Dispute Over Qatar Airspace Blockade Lands in UN High Court

The International Court of Justice on Monday, the first day of hearings in a dispute between Qatar and Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Photo via UN/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – Four Middle Eastern countries delivered the first round of oral arguments Monday before the International Court of Justice in a dispute over airspace restrictions, claiming the court has jurisdiction to take up their case against Qatar.

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates appeared together before the ICJ, the United Nations’ highest judicial body in The Hague, to outline their claims against Qatar in a case dating back to the 2017 blockade of that country.

Several Middle Eastern nations have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar ostensibly over its support for terrorists groups. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, for example, imposed land, air and sea blockades and also expelled Qatari citizens living in those countries.

Before a courtroom filled mostly with nationals from each of the five countries involved in the case, representatives from Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE argued Monday that the ICJ is a better venue for the dispute than the U.N.’s aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO.

“This case is about the proper exercise of judicial functions of a U.N. specialized agency,” said Payam Akhavan, an international lawyer and professor at Montreal’s McGill University who is representing Egypt.

Qatar instituted proceedings before the ICAO in 2017, claiming Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE violated the Convention on International Civil Aviation by cutting off air travel from the peninsular nation. Sometimes called the Chicago Convention, the 1944 agreement allows planes to fly into foreign airspace and created the ICAO to oversee international air transport.

The ICAO ruled last year that it had jurisdiction to adjudicate the dispute. Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have asked the ICJ to overrule that decision.

“The ICAO council is not competent to adjudicate,” the countries wrote in their 2018 complaint.

Qatar, which saw the ICAO’s acceptance of jurisdiction as a sign of a positive outcome in the case, is arguing against the ICJ handling the case.

In 2017, the other countries accused Qatar of noncompliance with the Riyadh agreements, a series of deals between the six Persian Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain that were signed in 2013 and 2014.

In those handwritten agreements, the countries pledged to support stability in Egypt, cease support for terrorist groups and not support “antagonistic media,” which is seen as a dig at Al Jazeera, the state-funded news station based in Qatar.

As a part of their blockade, the countries restricted Qatari-flagged aircraft from entering their airspace. The UAE’s expulsion of Qatari citizens from within its borders led to another case at the ICJ earlier this year. That case is expected to be decided next year.

Qatar will present its opening arguments in the airspace dispute on Tuesday.

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