Top UN Court Rules for Qatar in Air Blockade Case

The International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — An airspace blockade dispute among several Persian Gulf nations should be resolved by an international aviation agency, the United Nations’ high court held Tuesday in a win for Qatar.  

Before a panel of both physically and virtually present judges, International Court of Justice President Abdulqawi Yusuf read aloud a ruling siding with Qatar and sending the airspace dispute back to the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, a U.N. agency.

“ICAO council did not err in their decision” that they had jurisdiction over the case, Yusuf said on behalf of the 16-judge panel at The Hague-based court known as the ICJ.  

The dispute dates back to a 2017 blockade of Qatar by its neighbors after they cut diplomatic ties with the country and imposed land, air and sea blockades, ostensibly over Qatar’s alleged support for terrorist groups. 

Qatar filed a complaint with the ICAO claiming that Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates 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. 

In hearings on jurisdiction in the case last year, the four neighboring countries argued that the ICAO wasn’t capable of dealing with the larger political disputes at issue and said the disagreement should instead be settled by the ICJ.

“The ICAO is unable to deal with the issues beyond those of civil aviation,” lawyer Payam Akhavan said on behalf of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE during a hearing in December.

The countries had appealed a number of procedural decisions by the ICAO, hoping to convince the ICJ that it should take jurisdiction over the matter.

But the court disagreed Tuesday, holding that the ICAO had jurisdiction and Qatar had met the requirements to file its complaint there. The case now returns to the ICAO. 

“We are confident that the ICAO will ultimately find these actions unlawful,” Jassim Saif Ahmed Al-Sulaiti, Qatar’s minister of transport, said in a statement after the ruling.  

The four neighboring countries have accused Qatar of noncompliance with the Riyadh agreements, handwritten agreements between the six Persian Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain that were signed in 2013 and 2014. 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.

Qatar and the UAE are also engaged in a separate legal battle at the ICJ over the blockade.

The UAE expelled Qatari citizens from the country during the fallout and Qatar argued that action violated the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Arguments were heard in that case last year. The court rejected UAE’s request for preliminary measures in June 2019.  

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