By Lin Noueihed
LONDON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Morocco has joined France's Total and U.S. explorer Kosmos to formally pledge that their hunt for oil off the coast of disputed Western Sahara will comply with international rules and the local population would benefit from discoveries.
Morocco has issued exploration licences for blocks in Atlantic waters off Western Sahara, a desert tract that it mostly controls but which is also claimed by an Algerian-backed independence movement that deems those contracts illegal.
The Western Sahara dispute has rarely made world headlines since 1991, when a U.N.-brokered ceasefire ended a 15-year war between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario movement.
But the intentions of Total and Kosmos to step up exploration plans have brought one of Africa's oldest territorial disputes into focus. Kosmos has said it plans to drill its first exploration well off Western Sahara this year.
Morocco's two declarations, signed separately with each of the companies, represent the North African state's clearest commitment yet to respect international rules and seek local involvement in oil and gas exploration activities in an area it considers part of its historic "southern provinces".
"The exploration and production of hydrocarbon natural resources will contribute in a transparent manner to the development of the regions concerned," states the declaration signed by Kosmos and Morocco's National Office of Hydrocarbons and Mines (ONHYM) dated Dec. 19, but released on Wednesday.
Another letter signed by Total and posted on the website of ONHYM, a partner in both projects, makes a similar pledge.
Both statements also promise to consult with the local population in accordance with "international standards" including a U.N. legal opinion issued in 2002 after Rabat first awarded oil permits for Western Sahara.
The opinion found those contracts legal but stated that further exploration or exploitation would be in violation of international law if it proceeded "in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara."
NO END TO CONFLICT?
The pledges are unlikely to herald an end to the dispute over Western Sahara, however, and activists who have campaigned for self-determination of the region's Saharawi people said the pledges did not represent a serious attempt to resolve the conflict.
"If Morocco at any point had any intention of seriously consulting the people of Western Sahara they would have cooperated with the United nations in carrying out a referendum on self-determination," said Erik Hagen of Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW).
"In the declarations, they refer to it as a region of Morocco even though it is not recognised internationally as such... What is the mechanism by which Morocco will consult? Half the Saharawi people are living in refugee camps."
Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 after colonial power Spain withdrew, and fought a low level war with Polisario. The 1991 ceasefire was reached on the understanding a referendum would be held on the region's fate. That vote never took place because of disagreements over who would be eligible to vote.
Concerns over the conflict have already led some European lenders to drop a $9 billion solar project because two plants were planned for Western Sahara. Morocco said on Tuesday it had found other foreign investors for the project.
Activists have successfully campaigned in the past for investors to divest from oil firms active in the region. Hagen said WSRW was campaigning for more such divestment.
"Investors were sitting on the fence, wondering if Total would proceed or not. Now they'll get off the fence," he said.