Palestinian efforts to win unilateral recognition through international organizations like UNESCO and organizational courts like that of the international soccer federation FIFA have long been a diplomatic source of tension because those organizations’ recognition of Palestinian statehood and associated court judgments allow the Palestinian Authority to bypass its commitment to negotiate an agreement that was at the core of the Oslo Accords.


The Palestinians may have cleared a path for such actions, but the Polisario Front, a Marxist Cold War relic based in Algeria have taken the strategy to a new level by convincing third parties to seize ships carrying cargo with origins in territory it claims. Last month, for example, the Polisario convinced a Panamanian court to seize a Danish ship carrying phosphate mined in the Western Sahara, an area administered by Morocco but claimed by the Polisario as the self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.


Earlier this week, the Panamanian court ruled against the seizure. Reuters explains:


Polisario in May filed a claim to hold the Danish charter vessel Ultra Innovation, carrying 55,000 tonnes of phosphate rock from Morocco’s Office Cherifien de Phosphate (OCP), through Panama to the Port of Vancouver for the Canadian company Agrium. The detention of the vessel was a new legal tactic by the independence movement in its conflict with Morocco over Western Sahara, a disputed territory where the two sides fought a war until a 1991 ceasefire… By trying to seize Moroccan phosphate vessels, Polisario had tested a European court ruling last year that Western Sahara should not be considered part of the Moroccan kingdom in EU and Moroccan deals. Polisario said phosphate shipped from the disputed territory does not belong to Morocco.


Strike one against the Polisario, but they are trying again with a South African court due to render a judgment on another seized cargo that could come as early as today.


If the South African court rules in favor of the Polisario—and, after Algeria and Cuba, South Africa has been the biggest patron of the Polisario—then expect the tactic to replicate far beyond the dusty desert of the Western Sahara. If European courts and diplomats now demand Israeli products originating in the West Bank be labeled as such, then the next step might be for courts to seize Israeli products to hand them over to the Palestinian Authority. That would indeed be a dangerous precedent not only because of the many European secessionist struggles—from the Basques and Catalans to North Cyprus and Tartarstan—but also because it could unleash an age of judicial piracy and undercut negotiated settlements everywhere.


Not every people can be independent, nor is every liberation struggle legitimate. If liberation groups are to win diplomatic recognition and independence against the backdrop of territorial disputes, then the proper way for them to do so is by direct negotiation. Partisan European and South African courts may believe they are advancing justice, but by negating centuries of diplomatic process, they may very well turn terrorism into a lottery and throw a wrench into diplomatic negotiations across the globe.

Michael Rubin