Header image for news printout

Human rights and unilateral coercive measures: UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, Ms. Alena Douhan, concludes her visit to Qatar

Preliminary findings of the visit to Qatar

Doha (12 November 2020), the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, Ms. Alena Douhan, visited Qatar from 1 to 12 November 2020. She thanks the Government of Qatar for enabling and supporting her visit to the country. The purpose of the visit was to assess the impact of unilateral sanctions imposed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Arab Republic of Egypt on the enjoyment of human rights by people living in Qatar, people living in the four countries imposing sanctions and any other affected people.

The Special Rapporteur met with the Prime Minister and Minister of Interior; Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister; Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defense Affairs; Foreign Minister of the State of Qatar for Counterterrorism and Mediation of Conflict Resolution; Minister of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs; Minister of Finance; Minister of Transport and Communications; Vice President of the Shura Council; Chairman of the National Counter Terrorism Committee, President of the Public Works Authority; Minister of Endowments and Islamic Affairs; Minister of Commerce and Industry; Assistant Director of the Government Liaison Office; President of the National Human Rights Committee; Governor of the Central Bank of Qatar; Undersecretary of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education; Director of the Department of Human Rights of the Ministry of Interior; Board Member and CEO of Qatar Social Work; Executive Director of the Center for Protection and Rehabilitation (Aman); and Executive Director of the Family Consulting Center (WAQ).

The Special Rapporteur also met with the senior officials of the Compensation Claim Commission; Qatar Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Director of the Qatar News Agency; Hassad Food Co.; Qatar University; Qatar Charity; Qatar Red Crescent; Qatar Airways; National Tourism Council; the Al Jazeera Media Network; and Social Planning Department, Strategic Planning Department and Statistics Authority.

The Special Rapporteur held consultations with representatives of the United Nations in Doha, including International Organization for Migration, International Labour Organization, and UN Office on Counter Terrorism. She plans to meet with UNESCO and UNHCR in the nearest future. She also met with and interviewed victims, lawyers, journalists, representatives of civil society, experts and academia. In addition, she met with the diplomats from the Western European Group of countries present in Doha, including ambassadors of the United States of America, France, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Greece, and a representative of the Netherlands. The Special Rapporteur held consultations in Geneva with the Permanent Representatives of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Deputy Permanent Representatives of the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Arab Republic of Egypt.
The Special Rapporteur commends the transparency and the constructive and co-operative way in which the Qatar Government facilitated this official visit, which allowed a frank and open dialogue. The Special Rapporteur would like to thank the Human Rights Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Human Rights Committee for providing valuable support throughout her visit.

Country visit context

On 5 June 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Arab Republic of Egypt (hereafter – the Four States) announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar. The Four States have banned aircraft registered in Qatar – thus effectively banning the national airline, Qatar Airways – from landing in their territory or transiting through their airspace since June 2017. In June 2017, the Four States also suspended postal services with Qatar. Additionally, the Four States implemented a series of concerted unilateral measures against Qatar, including closing their land borders, air and sea ports, and airspace to Qataris; expelling almost 3000 Qataris from their territories; removing to Qatar livestock belonging to Qataris, mostly camels, some of which allegedly died of stress, hunger and lack of water; blocking access to Qatar-based media channels and websites; criminalizing the expression of sympathy with Qatar; and allegedly sponsoring a campaign to incite hatred or distrust of Qatar and Qataris over social and traditional media with references that Qatar is involved in terrorism financing and poses threats to regional security.

The Special Rapporteur also received credible information about hacking of Qatar News Agency, a significant increase of incidents of incitement to hatred of Qatar and people living in Qatar, losses of Qatar Airways, which had to cancel flights – closing offices – interrupting aviation schedules. Immediately after the unilateral sanctions were imposed, the Qatari currency was impacted through alleged market manipulation. Also, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain stopped accepting the Qatari currency, which made it even more complicated for Qataris stranded in those countries after being ordered to leave to buy tickets and sustain their living until they returned to Qatar via third countries.

In the weeks following the Four States’ imposition of the sanctions, the States publicized a set of “Thirteen Demands” and “Six Principles” and took the position that Qatar had to concede to these demands in their entirety before the States would discuss lifting the measures – a condition that remains in place to this day, as do the measures themselves. The demands included requirements that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera and other Qatari media outlets, cease diplomatic relations with Iran and military cooperation with Turkey, and submit to audits for ten years to monitor Qatar’s compliance with the demands. Those demands, which are encroaching on fundamental freedoms, were condemned at an international level by human rights institutions and media freedom related entities, including a number of the UN Special Rapporteurs, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The Special Rapporteur is mindful that the measures isolated Qatar from its neighbours and limited substantially its access to the wider world, given its location within the airspace under the operational control of Bahrain and surrounded by the sovereign airspace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain. With the closure of the United Arab Emirates ports to Qatari use and the Saudi land border, Qatar had to establish new trade routes and find alternative sources for basic commodities and medications for people living in Qatar, beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council (“GCC”).

The State of Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain are all members of the GCC, created to provide for close cooperation between member states in the spheres of industry, investment, customs, cross-border movement of goods, capital, and people.

In light of this background and of numerous credible reports, the Special Rapporteur expresses serious concern over the fact that the sudden, forced departures and the restrictions on return or entry separated families of mixed Qatari origin; suspended the studies of Qataris enrolled in universities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain; compelled Qataris to abandon real and personal property; led to Qataris’ and Qatar residents’ loss of employment or inability to operate their businesses in those states; and prevented Qataris from continuing to receive medical treatment in these countries. The Special Rapporteur notes with concern that contrary to the respective GCC agreements, the three States imposed visa and other restrictions only on Qataris and not on other GCC citizens, limiting their rights to move.

The Special Rapporteur commends all steps taken by Qatar’s Government to mitigate the negative consequences of the sanctions applied on the people living in Qatar. She received credible information that Qatar’s Government has sought to alleviate the potential harm to many nationals of the Four States who wish to remain in Qatar by relaxing residency permit requirements to confront the difficulty those nationals may face in obtaining renewals of their passports, and that it did not stop fulfilling its duties arising from multilateral and bilateral international agreements and from its GCC and Arab League memberships.

Lack of legal basis for imposition of sanctions:

The Special Rapporteur is not in the position to take any view on the political dispute between the five countries, which also involves a number of other states. Nevertheless, she welcomes Kuwaiti efforts for mediation, the use of any diplomatic and political means for settlement of discrepancies between states as well as Qatar’s adherence to the rule of law and attempts to appeal to the competent international organs, including the International Court of Justice, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the World Trade Organization, the Universal Postal Union and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as the means of peaceful settlement of international disputes between the states involved, as well as generally reported efforts Qatar is taking to implement international human rights standards.
While recognizing that states are free to organize their international relations and choose cooperation partners, the Special Rapporteur reminds that international cooperation shall be based on the principles of sovereign equality of states, prohibition to use force, non-intervention in the domestic affairs of states, peaceful settlement of international disputes, adherence to international obligations and protection of human rights.

The Special Rapporteur would like to underline that any unilateral measures are only legal if they have a valid and clear legal basis in national legislation and do not breach any international obligation of states; are taken with authorization of the UN Security Council or their illegality is excluded in the course of countermeasures taken in accordance with the standards of international responsibility, with the purpose to restore observance of international obligations; prior notice; and criteria of legality, legitimacy and proportionality.

Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur reminds that international disputes shall be settled with the use of political and legal means in full compliance with the rule of law, and with due account for humanitarian concerns. Measures directly affecting fundamental human rights shall not be used as the means of influencing the Government. All states involved shall refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the conflict between the parties.

The Special Rapporteur stresses that any unilateral measures which are not authorized by the UN Security Council or go beyond its authorization may only be taken in full compliance with international law in accordance with basic principles of the rule of law, including legality, legitimacy, humanity and proportionality, with due account for the precautionary approach as concerns the humanitarian impact of measures taken.

The Special Rapporteur considers illegal any unilateral measures, the wrongfulness of which cannot be excused or justified as countermeasures or on any other basis, if they have significantly detrimental and disproportional impacts on the enjoyment of fundamental human rights and freedoms. In this context, the Special Rapporteur is gravely concerned that these basic requirements for the imposition of unilateral measures were not respected by the Four States as they affect negatively the rights of people living in Qatar and other individuals beyond Qatar’s borders.

Qatar is well-known for setting examples pioneering of the promotion of freedom of expression in the region. In this context, the Special Rapporteur expresses her concern that the demand to shut down Qatari news outlets, including Al Jazeera, is contrary to the international human rights obligations which are legally binding for all five countries and clearly undermines freedom of expression, creating a chilling effect that stifles civil society as well as provokes uncertainty and fear among writers and journalists. Such demands are a priori unacceptable and contrary to international human rights law.

The Special Rapporteur is also concerned that the Four States have implemented various unilateral trade sanctions against Qatar which restrict trade in goods, services and trade-related intellectual property rights, impeding the full realization of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals set in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The Special Rapporteur welcomes rеcent progress of Qatar in improving its domestic legislation and practice in countering terrorism. She notes Qatar’s active participation in the global fight against terrorism, including through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) procedures and its hosting of the Al Udeid Air Base, which serves as the primary base of operations for the Global Coalition against ISIS. In addition, Qatar is a party to 15 multilateral agreements relating to security and counter-terrorism, and it is an active contributing member of the Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, a non-profit foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland, and the first global effort to support local community efforts to build resilience to violent extremism

In this context, the Special Rapporteur is concerned about a lack of evidence for legitimizing the imposition of unilateral sanctions as countermeasures in response to Qatar’s alleged conduct; in particular, Qatar’s purported financing and support for terrorism and alleged violation of a series of agreements entered into by the GCC states in 2013-2014, known as the Riyadh Agreements.

Impact on enjoyment of human rights:

The Special Rapporteur met a large number of victims of human rights violations including individuals, lawyers, journalists and representatives of local civil society, humanitarian organizations, corporations and academia. Among those who are reported to be badly affected are couples in mixed marriages and their children; Qatari nationals with jobs or businesses based in the Four States or involved in joint ventures with nationals of the Four States; Qatari students studying in the Four States (with some more positive tendencies as concerns Egypt); nationals of the Four States, Qatar and third countries exercising their freedom of expression and speaking in sympathy for Qatar or in opposition to their own Governments’ actions towards Qatar; individuals and employees of companies designated by the Four States as being involved in terrorist activity; Qatari agencies involved in the organization of Hajj and Umrah; and Qatari nationals not being able to exercise their religious rights by visiting Holy places. The Special Rapporteur notes that the rights of migrant workers are also directly and indirectly affected, as many lost their jobs and were left stranded by employers without salaries and/or benefits.  

While positively noting certain steps taken by the Four States to limit the humanitarian impact of the applied unilateral sanctions – in particular, some Qatari nationals, especially those with immediate relatives in four states, are admitted into the countries; Qatari students are being selectively allowed to come back to their studies, especially in Egypt; a limited number of commercial deals and contracts, registrations and ID documents are renewed; the possibility to appeal for limited-duration travel to the Four States via a hotline and online has been expanded to all categories of Qataris, rather than only separated families and some others as was initially the case – the Special Rapporteur is still concerned about numerous substantiated reports that unilateral sanctions discriminated and continue to discriminate against Qataris on the basis of their national origin, which may amount to a pattern of persistent and systematic human rights violations.
In this context, the expulsion of Qataris from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the recalls of nationals of those states from Qatar, as well as the bans on travel imposed by those states, have resulted in numerous reported violations of the enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms, including: the right to family life; the right to an education; the right to work; the right to health; the right to private property; the right to free exercise of religion; and the right to equal access to justice.

The Special Rapporteur is concerned that breach or interruption of trade and communication networks may result in the violation of the right to life with regard to specific medicines for which there are no equivalent alternative sources of supply, like scorpion and snake bite antidotes locally produced in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The interruption of communication and exchange of information between law-enforcement agencies increases risks in creating protection gaps for victims of human trafficking.

In addition, the Four States’ demands to shut down Al Jazeera and other Qatari news outlets, the banning of them on their territories and the criminalization of expressions of sympathy with Qatar by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain violate the rights of freedom of opinion and expression. The reported and well-documented anti-Qatari incitement campaigns in the media of the Four States also violate the rights to freedom of expression, as well as obligations to take all necessary measures to prevent and prosecute incitement to racial discrimination. Insufficient transparency adds to forming the feelings of fear and uncertainty that result in mental suffering.

Recommendations of the Special Rapporteur:

The Special Rapporteur urges the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Arab Republic of Egypt to immediately withdraw all sanctions / measures aimed at establishing restrictions on freedom of expression, movement, access to property, trade barriers, and ban tariffs, quotas, non-tariff measures, including those which prevent financing the purchase of medicine, medical equipment, food, other essential goods for people living in Qatar in violation of international legal standards.

The Special Rapporteur calls on the Four States to guarantee freedom of opinion and expression by annulling all Qatar sympathy laws, to take all necessary legislative and organizational measures to guarantee that activities under their jurisdiction and control are taken without any discrimination, to not initiate hatred towards people living in Qatar; and to drop all cases related to the application of the Qatar sympathy laws to guarantee that no discrimination is applied.
The Special Rapporteur echoes the calls of the UN Special Procedures mandate holders and UN treaty bodies to the Four States to review the definition of terrorism and terrorism financing in their laws and bring it into line with international human rights norms, and to refrain from using anti-terrorism and other forms of national security legislation to stifle peaceful and non-violent activities through the designation of people, journalists and NGOs, including Qatar Charity, as well as others not included in the UN Security Council lists. The designation of people and companies as being involved in terrorist activity can only be done bona fidae and based on clear standards with due account for fair trial and judicial guarantees under the control of the UN Security Council.

The Special Rapporteur stresses the importance of fully implementing decisions and provisional measures decided by the competent international bodies, including:

  • families that include a Qatari, separated by the measures adopted by the Four States on 5 June 2017, shall be reunited;
  • Qatari students affected by the measures adopted by the Four States on 5 June 2017 and later are given the opportunity to complete their education in the four countries or to obtain their educational records if they wish to continue their studies elsewhere; and
  • Qataris affected by the measures adopted by the Four States on 5 June 2017 and later are allowed access to tribunals and other judicial organs of the four countries without discrimination of any kind;

In accordance with customary norms of international law, all states are obliged to guarantee that activities under their jurisdiction or control in any area, including cyber space, do not affect the rights of other states and their nationals and residents. The Special Rapporteur thus urges the Four States to guarantee that no discrimination is applied towards people living in Qatar; that sport, cultural and academic events are used to enhance cooperation and development of people without any discrimination; and that any form of incitement to hatred is addressed, discontinued and prosecuted as required by international human rights law, article 20 of the ICCPR.

The Special Rapporteur also notes the need for all concerned countries to negotiate visa and residence issues, including the possibility to re-establish the freedom of movement provided for by the GCC documents for four of them; in the meantime, to establish reasonable transparent criteria for granting residence permits, issuing visas, allowing short-term visits and ensuring their safety.

The Special Rapporteur calls on all parties to guarantee that all people enjoy fully their right to recognition before the law, including by issuing and renewing all necessary IDs and documents, especially for children. In the meantime, to fill the protection gap, the Special Rapporteur recommends that Qatar take all necessary steps to provide temporary or permanent IDs for affected people of the Four States, and to establish centralized organs to provide them with asylum.
The Special Rapporteur calls the on the State of Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain, which are all members of the GCC – to resume their close cooperation between member states and use existing dispute settlement mechanisms.

The Special Rapporteur notes that due to the extraterritorial character of international terrorism, human trafficking and other transboundary crimes, they can only be effectively combatted through cooperation and mutual assistance. She calls thus on all parties to renew cooperation and intensify mutual assistance in criminal matters.

While recognising that Hajj and Umrah are constituting an inalienable pillar of the exercise of freedom of conscience of any Muslim, the Special Rapporteur calls on the State of Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to negotiate and conclude in good faith and without any discrimination protocols between the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs in the State of Qatar and the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia providing for quotas, local contractors, airports of arrival, the possibility of land crossing points and other necessary elements as is done with other countries.
Finally, the Special Rapporteur would like to call to on all parties to defuse tension and tackle together the seriousness or severity of hate speech that may undermine traditional coherence and historical peaceful co-existence of people living in all five countries through full respect of fundamental human rights standards protecting free speech and expression, as well as six criteria and indicators derived from the Rabat Plan of Action.

In order to achieve that, all concerned States should develop and implement their own Counter Hate Speech Strategy through addressing “the root causes and drivers of hate speech”, on the one hand, and enabling effective responses to its impact upon societies, on the other, to protect and promote freedom of opinion and expression and the right to equality and non-discrimination, in addressing and countering hate speech based on the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech adopted in September 2020.

These are the preliminary findings of the Special Rapporteur’s mission. A full report will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2021.