Saudi Arabia coalition boycott of Qatar appears to violate principle of non-intervention in international law; competing legal arguments

Updated June 19, 2017


Habib Toumi, (Gulf News Bureau Chief), “Measures on Qatar taken after exhausting all possible means, say Gulf countries,” Gulf News, June 16, 2017 (19:10).

“Qatar submits legal files on blockade,” The Peninsula (Qatar’s Daily Newspaper), June 17, 2017 (10:07).

“US’ Mattis: Qatar blockade ‘very complex situation’; Defence secretary Mattis says Qatar ‘moving in the right direction’ but common ground needs to be found in crisis,” Al Jazeera, June 13, 2017.

“Interview with Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani; Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, the former prime minister of Qatar, discusses Middle Eastern states’ attempted political and economic isolation of Qatar for its alleged support of terrorism, Charlie Rose program, June 12, 2017.

“Qatar’s blockade violates GCC charter, international law (quoting former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister HE Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani),” Gulf Times, June 14 2017 (10:19 PM).

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain cut ties to Qatar; Qatar calls decision by Gulf nations and Egypt ‘unjustified’, saying allegations against Doha have ‘no basis in fact’. Al Jazeera, June 6, 2017.

Saudi Arabia and a group of Arab states have initiated a land blockade of Qatar, an air blockade of Qatar aircraft entering their airspace, and the expulsion of Qatari diplomatic staff and citizens from their countries with very short time frames.

President Trump has apparently led or encouraged the actions.

These actions appear to be in open violation of the basic principle of non-intervention in international law. The governments responsible for the blockade (land entry) or boycott appear to base their legal case on the claim that the actions were in effect “retorsions” under international law, that is, lawful actions that they were authorized to freely take. Much of their justification seems to rest, however, on an argument that they were lawful countermeasures (non-forcible reprisals) taken in response to Qatar’s violations of international law.

The countries led by Saudi Arabia allege without providing evidence that Qatar has been supporting terrorism. Even if individual Qataris (or Saudis, for that matter) have funded terrorist organizations in the past, there remains the legal challenge of demonstrating that the government of Qatar was complicit and that therefore the actions constituted “state action” for which the government of Qatar acquired state responsibility under international law.

The Saudi-led coalition has failed to provide specific details and evidence of the charges. If the collective action of a group of states, without warning and without resort to the dispute resolution provisions of the Charter of the Gulf Community States, or other dispute resolution mechanisms, constitutes intervention in the internal and external affairs of Qatar in violation of the international law principle of non-intervention, then their actions are unlawful and themselves incur state responsibility including liability for damages.

Given the geographic features of the countries involved in the ground blockade, and the ganging up on Qatar by boycotting its airlines and sea communications, a very strong case of illegal intervention may be presented.

The only possible justification for such actions in that case would be if they were adopted as what is known in international law as “countermeasures”, which must follow strict conditions in their adoption, including the principle of proportionality to the alleged violations of international law, and the objective of bringing such violations to a halt.

If the blockade and boycotts are not promptly lifted as the result of mediation efforts led by Kuwait and/or others, the dispute should be submitted to one or more international tribunals for binding resolution.

Saudi Arabia and the United States have not offered any persuasive legal justification under international law for the adoption of these actions.

Pending such justifications — which must hold up to legal scrutiny — the blockade and other actions must be regarded as extremely serious violations of international law.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.