The recent decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain to sever diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar has been dominantly viewed through the lens of its political and security implications alongside Qatar’s alleged support for terrorist organizations. However, there are often-overlooked aspects of the commonly-called blockade that are worthy of a greater amount of consideration: human rights and international law. While there are other human rights challenges in Qatar, this article seeks to examine the effects of the recent crisis.
One component of the break in diplomatic ties between these GCC nations was a demand by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain for Qatari citizens to depart their countries within two weeks or face unspecified consequences. Similarly, these governments urged their citizens residing in Qatar to return home by this same deadline or potentially risk losing citizenship. Such a move may not sound extremely disruptive on face, but the action is nowhere near benign.
Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain – experience an extremely high level of economic and social integration with one another. In the 2001 Economic Agreement Between the GCC States, these nations made a binding commitment for GCC citizens to “be accorded, in any Member States, the same treatment accorded to its own citizens, without differentiation or discrimination, in all economic activities.” This meant that citizens of any GCC country had equal rights to purchase property, obtain healthcare, insurance, education, and other social services in any Gulf country they chose to reside in. In addition, citizens of Gulf states experienced freedom of movement – oft-considered a basic human right – to allow them to travel without restriction among the Gulf states.
As a result of this close integration, many individuals chose to pursue their education, find jobs, or start businesses in countries other than the one in which they held citizenship. It was customary to travel between the states regularly, especially given the frequency of flights between the nations. But, after the onset of the recent crisis, both Qataris in the condemning nations and citizens of those three countries in Qatar faced interruptions of their basic lifestyle choices. The high level of interdependence between these GCC states underscores the gravity of the recent actions taken, especially in the face of GCC agreements that ensure equal treatment to all GCC-nation citizens. The individuals affected by these measures number at least 13,000, according to the Qatar National Human Rights Committee.
These individuals could either depart from their current country of residence without any prospect of returning – leaving behind the life they made and likely losing their job – or they could stay, running the risk of losing citizenship in their native country. Neither option sounds particularly enticing, especially once various complications are considered. Students in university could be forced to leave prior to finishing exams. Patients undergoing medical treatment could have to choose whether to proceed with treatment or face the consequences of noncompliance with the mandates.
For mixed-nationality families, these challenges are particularly acute. Children with different citizenships than one of their parents could face separation, regardless of the age of the child. For families impacted by divorce or death of a parent, there could be even more complications. Although the blockade countries claim that special attention would be paid to such cases, little materialization of any altered standards has appeared.
Not only were citizens of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE required to return to their native countries, but there were also new standards instituted regarding “sympathizing” with Qatar. If any individual publicly makes a statement sympathy towards Qatar, whether it be on social media or in public, they could be liable for heavy fines or even imprisonment. In the UAE, for example, sympathizing with Qatar could result in imprisonment for up to 15 years or a fine of up to 500,000 dirhams.
In total, the blockade measures violate multiple international agreements, whether widely accepted standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or more specific agreements that apply to the countries involved, like the Arab Charter on Human Rights. The violations are similar across the various treaties; however, problems regarding enforcement arise given that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain are not parties to many of the basic UN human rights treaties. The fact that these nations have not ratified such treaties itself should not be ignored, but for the time being, it is more relevant to focus on the agreements that these nations are signatories to, such as the Arab Charter on Human Rights and the GCC Human Rights Declaration. Although currently lacking an effective enforcement mechanism like an Arab Court of Human Rights, the standards set forth in the Arab Charter on Human Rights articulate binding norms that Arab nations agreed to. Similarly, the GCC Human Rights Declaration lists a set of goals that GCC countries want to aspire to regarding human rights. At the bottom of the page is an organized list of the articles of each agreement that the current actions violate.
Not only do the actions directly implicate international standards, but there are also consequences for individuals’ daily lives that simply result from the break in diplomatic and economic connections between the nations. Trade ties between the GCC countries have been a primary factor in the success of their respective economies. As such, the break in economic associations has radically altered the way that Qatar supplies its population with necessary economic goods and services. Food imports have been shifted – away from Saudi Arabia – towards Turkey and Iran. Due to the quick switch in economic partners, a complete replacement of all the goods that used to flow in from Saudi Arabia has not been possible. As such, greater food imports from places like Turkey primarily supply large supermarkets in Doha, putting strain on smaller grocery stores. Deficits of products, combined with high prices, will challenge individuals in Qatar, especially low-income families and migrant workers. In the short-term, access to food will continue to be limited, hampering individuals’ abilities to fulfill basic needs. To better prevent such shortages and broader economic losses long-term, Qatar is likely to further increase economic cooperation with Iran and Turkey, but it is precisely this move that may deepen the extent of the crisis.
The blockade countries presented Qatar a list of demands that, when fulfilled, would result in reinstated cooperation. Prominently featured are pleas to “curb diplomatic ties with Iran” and to “immediately terminate the Turkish military presence currently in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside of Qatar.” The blockade countries threaten that if the demands are not complied with by July 3, then the list of demands will no longer be valid. Meanwhile, Qatar – looking to fill the cooperative vacuum left behind by the withdrawal of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain – finds increasing incentives to work with Iran and Turkey. As a result, compromising on the demands made by the blockade countries will only prove to be more difficult as the crisis continues.
The risks of the crisis continuing for an extended period of are manifold. Qatar has sufficient financial resources and flexibility not to immediately cave into all of the demands, but it cannot last forever without the cooperation of the blockade countries. Already hit with losses recently due to low energy prices – impacting the profitability of its main industry, LNG – Qatar finds itself in a less prosperous position. Yet, the perceived importance of the issues at stake for both sides ensure that no country will easily succumb. As the crisis continues, families will continue to be divided and economies on both sides will continue to be hard hit, impacting the basic lives of individuals across these nations.
The human rights questions posed by the blockade are of extreme importance, and should not be ignored. Although Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE claim to be taking these actions to criticize Qatar’s support for terrorist organizations like Hamas, ending Qatar’s support for Hamas will not necessarily result in a more peaceful outcome. According to Haim Malka of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), weakened financing streams from Qatar could lead to fragmentation of Hamas, potentially opening the door to infighting and increased violence from terrorist groups vying for power in Gaza. Regardless of the eventual outcome on terrorist organizations, human rights are inalienable, a relevant consideration when making any diplomatic decision. Before the crisis continues for an extended period of time, it is essential for the human rights considerations to be dealt with.
International Agreement Violations:
Freedom of Belief and Expression
Arab Charter on Human Rights, Article 3 – “Each State party to the present Charter undertakes to ensure to all individuals subject to its jurisdiction the right to enjoy the rights and freedoms set forth herein, without distinction on grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religious belief, opinion, thought, national or social origin, wealth, birth or physical or mental disability.”
Arab Charter on Human Rights, Article 32 – “The present Charter guarantees the right to information and to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any medium, regardless of geographical boundaries.”
GCC Human Rights Declaration, Article 9 – “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and exercising such freedom is guaranteed insofar as it accords with Islamic Sharia law, public order and the regulations (laws) regulating this area.”
Freedom of Movement
Arab Charter on Human Rights, Article 26 – “ 1. Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State party shall, within that territory, have the right to freedom of movement and to freely choose his residence in any part of that territory in conformity with the laws in force. 2. No State party may expel a person who does not hold its nationality but is lawfully in its territory, other than in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with law and after that person has been allowed to submit a petition to the competent authority, unless compelling reasons of national security preclude it. Collective expulsion is prohibited under all circumstances.”
Arab Charter on Human Rights, Article 27 – “ 1. No one may be arbitrarily or unlawfully prevented from leaving any country, including his own, nor prohibited from residing, or compelled to reside, in any part of that country. 2. No one may be exiled from his country or prohibited from returning thereto.”
GCC Human Rights Declaration, Article 10 – “Freedom of movement, residence and departure is a right of every human being according to the regulations (law)”
GCC Human Rights Declaration, Article 11 – “No one shall be deported from his country or prevented from entering it”
Protection of the Family
Arab Charter on Human Rights, Article 33 – “2. The State and society shall ensure the protection of the family, the strengthening of family ties, the protection of its members and the prohibition of all forms of violence or abuse in the relations among its members, and particularly against women and children. They shall also ensure the necessary protection and care for mothers, children, older persons and persons with special needs and shall provide adolescents and young persons with the best opportunities for physical and mental development. 3. The States parties shall take all necessary legislative, administrative and judicial measures to guarantee the protection, survival, development and well-being of the child in an atmosphere of freedom and dignity and shall ensure, in all cases, that the child’s best interests are the basic criterion for all measures taken in his regard, whether the child is at risk of delinquency or is a juvenile offender.”
GCC Human Rights Declaration, Article 14 – “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, originally composed of a man and a woman, governed by religion, morals and patriotism; its entity and bonds are maintained and reinforced by religion. Motherhood, childhood and members of the family are protected by religion as well as the State and society against all forms of abuse and domestic violence.”
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