Fight Over Qatar Blockade Returns to Top UN Court

The judges of the International Court of Justice gathered in the courtroom in The Hague, Netherlands, on Monday to hear virtual arguments in a dispute over a blockade of Qatar. (UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The latest legal battle over a 2017 blockade of Qatar by its neighbors in the Persian Gulf opened before the United Nations’ highest court on Monday with arguments from the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE argued the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, lacked jurisdiction to rule on the dispute, brought by Qatar in 2018, because the diplomatic crisis between the Gulf states was based on nationality, not race, and Qatar did not try hard enough to resolve the disagreement bilaterally. 

Qatar claims that by expelling Qatari citizens and blocking land and sea routes, the UAE violated the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or CERD, a 1969 agreement that aims to prevent racial, religious and national hatred. 

As the responding party, the UAE had the first opportunity to deliver arguments in a series of hearings to address preliminary objections to the complaint.

“Nationality was the focus of the measure, thus it falls outside of the CERD,” said UAE lawyer Lubna Qassim. She emphasized that citizens of both countries are from the same racial and ethnic group and that Qatar was even invited to join the UAE when the latter ceased to be a British protectorate in the 1970s. 

Qassim, along with all of her colleagues, addressed the court via video link due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. 

“We have legitimate national security concerns over Qatar’s conduct and we would like to see them address these concerns before we reinstate the privilege of friendship,” lawyer Abdalla Hamdan Alnaqbi told the ICJ judges.  

The UAE claims that Qatar is sponsoring terrorism by providing financial assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood. Abu Dhabi also wants Doha to stop supporting so-called “antagonistic media,” which is seen as a dig at Al Jazeera, the state-funded news station based in Qatar. 

The ICJ has already heard arguments for provisional measures from both sides. Qatar filed a request for emergency measures when it initially filed the complaint. A month later, the ICJ ruled in favor of Qatar, ordering Abu Dhabi to reunite families separated by the embargo and allow Qatari students in the UAE to finish their studies.

The UAE argued last year that Qatar was itself violating the CERD by blocking an Emirati website aimed at helping Qatari citizens with visa issues. The court rejected that argument but cautioned both sides to not do anything to further aggravate the situation. 

The ICJ ruled in favor of Qatar in a separate but related case last month. The country filed a complaint with the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, claiming that Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had 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. 

Qatar’s neighbors argued that the ICAO wasn’t capable of dealing with the larger political disputes at issue and wanted the dispute to be settled by the ICJ. The court, however, found that the U.N. aviation body is capable of handling the case, as Qatar wanted. 

In June 2017, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, the Maldives and Bahrain announced they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar ostensibly over its support for terrorist groups. The UAE is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia, while Qatar has a closer relationship with Iran. Of the countries engaged in the blockade, only the UAE is a signatory of the CERD. 

Qatar’s neighbors banned Qatar-registered airplanes and ships from utilizing their airspace and sea routes and Saudi Arabia closed Qatar’s only land crossing. The country, which imports 99% of its food supply, airlifted food from Turkey and Iran.

Hearings will resume on Wednesday.

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