Qatar's minor victory at the International Court of Justice is symbolic in practice, but when it comes to the standoff between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc, the battle over public perception is key.
On July 23, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that certain actions taken by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) against Qatar since the Gulf dispute erupted have been in violation of international law.
The ICJ found the UAE guilty of breaching Articles 1 and 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). On June 11, Qatar filed this lawsuit only against the UAE because the other Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) members—Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—are not signatories of CERD.
Ultimately, the ICJ accepted three out of the nine provisional measures requested by Qatar, ruling that Emirati authorities must reunite family members separated by the air blockade, permit Qatari students to freely travel and finish their studies in the UAE, and grant Qatari nationals access to judicial services in the Emirates.
Qatari and Emirati officials and media outlets responded to the ICJ ruling differently, portraying the decision as favorable to their respective sides. Qatar’s leadership and press hailed the ruling as a victory for Doha as well as the international system.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: "Qatar is very pleased that the court has not been affected by attempts to repudiate and change the facts, and taken decisive steps to minimize their effect on our people… this is just the first step in a long struggle to vindicate our rights, but it sends a strong early signal to the UAE that its actions will not be tolerated. Qatar will now press forward, and we trust the UAE will meet its international obligations and comply with the court's order in the meantime."
The UAE’s stated-owned news agency, WAM, reported how the decision demonstrated that Doha’s arguments are “without a valid base and were unsupported by evidence.” The UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash went to social media to assert that the “judges refused the Qatari requests”, referring to the six out of nine that the ICJ rejected.
Gulf News reported how the “UAE welcomed the decision” and that “the ICJ refused to grant any of the provisional measures specifically requested by Qatar.” The Dubai-based daily continued: “By a very narrow margin, the Court indicated certain measures with which the UAE is already in compliance. The ICJ’s decision reflects that provisional measures sought by Qatar are without a valid basis. Instead of these unproductive manoeuvres, Qatar should be engaging with the legitimate concerns of the UAE and the other three States that have ended relations with Qatar regarding its continuing support for terrorism.”
Turning to the law
Although not the final ruling, the ICJ’s decision has helped Qatar in its efforts to turn to organs of international law to make its case against the UAE and the other ATQ members, which Doha accuses of illegally imposing the blockade since June 5, 2017.
However, what remains to be seen is how the decision impacts realities on the ground.
The National, based in Abu Dhabi, stated: “No state that has had such interim measures handed down have ever complied with them. It remains unclear what the sanctions for not adhering to the measures are, or if the measures are legally binding…The UAE denies that it has discriminated against Qatari citizens and had submitted evidence to counter Doha’s allegations of discrimination against ordinary Qataris.”
Although the ICJ lacks the teeth to enforce this ruling, Abu Dhabi will likely come under growing international diplomatic pressure to implement the decision. Yet given how global pressure on the Emiratis to resolve the Qatar crisis diplomatically has not pushed Abu Dhabi toward making concessions to Doha since June 2017, it is doubtful that these ICJ orders will cause the UAE to cave in to Qatar’s demands.
If the UAE refuses to do so, which appears likely based on the Emirati response, Qatar could go to the UN Security Council, yet it is unclear how the UN Security Council would act. To be sure, the UN Security Council passing a resolution requiring Abu Dhabi to implement the ICJ’s decision could result in international economic sanctions being imposed on the UAE, which would make the whole federation pay even more of a cost for Abu Dhabi’s Qatar policy.
While the legal ramifications of this ruling and its long-term impact on the UAE are difficult to predict, it is in the Emirati-Qatari war of narratives where this decision from the UN’s top court will most matter. The ruling legitimises Qatar’s argument that the blockade has been in violation of international law and that Qataris have been victims of illegal discrimination.
Nonetheless, even if questions over the blockade’s legality seem answered, at least for now, by the ICJ, debates over the ideological factors underlying the Qatar crisis will certainly continue.
American lawmakers trying to convince the State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation and who have also spent years condemning Qatar for its relations with “Islamist” groups abroad underscore how a segment of the DC elite basically views political Islam and the role which it plays in Doha’s foreign policy through an Emirati lens.
Currently, as the Qatar crisis seems to have no end in sight, the Emirati-Qatari war of narratives could continue to play out in Washington, London, and other Western capitals for many years to come.
Qatar will likely gain more sympathy in Western, democratic countries by framing its struggle within the context of a human rights and anti-racism struggle with international law on its side, rather than trying to sell Qatar’s ties with Hamas, Libya Dawn, and controversial Islamist figures such as Yusuf al Qaradawi to Western audiences.
Moreover, having achieved this victory at the ICJ, Qatar can continue to claim that it rejects the notion that ‘might makes right’ in transnational conflicts and that institutions such as the ICJ are where responsible members of the international community must go to seek peaceful resolutions to problems between UN member states.
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