UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan on Thursday, November 12th called for the Saudi-led coalition of Arab states to end their years-long blockade and sanctions program targeting Qatar. A statement released by the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner announced that Douhan observed in a two-week trip to the country that “sanctions had harmed the ability of Qataris to enjoy a number of fundamental rights and freedoms.” Douhan serves as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures and human rights.
Her report comes as sanctions abruptly imposed by Saudi Arabia along with Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have remained in place for three and a half years. According to the Washington Post, the four countries cut ties with Qatar over alleged support for terrorist groups including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza in addition to the government of Iran. Qatar’s connections to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in Turkey and support for Muslim Brotherhood political activity in the region further gave rise to the coordinated diplomatic move. The countries closed all land, air, and sea borders while also ceasing all trade. Qatar immediately rejected the thirteen demands made, leading to the subsequent stalemate which has prevailed since.
The strict sanctions regime, while abruptly cutting off Qatar from many of its external sources of goods, also forced the resource rich nation to make uncomfortable adjustments to its economy that have now shifted Qatari development in the long term. In 2018, Reuters reported that Qatar embarked on a five year development plan to shift its economy away from a historical reliance on its neighbors. This strategy has led to strange scenes such as a cow airlift carried out in June 2018 to restore the country’s milk supply and generate self-sufficiency in dairy products. However, while Qatar moved quickly to replace or establish its own sources of milk, poultry, and vegetables, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs warns that growing domestic production in these water intensive industries strains the arid country’s scarce water resources. Without a significant investment in low water usage practices or desalination capacity, Qatar’s will continue to face a crisis of self-sufficiency in the face of continuing sanctions. The country’s vast oil reserves continue to keep the Qatari economy comfortably afloat, but the desert peninsula’s long-term viability without its neighbors is still in question.
Douhan’s report comes as recent attempts to negotiate a solution to the intra-Gulf spat have failed to produce results. According to Al Jazeera, one of the Qatari institutions targeted by the sanctions, talks held by Kuwait this past December and June between Qatar and Saudi Arabia demonstrated that both sides are eager to reach a solution, but that Qatar refuses to accept the demands of the “Quartet,” while the latter continues to hold firm. Meanwhile, the human toll of the impasse continues to rise.
Douhan’s report notes that the sanctions regime has significantly disrupted the lives of many Qatari nationals studying or working abroad, as well as those who want to complete Muslim ritual pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch noted as early as one month after the blockade began in 2017 that isolation was “forcing a child to miss a scheduled brain surgery, interrupting education, and stranding migrant workers without food or travel.” Along with highlighting these humanitarian effects, Douhan pressed for dismissing the unilateral sanctions for lacking legal merit.
The statement from the High Commissioner’s office claims that “unilateral measures are only legal if they are authorized by the UN Security Council, or used as countermeasures, or do not breach any obligation of states, and do not violate fundamental human rights.” While Douhan will issue a full report on her Doha visit in September 2021, she continues to encourage the countries “to settle political disputes on the basis of the rule of law.”
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