Are the 13 Demands to Qatar a ‘Geopolitical Crime’?
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 16 Jul 2018
11 Jul 2018 – This post is part of an ongoing project assessing the international relations and international law Gulf Crisis that was initiated by a coalition of four countries, issuing a set of 13 demands directed at the government of Qatar. Qatar rejected the demands as contrary to its sovereign rights and international law, and at the same time offered to mediate the dispute. The Gulf Coalition rejected the approach, insisting on Qatar’s compliance, and causing harm to the state and to the residents in the country by blocking access and abruptly cutting relations. The essay below evaluates this experience from the perspective of whether the confrontation should be treated as a ‘Geopolitical Crime,” itself an innovative and controversial idea that I developed in a lecture at Queen Mary’s University in London at the end of March, 2018.
Confronting Qatar: Gulf Crisis or Geopolitical Crime? Evaluating an Innovative Approach to Confrontational Diplomacy
Points of Departure
The general designation of the year long confrontation between the Gulf Coalition (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) and Qatar has been one-sided from its inception. A series of demands were directed at Qatar in the form of an ultimatum. The demands were unreasonable, challenging Qatar’s sovereign rights, and violating the most fundamental precepts of international law. [For detailed demonstration see Falk, “A Normative Evaluation of the Gulf Crisis,” Policy Brief #1, Feb. 2018] The Gulf Coalition refused Qatar’s repeated formal expressions of a willingness to accept a negotiated or a mediated end of the confrontation. Such willingness was particularly forthcoming as Qatar was the wrongfully harmed party due to the policies put into operation by the Gulf Coalition to reinforce its demands with punitive acts. By way of contrast the Gulf Coalition has so far defiantly refused even to consider a diplomatic resolution of the crisis, pushing its agenda by issuing threats and warnings.
For these reasons it has been deeply misleading to refer to the inflamed situation involving Qatar as a crisis, which in international relations is a normatively neutral term, referring to a set of circumstances that involves a dangerous and unresolved encounter between adversaries. It is the argument of this policy brief that a more accurate way of grasping the true character of the situation, given the unprovoked wrongfulness and one-sidedness of this confrontation, as well as the disparities in size and power is to treat the confrontation under the rubric of ‘Geopolitical Crime.’
The question posed from this perspective is to consider whether the Gulf Coalition should be viewed as responsible for committing an a serious and ongoing Geopolitical Crime, the victims of which are the State of Qatar, and its people, as well third parties and foreign nationals hurt by the blockade and other coercive measures adopted by the Gulf Coalition. To inquire from this perspective first requires clarification as to the nature and status of what is here being called a Geopolitical Crime.
The allegations of Geopolitical Crime is certainly not intended to contradict or displace the assertion that Qatar has also been harmed by violations of public international law as a result of Gulf Coalition threats and acts. The reasons to bring up claims of Geopolitical Criminality is to emphasize the possibility of an appropriate informal and more flexible approach to the allocation of responsibility for harm caused and hopefully add diplomatic weight to efforts to end the confrontation and restore normalcy to the sub-regional politics of the Gulf. Alleging a Geopolitical Crime has no implications for waiving or overlooking recourse to several overlapping remedies under international law. [To be discussed in subsequent policy brief]
It should also be realized that even without claiming any status of Geopolitical Crime within international criminal law, the nature of the ‘crime’ is controversial, and needs to be appreciated as a proposed innovation with respect to diplomacy and international ethics. Yet it appears to be beneficial step toward creating greater compliance by dominant global and regional actors with widely accepted international norms, as well as mounting a challenge to current patterns of impunity with respect to the crimes of such actors. As matters now stand, geopolitical actors form part of the vertical structure of existing world order, which effectively exempts these actors from any obligation to conform to international law whenever its rules collide with the pursuit of their national interests and strategic priorities. In this respect, this kind of deference to power has the effect of making international law a weapon of the strong against the weak. It thus parallels the Un Charter that grants a right of veto to the five Permanent Members of the Security Council, which amounts to telling these five countries that for them adherence to the Un Charter is essentially voluntary while for the other 188 or so sovereign states adherence is mandatory. As was said of the Un when established, it is an institution designed to regulate the mice while the lions roam free.
In effect, the assertion of Geopolitical Crime offers a modest means for potentially extending the reach of international law to regulate the behavior of the lions, modifying the normative structures that have so far only been effective in keeping weaker states, the mice, either submissive or discouraged from engaging in disruptive behavior. Geopolitics is the vertical dimension of world order, while the relations of ordinary states is the horizontal dimension, subject to the norm of juridical equality, which ignores the relevance of political inequality, subverting law by treating equals unequally. In the current impasse Qatar is denied the protection of its fundamental rights because the Gulf Coalition is taking advantage of its sub-regional geopolitical status to engage in coercive diplomacy while avoiding legal accountability.
Yet the proposal to supplement international criminal law by recognizing Geopolitical Crimes is about more than giving Qatar an additional line of political and moral argument by which to vindicate their specific grievances arising from the pressures exerted by the Gulf Coalition. It is a wider response to the realization that throughout history much human suffering, devastating warfare, economic exploitation, social collapse, and political abuse have resulted directly or indirectly from the commission of Geopolitical Crimes, which have not been acknowledged, much less prevented and apprehended. The position taken here is that the delimitation of Geopolitical Crime will have a positive effect on international public opinion and civil society, and could tip the balance of diplomatic activity in concrete ways helpful to victims of Geopolitical Crime. Without such a categorization, there is an operative set of beliefs that geopolitical behavior is completely unregulated and discretionary, and at most is subject to criticism as imprudent or as in this instance that sub-regional geopolitics should give way to promote regional and global geopolitical goals, either defined by reference to counterterrorism or as establishing a unified front against Iran.
The Nature and Relevance of Geopolitical Crimes
An important technical point: Geopolitical Crimes are not now recognized as such by international criminal law, and could not be made the subject of a valid complaint to the International Criminal Court (ICC). At the same time, Geopolitical Crimes are important markers of wrongful behavior in a variety of international contexts and offer helpful criteria for resolving dangerous and harmful situations of the sort facing the government of Qatar. It may be useful to consider Geopolitical Crimes as a species of illegitimate international behavior, and as such, politically and morally wrongful, although definitely outside the present scope of legal accountability.
Geopolitical Crimes are wrongful acts of those sovereign states with geopolitical capabilities to adopt policies that deliberately are harmful to other sovereign states and to people. Geopolitical actors can be contrasted with ordinary sovereign states, although the existence of power disparities is relative and contextual. Thus, the United States may be a geopolitical actor in relation to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Coalition while these actors are geopolitical actors in relation to Qatar, which is the case for the situation here being considered.
A geopolitical relationship does not result in the commission of a Geopolitical Crime unless there is evidence of an intention to cause harm or a negligent failure to perceive the probable effects of actions and policies. Among prominent historical examples of Geopolitical Crime is the Versailles ‘peace diplomacy’ as it affected Europe and the Middle East, taking the forms of imposing a punitive peace on Germany after World War I, and privileging colonial ambition over the wellbeing of resident peoples and societies after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire by imposing European territorial communities in place of the millet system of ethnic and religious communities. The Balfour Declaration and its incorporation in arrangements imposed on Palestine and its majority Arab population is another illustration of a Geopolitical Crime. [For further elaboration of these examples see Falk, ISCI Annual Lecture, Queen Mary’s University London, March 2018] A more recent example of a Geopolitical Crime in the Middle East resulted from the imposition of indiscriminate sanctions on Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991 that produced several hundred thousand civilian deaths, and was maintained in the face of official knowledge of these lethal impacts on innocent lives by the U.S. Government.
Extending this analysis to Qatar, the question is whether the Gulf Coalition wrongfully adopted and maintained policies foreseeably harmful to the people and state of Qatar. Both wrongfulness and awareness are elements of the crime. The wrongfulness seems demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt by the explicit nature of the 13 Demands that also confirms awareness that was acknowledged by periodic reassertion of the demands by high officials representing Gulf Coalition governments. The conciliatory responses of the Qatar Government to these wrongful demands and accompanying coercive diplomacy strengthen the allegation of Geopolitical Crime.
The Pros and Cons of Claiming Geopolitical Crime
As suggested, describing wrongdoing by geopolitical actors as Geopolitical Crime is controversial, and needs to be carefully evaluated as a general tactic for extending normative constraints to geopolitical actors. The goal is to protect those states and people harmed by these almost totally unregulated and very damaging forms of international wrongdoing. There are two types of Geopolitical Crimes that are associated with major loopholes in the effective coverage of international law: first, diplomatic initiatives that cause foreseeable harm, yet are not prohibited by existing international law, such as punitive sanctions imposed by a victorious country on a devastated and defeated country; secondly, diplomatic moves that violate existing legal norms, even to the extent of being crimes against humanity or gross violations of international criminal law, but are not enforceable against geopolitical actors and their close allies, creating double standards with respect to the implementation of legal norms.
The contention here is that the Gulf Coalition demands and coercive acts fall under the second category of Geopolitical Crime, that is, involving prohibited behavior that is beyond the present reach of enforceable law, leaving Qatar seemingly without an effective formal remedy. The appeal of reliance on an allegation of Geopolitical Crime is to awake the conscience of the world to this vulnerability, mobilizing pressures on the Gulf Coalition to drop their demands, restore normal relations by ending blockade, boycott, and any other coercive measures directed at Qatar, and ideally, accept responsibility for all damages sustained by Qatar, Qataris, and third parties caught in this web of wrongdoing.
Given this complexity it seems helpful to assess whether the advantages of alleging that the Gulf Coalition behavior is a Geopolitical Crimes outweighs the disadvantages before the leadership of Qatar determines at this stage its best policy options.
As far as advantages are concerned, the following factors are relevant:
- to allege a Geopolitical Crime does not require any elaborate preparations or expense;
- the text of the 13 Demands is so manifestly in violation of Qatar’s fundamental rights as to make a persuasive presentation;
- as the allegation is informal it leaves open a path to a diplomatic resolution of the situation, avoiding formal embarrassment of the Gulf Coalition member states;
- relying on a Geopolitical Crime argument makes Qatar’s grievances easy for the media and public to grasp, and puts Qatar’s position in a clear and sympathetic manner;
- advancing this argument is a constructive contribution by way of filling the gaps in international law by a recourse to moral and political considerations, particularly helpful for weaker sovereign states and a step to legal accountability by geopolitical actors who are now able to avoid, or at least evade, legal obligations.
As far as disadvantages are concerned, the following factors are relevant:
- the allegation of Geopolitical Crime will be regarded as controversial, and even provocative, and could have the effect of escalating the confrontation, making a solution more difficult to obtain;
- as the concept of Geopolitical Crime is threatening to other major political actors in the world, it might be viewed as an unwelcome, and even dangerous innovation, which could discourage diplomatic attempts by such countries as the United States from continuing to seek reconciliation and compromise among the parties;
- as Geopolitical Crime challenges directly the Gulf Coalition it might obstruct moves toward reconciliation and compromise, as well as make terms of a solution more difficult to agree upon;
- if the Qatar primary goal is to end the confrontation, and nothing more, the emphasis on Geopolitical Crime could make a reconciliation process more complicated as it would likely introduce issues of liability and responsibility with respect to private interests.
In the end, a choice must be made as to whether at this stage of the encounter with the Gulf Coalition putting forward the Geopolitical Crime argument helps Qatar attain its spectrum of goals including peace, reconciliation, mediation, and harmony among Gulf countries and unity within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Whatever decision is reached it seems helpful to be aware of the Geopolitical Crime approach as possibly applicable to this type of difficult situation facing the leadership of the sovereign state of Qatar.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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