Analysis - Political Transformations

Boycott, not a Blockade

The Gulf Crisis from the Perspective of International Law
Monday، July 10، 2017
Boycott, not a Blockade

The Gulf crisis, stirred a controversy about the nature of legal adaptation of the boycotting countries’ adopted measures and their repercussions according to the rules of international law.

Boycott is a right protected by international law as states either can collectively or individually boycott any state that violates the rules of international law. This is what the three Gulf countries and Egypt based their decision on. However, Qatar sought to falsely promote the measures taken against it as some type of “blockade.” Doha did so despite that Qatari ports and airspace are still open and the UN did not pass any sanctions against them.

Boycott’s Legality  

Diplomatic relations are established to regulate international relations in general. However, while different parties work together, some obstacles may influence relations between them. These obstacles are as follows: protesting and withdrawing envoys, announcing that a diplomat or more figures are “persona non grata,” decreasing diplomatic representation and cutting diplomatic ties. Cutting these relations is accompanied, in some cases, with the eruption of war between two countries.

Diplomatic relations are peaceful relations that are established only upon the involved parties’ approval and agreement. These relations last as long as this approval exists. Each country has the absolute freedom and right to establish diplomatic relations with others in accordance with its principle of sovereignty and political independence. However, countries also have the absolute right to end these relations, and they can do so on their own will according to their discretionary power whenever they want to and no matter what the reasons and motives are.

According to this, boycotting or cutting diplomatic relations is legally legitimate and it does not entail any international responsibility against the states, which adopted such measures, even if it’s viewed as an unfriendly act that contradicts the rules of international courtesy and the requirements of smooth international relations.

One can say that cutting diplomatic ties as a legal act has four major characteristics:

An individual act by one party

An act submissive to the state’s discretionary power

A subsequent act, i.e. logically there must be pre-existing diplomatic relations and the boycott decision comes to end them

An act that entails putting an end to these diplomatic ties and terminating them for a period of time that can be short or long depending on different considerations and until relations are resumed between certain parties

Boycott: Reasons and Repercussions

In the light of what international practices have showed, boycotting a country or cutting diplomatic ties with it can be for several reasons such as the following:

1. Cutting diplomatic ties as a reaction or a countermeasure against violating a legal right. Possible violations include confiscating the funds of citizens from a certain country, or conducting espionage acts by members of the diplomatic mission in the assigned country, or attacking the latter’s safety and independence, or interfering in its internal affairs. An example is how the Soviet Union cut diplomatic ties with Australia between 1954 and 1959 because one of the embassy’s employees resorted to the Australian authorities, which politically protected him after he was accused of embezzling the embassy’s money.

2. Cutting diplomatic ties because a state adopts foreign policies and specific stances that another state views as an aggressive approach against its own polices and as a threat to its national security or interference in its internal affairs. An example to that is the current Gulf-Qatari crisis. The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Qarqash said on June 17 while clarifying the reasons for severing diplomatic ties with Doha: “this very serious dispute is not about a personal family rift or vendetta between monarchies with Qatar…It’s an attempt to limit Qatar’s foreign policy in support of terrorism.”

3. Severing diplomatic ties on an ideological basis or due to the implementation of a certain political doctrine. In this regard, some countries may cut diplomatic relations with others because the latter acknowledge countries, which they do not want acknowledged. One example is when the People’s Republic of China threatened to sever diplomatic relations with any state that recognizes Taiwan or establishes diplomatic ties with it.

4. Severing diplomatic ties within the context of responding to or complying with a decision made by an international or regional organization. This harmonizes with what membership in an organization imposes as it is a mandatory obligation to respect the organization’s charter and be loyal to its duties.

Cutting diplomatic ties among countries results in several repercussions. The most significant are:

1. Ending the work of a diplomatic mission and its members because they cannot legally resume performing the assigned tasks. This is why Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt granted Qatar’s envoys a specific period of time to leave and they asked their envoys in Doha to return home.

2. Since the diplomatic mission and its members’ work ended after severing diplomatic ties, the concerned parties must resort to other options to protect their mutual interests. For example, they would dispatch temporary special missions or assign a third country to protect the interests of the concerned parties’ citizens. Within this context, the Greek foreign ministry said on June 5 that in response to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ request the Greek Embassy in Doha will diplomatically represent Egypt in Qatar, until the crisis is resolved and diplomatic relations between Qatar and Egypt are restored.

3. Despite cutting diplomatic ties, the boycotting countries remain committed to protecting the headquarters, money and property of the boycotted country’s diplomatic mission. They also remain committed to granting the mission’s members immunity for a reasonable duration until they exit their territories.

4. Boycotting does not necessarily mean automatically ending the tasks of the consular mission. This mission may continue to carry out its tasks, which are represented in protecting its citizens’ interests that are not political. Allowing the consular mission to continue its work may help resume dialogue and communication between the concerned countries, and it paves ways towards restoring diplomatic ties.

Nature of Blockade 

Blockade was used in major international wars to impose some sort of isolation on a certain area or country in order to pressure it to do something or quit doing something. The UN was later established and its charter prohibited using or threatening to use armed force in international relations and advocated for the necessity of politically settling international disputes. The blockade developed to become a tool that guarantees the efficiency of international economic sanctions that are imposed on countries, which do not fulfill their international commitments (according to Chapter 7 of the charter).

Therefore, the blockade is neither a pure military act, nor an economic sanction that is similar to prohibitions and boycott, but it’s a complementary measure that increases pressure on the economically sanctioned country so it does not go around these sanctions.

When it comes to practical implementation, the blockade has two forms. The first one is peaceful blockade, which is surrounding a certain area or region to fully isolate it and prevent others from reaching it. It aims to pressure the country with sovereignty over this area or region to implement its international commitments without declaring a state of war. The second one is the military blockade, where armed troops are stationed around a certain location to force those who are besieged to surrender after their ammunition or food supplies end.

According to Chapter 7 of UN Charter, the UN Security council implements the previously mentioned forms as the legitimate form of a blockade, either by resorting to armed force as stated in Article 42 of the charter, or by not resorting to it, as stated in Article 41 of the charter.  

The UN Security Council’s decisions regarding these measures are binding on all member states, as they must implement them to restore international peace and security. One of the most important examples is when the UN Security Council imposed a blockade on Iraq in 1990 to guarantee the efficiency of economic sanctions imposed on it. Another example are the economic sanctions imposed on the racist government of South Africa in 1977.

Therefore, a blockade is different than boycotting a country or cutting diplomatic ties with it. The most important differences are:

1. A blockade happens, most of the time, as a collective action by a group of countries against a certain state and within the context of complying with the UN Security Council’s decision. It is also part of measures taken against a state to impose economic sanctions, because it violated its international commitments particularly those it has previously obliged to respect because it’s a member of the organization. Boycotting a country or severing diplomatic ties with it is when a country or several countries cut ties with a certain state and prevent it from using their air, land and sea routes. 

2. Imposing a blockade includes taking more inclusive and broader measures than severing diplomatic relations. It includes imposing a complete blockade on the targeted state and shutting all its land, air and sea routes and prohibiting flights and people’s travel from and to the country. This is in addition to other punitive measures that completely suffocate the state and prevent it from attaining supplies or aid.

Boycotting, however, does not completely isolate the targeted country from the world. It does not force it to close all its routes and borders and does not prevent it from importing products and supplies in general.

In brief, the measures taken by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt against Qatar fall within the description of “cutting diplomatic ties” as a legitimate right in international law since states have the right to secure their borders and prevent Qatar from using their airspace in order to pressure it to alter its foreign policies and stances as they think the latter threaten the region’s stability and obstruct international efforts to combat terrorism. On another hand, these measures have not reached the extent of a “blockade” considering that the boycotting countries only prevented Qatar from using their airspace and did not close Qatar’s borders and airspace. They did not prevent Doha from communicating with the rest of the world or from importing from other countries. This is in addition to the fact that the UN Security Council did not issue a decision to impose a blockade on Qatar based on Chapter 7 of the charter. 

Keywords: QatarBoycottBlockadeQatar Crisis