UN High Court Turns Away Persian Gulf Blockade Dispute

The court’s ruling that it has no jurisdiction over the case comes less than a month after Qatar and the United Arab Emirates signed an agreement to reinstate relations. 

International Court of Justice President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf delivers the court’s decision in a dispute between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on Thursday. (UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The United Nations’ top court found on Thursday that it lacks jurisdiction to hear a dispute between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates over a yearslong blockade.  

“The court does not have jurisdiction … since the measures complained of therein by that state do not entail, either by their purpose or by their effect, racial discrimination,” International Court of Justice President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said, reading the decision out loud to a mostly empty courtroom in The Hague. The court is closed to outsiders due to Covid-19 restrictions and the parties were connected by video link.

In an effort to force Doha to distance itself from Turkey and Iran, and ostensibly as punishment for its alleged support for terrorist groups, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and effectively blockaded the peninsular country in 2017. The Persian Gulf nations grounded Qatari planes and forbade ships bound for Qatar from using their ports, and Saudi Arabia closed Qatar’s only land border. The UAE also expelled Qatari citizens from the country. 

Qatar accused the UAE of “discrimination against Qatar and Qatari citizens” when it filed suit in the ICJ in 2017, arguing Abu Dhabi had violated the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or CERD, a 1969 agreement which promotes racial equality, outlaws hate speech and criminalizes membership in racist organizations. 

The Gulf nations wrapped up hearings in the case last September. An attorney for Qatar argued at the time that the sanctions were motivated by racial discrimination.

“Qataris are a protected group under the convention by virtue of their distinct national origin,” said Vaughan Lowe of Essex Court Chambers.

But the UAE pushed back, noting the CERD treaty protects groups against discrimination “based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin.” 

“This is a nationality case, not a national origin case,” UAE’s attorney Scott Sheeran told The Hague-based court.

The ICJ agreed in its ruling Thursday.

“In the view of the court, the definition of racial discrimination contained in the various drafts demonstrates that the drafters did in fact have in mind the differences between national origin and nationality,” Judge Yusuf said.

The 17-judge panel found the treaty “was clearly not intended to cover every instance of differentiation between persons based on their nationality.”

“Differentiation on the basis of nationality is common and is reflected in the legislation of most states parties,” the ruling states.  

Decisions of the court are final and cannot be appealed.

The blockade ultimately backfired, pushing Qatar closer to Iran and Turkey, which airlifted in medical and food supplies and sent a patriotic wave through the country.

Last month, the Gulf nations signed an agreement to end the blockade. The deal was signed the day after Saudi Arabia announced it would open its airspace and borders to Qatar. 

In a related case, the ICJ held that the U.N.’s civil aviation organization could hear a more limited dispute between Qatar and the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia over the air blockade. 

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