The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) annual summit was abruptly cut short in Kuwait last week, leaving open the essential question of whether the blockade of Qatar imposed in June by fellow Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, should be lifted.
Those who say that such a move is rash and should be resisted have much to answer for. The land, sea, and air blockade is harming the ordinary citizens of Qatar each day. There are, for example, reports of medical supplies being cut off from patients who require treatment. Qataris and others are being placed on ‘blacklists’ by the blockading States unable to travel, disrupting family lives. Deportations, arrests, beatings, and disappearances of those accused of supporting Qatar have increased. Media outlets in Qatar that support freedom of speech are facing unreasonable demands to interfere with their fundamental right to broadcast. Not only are human rights under siege, the blockade is also taking its toil on trade to and from Qatar. As has been widely stated, these measures are an affront on international law and comity, designed to punish and humiliate Qatar and its people under the cover of unverified charges that the country is supporting terrorism.
Despite these very serious ramifications, which are only further deteriorating as time passes, the efforts to lift the blockade have unfortunately slipped down the international agenda as other crises like North Korea dominate. Yet, the blockade is an issue of great international concern, as instability in the Gulf has grave consequences for all countries who rely on its resources. It also plays out in regional conflicts like those in war ravaged Yemen and Syria. This is why world leaders have been urging mediation and reconciliation, even if little progress has yet been forged.
The broad orientation of the US Government has been towards a speedy resolution to avoid any escalation. The real motives behind the blockade have been increasingly questioned. The State Department has said that Qatar should not be singled out, and pointed to economic rivalries and personal disputes being the driving force rather than the demands made by the blockading States. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called on the blockading countries to engage to end the stand off. Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN has retracted claims she made about Qatar funding Hamas as there was no evidence to support it. This highlights a central flaw in the approach of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and its allies: damning allegations have been leveled against Qatar over ‘support for terrorism’ which lack any concrete evidence to back them up. Generalized claims are made but without substantiation.
Politicians and the public are growing weary of this game. Of course, if it is established on the basis of clear evidence that any country anywhere in the world is supporting terrorism, then all necessary measures should be deployed against that state, including using blockades and sanctions as could be lawfully imposed through the United Nations. The Qatar blockade however is a unilateral action imposed by a handful of countries acting without any lawful mandate, and without any evidence for their allegations. There is a reason the UN has not sought to impose any sanctions against Qatar – there is no proper and lawful foundation for such action. The rogue acts of a few States in the Gulf to take the law into their own hands should not be countenanced. It sets a dangerous precedent that should be discouraged so that other States do not club together to pick on weaker ones. It is a form of bullying on the international playing field that must be guarded against at all costs.
It is telling that the infamous ‘Berlin blockade’ was broken some 70 years ago over the demands imposed to lift the blockade being unlawful, completely unworkable, and morally indefensible. At an event held in Washington DC last week to renew the debate about the Qatar blockade and how to find constructive ways to resolve the crisis, experts highlighted just this point. It was stressed that the blockade violates international law, has severe human rights implications and that it lacks any justification (the link to the recording of the event is here). This combination of failings should be fatal to the blockade’s continuation.
The blockade was on the agenda of the GCC Summit, even if the main protagonists who have imposed it are digging in their heels. But ultimately, it is up to the international community to engage them to break the impasse. They should not be left unchecked to isolate Qatar on their own terms under the guise of supporting peace and stability, when all the indications are to the contrary. The issue should be on the table of the Security Council and the General Assembly to lift the blockade and secure peace, prosperity and human rights in the region.