Qatar announced on Sunday, June 10, that it has filed a discrimination complaint against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) before the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) over what it describes as human rights violations. Just over a year ago, the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain cut off diplomatic relations and imposed an economic blockade on Doha for its alleged support of terrorism and its supposed burgeoning friendships with both Israel and Iran. While the move undoubtedly represents a deepening of the rift between Qatar and its neighbors, the involvement of the U.N. might be just what is needed to manage the dispute, since the U.S. and Kuwait appear to lack the needed legitimacy to mediate the conflict thus far. Whether the ICJ is able to deal with the conflict in a timely manner and whether its decision is accepted by the Gulf nations will determine whether it is able to alleviate the tension in the region.
The blockade has cut off transportation between Qatar and its neighbors and forced Qatari citizens to leave the UAE. This has resulted in Qataris being denied property rights as well as access to medical care, education, and other basic services in the UAE. The UAE has also banned Qataris from passing through the UAE and closed access to Qatar by both air and sea.
Qatar has thus far navigated the blockade by diversifying its imports towards new trading partners such as Oman, Turkey and Iran. Its status as one of the world’s wealthiest nations has allowed it to draw on reserves of billions of dollars from its sovereign wealth fund to sustain its economy despite the blockade. The economic effects on Doha are not negligible, however, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates the damage to the Qatar economy at around $40 billion.
Qatar has condemned the UAE’s allegations that it supports terrorism as “fake news” and has accused the UAE and its Gulf allies of trying to strip it of its sovereignty. The government of Qatar said in a statement on June 10, “[A]s set forth in detail in Qatar’s application to the International Court, the UAE led these actions, which have had a devastating effect on the human rights of Qataris and residents of Qatar.” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani added that the blockade was “unlawful” and has “torn apart families” that “deserve to be reunited.”
In particular, Qatar claims the UAE’s actions constitute a violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). CERD is an international convention that prohibits racial discrimination as well as discrimination based on nationality. Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are all signatories of the agreement, though only Qatar and the UAE have consented to the ICJ’s jurisdiction. That means that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain do not agree to be bound by the provisions of article 22 of the convention and that “any dispute should be referred to the International Court of Justice only with the approval of the States Parties to the dispute.” The UAE, however, does agree to comply with ICJ jurisdiction.
The ICJ is the U.N.’s primary judicial organ, which aims to settle legal disputes between member states.
Qatar has asked the ICJ to require the UAE to end the boycott, reinstate Qataris’ rights and pay reparations for the damages done. However, an ICJ ruling will not come quickly. International human rights lawyer Toby Cadman has warned Doha that a ruling from the court will likely take months. He stated, “[T]he U.N. office of the high commissioner for human rights has acknowledged that a complaint has been filed against the UAE …. [W]hat we’re likely to see over the coming months are proceedings in the ICJ, assuming the court accepts jurisdiction to deal with this, which it is fully expected to do.” Moreover, the ICJ has no real enforcement mechanism for implementing its decisions if the member state does not agree to adhere to the jurisdiction of the court. The ICJ would, therefore, not be effective in dealing with Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Bahrain but could sanction the UAE, which at least in theory, would have to comply.
Doha’s decision to file the complaint is a logical step given that mediation efforts led by the U.S. and Kuwait have thus far failed. The U.S., which houses its largest airbase in the Middle East, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Doha, is likely not viewed by the other Gulf nations as an impartial player that is capable of mediating the conflict fairly.
However, it remains to be seen whether Qatar’s complaint will be effective at ending the blockade given the limitations of the ICJ. Instead, the move could be perceived by the UAE and its Gulf allies as a further escalation of hostilities.