by Sara Abadi
On July 14, 2020, the International Court of Justice unanimously ruled that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has jurisdiction to rule on the air blockade by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.
Three years ago, in June 2017, the four blockading nations imposed a ban on all Qatari-registered aircrafts, as a part of the wider air, land and sea blockade of Qatar, having cut all diplomatic and trade ties with Doha.
Qatar took the case to ICAO, the body that deals with all international civil aviation affairs, which declared the air blockade illegal. Following that declaration, the four countries appealed to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), claiming that the ICAO does not have jurisdiction to rule on the dispute. They cited the Chicago Convention, which is an agreement signed back in 1944 and provides the legal framework for international air travel.
According to the ICJ’s ruling, Qatar made a genuine attempt to settle the disagreements with the blockading countries through mediation and negotiations, however Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt refused to negotiate with Qatar, leaving no option other than for ICAO’s governing council to intervene.
Qatar’s Minister of Transport and Communications, Jassim Saif Ahmed Al-Sulaiti said,
“We welcome today’s decision by the ICJ that will see the Blockading States finally face justice for violating international aviation rules. We are confident that the ICAO will ultimately find these actions unlawful. This is the latest in a series of rulings that expose the Blockading Countries’ continued disregard for international law and due process. Step by step their arguments are being dismantled, and Qatar’s position vindicated.”
According to Alex Mancheras, an Aviation Analyst, “ICAO have never dealt with anything like this over their 70 years of existence.”
As part of their argument, the four countries told the court that they had closed off their airspace to civilian passenger planes because of what they claimed was Doha’s support for terrorism. This argument, together with the three counts of appeal submitted by the countries were unanimously dismissed by the judges.
While the ICJ has backed Qatar, it’s unclear what mechanisms exist to force the blockading countries from opening their airspace. ICAO now has a renewed mandate to adjudicate in this dispute, but as with most international bodies procedures are slow and it’s not expected that there will be any real change to air travel from Doha in the immediate future.