On Qatar and Gulf Geopolitics
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 10 Sep 2018
3 Sep 2018 – This is a slightly modified text of an interview by the Tunisian journalist Awatef Ben Ali on behalf of the Qatar newspaper, Al Sharq, August 26, 2018.
Q 1: From the perspective of international law, is the blockade on the State of Qatar and the 13 demands of the countries of the blockade legal and respecting international sovereignty?
A: The 13 demands of the Gulf Coalition plus Egypt, as well as the blockade of Qatar, are unlawful, violating Qatari sovereignty by using diplomatic and economic coercion to interfere with activities that are within the discretion of a sovereign state. It is a regional geopolitical tactic that tries to leverage superior power in ways that induce weaker and smaller states to sacrifice their rights under international law. The allegations of support for terrorism are without any factual foundation and are not supported by any credible evidence, and can be leveled at Qatar’s accusers with more justification than the allegation being made against Qatar. Not only are the 13 demands violations of international law, they are also disruptive of proper and customary diplomatic protocol, an assessment reinforced by Qatar membership in good standing of the GCC and its repeated calls for a negotiated end to the crisis.
Q 2: The State of Qatar resorted to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to prove the attacks on the rights of its citizens? How do you view these advocates as a legal perspective?
A: Recourse to the ICJ is appropriate in situations in which an international legal dispute exists, and cannot be resolved by normal diplomacy. Since the outset of the crisis in 2017 Qatar has repeatedly expressed its willingness to accept third party mediation of the dispute, and to do its part to reach a mutually acceptable political compromise. In contrast, the Coalition merely reiterated its demands and showed no willingness to end the crisis by peaceful negotiation. Qatar has every right to make use of its legal remedies under international law, and if it has a treaty right to resolve disputes with other Gulf states by recourse to the ICJ then this is a constructive step that represents a constructive approach to bring the crisis to a peaceful end in accordance with international law and in the interests of justice. Individuals harmed by this unlawful series of coercive steps should receive relief commensurate to the harm experienced, as well as being relieved of any burdens imposed by the Coalition’s policies.
Q 3: Qataris were deprived of Hajj. How do the law and the international community view this Saudi abuse?
A: As far as I know there is no international legal obligation that compels Saudi Arabia to allow Qataris to enter their country to complete the Hajj. There may be religious commitments and diplomatic traditions that have long been accepted by Saudi Arabia in upholding in good faith its role as custodian of the most holy of Muslim sacred sites. Such diplomatic traditions, as exhibited by patterns of practice over the course of many years, have created expectations that such entry to Saudi Arabia for such a religious purpose will be facilitated. Whether a regional or international legal duty should be established should be considered and discussed. It would seem reasonable to impose such a legal obligation for entry and security on Saudi Arabia because Muslims are obligated by their religion to do the Hajj at least once in their life, and this religious undertaking should not be obstructed by political interference. The translation of such a religious duty into a legal right is something that deserves careful consideration, perhaps in the context of expanding the right of religious freedom that is a legally protected international human right that may require more direct protection in view of these recent interferences with Muslim entry to carry out the Hajj.
Q 4: The Gulf crisis has reached a stage of stagnation. How do you see the efforts of the Gulf, American and European mediation?
A: As mentioned earlier, Qatar is ready to submit the crisis to mediation or any reasonable third party procedure, while the Gulf Coalition is adamant in its refusal. As your question suggests there are plenty of willing mediators or third parties from the region and from Europe or the United States. The UN Charter underscores the duty of states to seek a peaceful solution of disputes that threaten international peace and security. Given the turmoil in the Middle East, the Gulf Crisis creates one additional flashpoint that could erupt at any time in dangerous and unpredictable ways. The idea of mediation is a means to give both sides a way of resolving the crisis without either side having to acknowledge defeat or endure some kind of diplomatic humiliation. It seem mandatory, in the spirit of the peaceful settlement of dispute, for the leaders of the Gulf Coalition to accept offers of mediation with a sense of urgency, and not prolong this regionally detrimental crisis that also causes harm to many individuals forced to sever their ties with Qatar, or have their relations with other Gulf countries disrupted in ways that result in unfair, arbitrary, and often heavy burdens.
Q 5: The State of Qatar plays a pivotal strategic role as a regional negotiator through its strong relationship with a number of major countries and its support to a number of countries, most recently Turkey. How do you evaluate this role?
A: An irony of the crisis is that Qatar has in recent years played a consistently moderating role in relation to several regional conflicts, and has engaged in relations beyond the Arab World that have produced economic, security, and diplomatic benefits for the region. Indeed, Qatar has used its wealth and influence in largely imaginative ways to establish mutually beneficial regional and international relationships. In this regard Qatar can be viewed as a small country that has played a diplomatic role beyond its size and capabilities, and could serve as a model of how to be effective as a sovereign state through reliance on the instrumentalities of ‘soft power.’
Q 6: How do you see the problematic developments between Saudi Arabia and Canada? And how do you to evaluate Saudi foreign policy. (The siege of Qatar, the war of Yemen, the Canadian crisis)?
A: Saudi Arabia behavior toward Canada expresses the same effort to bully foreign governments by threats and intimidating moves whenever its leadership feels that its policies have been criticized or its motives challenged. Canada’s criticism of Saudi behavior is quite appropriate given the international character of human rights standards, especially where, as here, legitimate Canadian interests are at stake. The Saudi response to Canada is consistent with their belligerent behavior with respect to Qatar, as well as their outrageous tactics of warfare in Yemen, which include repeated bombing of civilian sites and interferences with the delivery of food and medicine in a country where there exists a strong internationally verified likelihood of mass starvation and where the population is suffering from a series of dire health challenges. The Saudi Arabian attack upon and intervention in Qatar is a moral and legal scandal that as with Syria displays the inability of either the United Nations or geopolitical actors to protect the peace and security of small countries that become targets of aggressive warfare.
Q 7: How do you see the role of Abu Dhabi and its quest to dominate the Gulf region?
A: I am not an expert on the behavior of the UAE in the region, but from recent appearances, their behavior resembles and reinforces the hegemonic ambitions of Saudi Arabia, and threatens to cause wider regional warfare by its support of policies of confrontation with Iran. It is important for peace, security, and sustainability that this kind of hegemonic diplomacy by UAE should be abandoned. Among other concerns, the region is very vulnerable to the hazards of global warming, and these aggressive moves cause political preoccupations that divert energies and resources from challenges that are present and need to be addressed before it is too late.
Q 8: How would ‘the Deal of the century’ affect Saudi Arabia and the UAE. How do you interpret this deal and its impact on the Palestinian cause and the Arab world?
A: Of course, in one respect it is premature to comment on ‘the deal’ as its contents have not been formally disclosed, and are the subject of rather divergent lines of interpretation.
It is a serious political mistake to attribute great importance to Trump’s uninformed boast to make ‘the deal of the century.’ All indications is that this is a deal that will never achieve the status of a serious conflict-ending proposal that is balanced and takes the rights of both peoples into account. From all indications, what Trump/Kushner have in mind seems to presuppose the surrender of Palestinian political rights, including the right of self-determination and the right of return, receiving in return ‘a bowl of porridge.’ Such a deal is and should be a non-starter in the post-colonial age, and will be rejected by every important Palestinian voice, including those living in foreign countries or in refugee camps in the region. It will be a costly diplomatic mistake for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to be seen as encouraging such a flawed approach to the Palestinian national struggle, an approach that would almost certainly include considering Jerusalem to be under the exclusive sovereign control of Israel. Trump has already indicated that moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem has removed the issue from any future peace negotiations. Israel has revealed and confirmed itself as an apartheid state by recently passing the Nation-State Law of the Jewish People denying equal rights to non-Jews as a matter of law. If Saudi Arabia and the UAE side with the Trump diplomacy that seeks to achieve a final betrayal of Palestinian rights, they will find themselves on the wrong side of history as well as antagonizing Arabs, Muslims, and partisans of human rights and justice throughout the world. Instead of the deal of the century that is a formula for the declaration of an Israeli victory and Palestinian defeat, the governments of the region should be demanding a peaceful solution based on dismantling apartheid structures, ending the blockade of Gaza, and acknowledging the rights of the Palestinian people. From all appearances this will not be remembered as ‘the deal of the century’ but cast aside as ‘the most fraudulent bargain ever put forward in the century.’
Q 9: What is your international low opinion about the latest news published by New York Times describing the electronic spying operations of Israel and Emirites, including the targeting of the Emir of Doha and a lot of political leaders?
A: These spyware developments are serious but hardly new in what they seek to achieve. Throughout the history of international relations governments pay money and use a changing variety of methods to gain access to the secrets and private communications of their adversaries. What makes this issue surface as in these recent allegations of the use of spyware against private communications of the leaders of Qatar, including the Emir and his family, is the growing sophistication of the technology and its ability to penetrate what had previously considered to be secure channels of communication, evidently including surveillance of cell phone conversations. Another striking feature of the present atmosphere is the role of private sector profit motives either reinforcing or challenging broader foreign policy positions. For instance, the UAE has no formal relations with Israel, but it happily purchases spyware from an Israeli company, NSO, exhibiting a relationship that could not exist without the knowledge and likely the approval of the Government of Israel.
From the perspective of international law, espionage has always had a double reality. On the one side, it is an unlawful form of interference with the sovereignty of a foreign country, which the target government criminalizes with punishments inflicted at its discretion, while the government responsible for the espionage glorifies its agents, or falsely denies their dirty deeds. On the other side, its practice is so common, and taken for granted, that it is difficult to regard allegations of espionage or surveillance as other than propaganda, with the government complaining, pretending to be outraged while itself relying on similar mechanisms to carry out espionage for its own security or to advance its policies.
The only sensible approach at this time is to ask whether the spyware being developed so radically alters the privacy of leaders and the security of states as supporting an argument to negotiate a new treaty of prohibition, similar to the prohibition of certain weapons of warfare such as biological and chemical weapons. This is the issue that should be discussed and debated to discover whether there is a practical way to regulate and implement any prohibition of unacceptably intrusive espionage that can be agreed upon. A novel feature of digital spyware is that can penetrate deeply into the most secret recesses of foreign societies without requiring any physical intrusion, and therefore it is spyware without spies, and resembles drones on the rather frightening frontiers of warfare where the human presence is eliminated, and the battlefield populated by machines capable of causing devastation of the most severe character.
As the Edward Snowden disclosures demonstrated a few years ago, governments are also using this technology to establish elaborate surveillance networks directed at their own citizenry, undermining trust and freedom in democratic societies. Thus the issues raised by the new types of spyware extend beyond espionage as practiced in international relation, and touch upon the nature of constitutional democracy in the 21stcentury.
These are important issues for our time that need to be faced as openly as possible, but without a misleading exhibition of legalism and moralism, which thinly veils propaganda designed to blame others for behavior that is common to all international participants.
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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