Are three Danish municipalities and a Danish importer helping to prop up Africa’s last colonizing power in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, by buying conflict salt in violation of international law? The Danish NGO Afrika Kontakt investigates the matter.
Where does the salt that arrived in Denmark from El Aaiún (Laayoune) Harbour in occupied Western Sahara on 2 February really come from? This is a question that the Danish municipalities of Aabenraa, Haderslev and Tønder ought to be asking themselves, after they struck a deal with Danish salt distributor Dansk Vejsalt last year.
Because while the question might seem simple enough to grasp, the answer is less clear.
Against international law Western Sahara has been colonised by Morocco for 40 years, since the Spanish left the territory in 1975. The UN Secretariat has been clear that the exploitation of mineral resources in Western Sahara is in violation of international law, unless the indigenous people of that territory benefit and agree to the trade, something that the Saharawis of Western Sahara have not.
As the representative in Denmark of Western Sahara’s liberation movement Polisario (who the UN recognise as the legitimate representatives of the Saharawis), Abba Malainin has stated “the Saharawis have never okayed the salt mining and selling of salt in Western Sahara”.
Therefore, any trade in products, such as salt from one of the salt mines in Western Sahara, takes place in violation of international law.
Veiled in secrecy Dansk Vejsalt has previously bought their salt from the Austin-based American company Crystal Mountain Sel Sahara who mines its salt from the Oum Dbaa mine just south of the international border between Morocco and Western Sahara– in other words, in occupied territory.
Crystal Mountain’s CEO, Carlos Sousa admits in a mail from 2 January that they produce salt from Western Sahara, and that “in 2013/2014 we had the last sales to Denmark”. In August 2014, Dansk Vejsalt said in a press statement that the fact that their salt was from Western Sahara did not violate international law. “De-icing salt from Western Sahara is not illegal”, stated Stig Anthony from Dansk Vejsalt in a press release.
Dansk Vejsalt’s new supplier is a new company, Industrial Sand & Aggregates, another Austin-based company. On the attestation of the shipment to Denmark, the salt is supposedly from the Tazgha mine near Akhfennir, just north of the Morocco-Western Sahara border.
Industrial Sand & Aggregate’s website contains no details whatsoever about the company, apart from an email address and telephone number. The domain for the website was bought as recent as 1 December 2015 from GoDaddy.com.
Trust and documentation Nevertheless, the Municipality of Aabenraa said in a press release on 2 February that they “trust that Dansk Vejsalt supplies salt from Morocco and not from Western Sahara”, and head of the technical operations department in Aabenraa, Jesper Kristensen, told local newspaper Jydske Vestkysten that “we have documentation that shows that the salt comes from Morocco, not Western Sahara”. Haderslev’s mayor Hans Peter Geil also told the press that he trusted Dansk Vejsalt. Nevertheless, Micahel Erbs, an engineer from the Municipality of Aabenraa, admitted in a mail that “we do not know anything about the company [Industrial Sand & Aggregates]”.
No answers The telephone number on the website of Industrial Sand & Aggregates and the telephone number on the attestation for the salt deliverance from El Aaiún, both turn out to belong to Paul Khuri, who is Vice President of the American company Lonquist, whose President Richard Lonquist is President of Crystal Mountain Sel Sahara and who use the same offices as Crystal Mountain Sel Sahara in Austin, Texas.
As both numbers send the caller straight to Paul Khuri’s answering machine, and since an email sent to Paul Khuri in early February requesting information of the overlap in personnel and location has been left unanswered, one can only guess as to the relation between Crystal Mountain Sel Sahara and Industrial Sand & Aggregates.
Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Public Relations Manager Jenny Steward also says in a mail that they are not familiar with Industrial Sand & Aggregates or any “salt deals”.
And Dansk Vejsalt has also not responded to several requests for further documentation of where the salt is from, and neither has the company that owns the ship that transported the salt from El Aaiún to Denmark, Celia Schiffahrt Gesellschaft / SK Baltik.
One might also argue that regardless of where the salt comes from, shipping it out from a harbour in occupied Western Sahara could be seen to be in violation of international law, as there is bound to be payments and other dealings with both the harbour and Moroccan colonial institutions. It is also in effect a legitimization of the Moroccan colonisation.
Can terminate contract Nothing in Dansk Vejsalt’s contract with the municipalities specifies where the salt comes from (something that also goes for Dansk Vejsalt’s contracts with supermarket chain Aldi for de-icing salt that Aldi sells in 15 kg bags in its supermarkets).
The contract with the municipality of Aabenraa does state that the contract runs from 1 October 2015 to 30 September 2017, however, and that the municipality buys the salt on behalf of the Danish Road Directorate. The contract also states that Dansk Vejsalt was chosen because they offered the lowest price and that the municipality can terminate the contract with immediate effect if Dansk Vejsalt violates it, for instance if Dansk Vejsalt or its subcontractors violate international law and/or the international treaties that Denmark has ratified.
The Danish Road Directorate furthermore stated in 2014, that “the supplier must ensure that the salt does not come from areas with unresolved legal status such as Western Sahara”.
And the fact that a document from another company, Dutch Zoetdepot, mentioning a supply of salt for Dansk Vejsalt is used a couple of months before the actual deal with Industrial Sand & Aggregates to “verify” that the salt bound for Denmark is produced in Morocco makes the matter all the more suspicious.
‘Not from Western Sahara’ In an email to the Municipality of Aabenraa, Dansk Vejsalt states that the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has confirmed that the salt is not from Western Sahara. In 2013, Dansk Vejsalt also claimed that the Ministry “give their stamp of approval” on the salt that they then admitted came from Western Sahara.
But what the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had actually stated, in a mail to Dansk Vejsalt on 12 January 2016, is that “Akhfennir is in Morocco and products from here are thus not subject to the Danish policy in regard to public and private engagement in Western Sahara”.
And this was in reply to a mail from Dansk Vejsalt from 6 January, where the company has noted: “Now our product is from Akhfennir in Morocco. I would like you to confirm that trade from products from this location are not covered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommendation, not to purchase products from Western Sahara”.
So it is a case of circular reasoning. The Ministry is apparently taking Dansk Vejsalt’s word for the fact that the salt is from Morocco and not Western Sahara, and Dansk Vejsalt is using this to claim that the Ministry is vouching for the salt.
Tore up the contract Several Danish municipalities have nonetheless continued to deal with Dansk Vejsalt. But the municipality of Gladsaxe, which had made a similar deal in 2014 with Dansk Vejsalt, has decided to terminate the contract with Dansk Vejsalt on 13 January.
Their initial doubts came after they were contacted by the Danish Solidarity organisation Afrika Kontakt in regard to Dansk Vejsalt’s dealings with salt from Western Sahara, and a member of the Gladsaxe City Council had requested information in regard to this. Gladsaxe subsequently demanded of Dansk Vejsalt that the de-icing salt the municipality was buying was not from Western Sahara.
When Gladsaxe later became aware of the shipment in February arriving from El Aaiún, they demanded proof from Dansk Vejsalt that the salt was not from Western Sahara, and when this proof was not forthcoming, they decided to terminate the contract.
“The de-icing salt meant for Gladsaxe was shipped from a harbour in Western Sahara. Furthermore, it is the same Moroccan management who have authorised the mining of the salt on both sides of the border (Morocco and Western Sahara). Both these matters show that the connection to Western Sahara is maintained”, Gladsaxe wrote in a statement. As of March, Dansk Vejsalt has made no demands for compensation from Gladsaxe for breach of contract.
EU annuls trade agreement with Morocco Gladsaxe’s termination of the contract came only a couple of weeks after the Court of Justice of the European Union had annulled the EU Council’s 2012 decision to extend operation of a Morocco-EU trade agreement to Western Sahara.
“This judgement shows how clear-cut the Western Sahara Sahara case is legally”, stated Western Sahara Resource Watch’s Sara Eyckmans at the time. “Neither Morocco nor the EU have the right to exploit the resources of Western Sahara”.
In 2012, Western Sahara Resource Watch had documented in two reports that Morocco deliberately, systematically and illegally mislabels products such as tomatoes grown in Western Sahara as coming from “Morocco”, and that many of these products end up in European supermarkets.
The organisation had also reported in 2010 that Norwegian fish oil GC Rieber was forced to stop purchasing its fish oil from Western Sahara, after it was revealed that its oil was from the colony, not “an unknown harbour in Morocco” as it had previously been filed to Norwegian customs.
Legitimising colonisation Back in Denmark, several local politicians in the three Danish municipalities, including city counsellors Jan Riber Jakobsen from the Conservatives and Gert Nordklitgaard from the Red Green Alliance in Aabenraa and Svend Brandt from the Red Green Alliance in Haderslev, have clearly stated that they wish to get to the bottom of the issue.
Several national politicians have also voiced their concern.
“If the salt does come from Western Sahara, it is highly problematic”, Foreign Affairs spokesman for the Danish Socialist People’s Party and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Holger K. Nielsen told the press in January.
“This means that we are legitimising the colonisation of Western Sahara”.
Morocco occupies the major part of its neighbouring country, Western Sahara. Entering into business deals with Moroccan companies or authorities in the occupied territories gives an impression of political legitimacy to the occupation. It also gives job opportunities to Moroccan settlers and income to the Moroccan government. Western Sahara Resource Watch demands foreign companies leave Western Sahara until a solution to the conflict is found.
It's not easy keeping up with all the different legal proceedings relating to Western Sahara. For the sake of clarity, here's an overview of the five different cases at the Court of Justice of the European Union.