, the contracts would be in violation of the international legal principles dealing with non-self-governing territories.

The Council is expected to hold consultations on Western Sahara near the end of this month.

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