Qatar and Gulf Arab foes raise airspace row at UN agency
Gulf aviation officials met on Thursday to discuss the airspace standoff resulting from the Arab world’s biggest powers decision to cut ties with Qatar, prompting Doha to invoke a 1944 international agreement to try to ease the logjam.
Qatar has asked the United Nations aviation agency, International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), to intervene after its Gulf neighbours closed their airspace to Qatar flights, but some sources were sceptical about finding a quick solution.
ICAO, which regulates international air travel under the Chicago Convention, is hosting transport ministers and aviation officials from the Gulf states and Egypt at its headquarters to help resolve the dispute that erupted last week. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of support for Islamist militants and Iran. The UAE has also decided to blacklist Qatari individuals and entities.
The Montreal meeting is the first high level gathering of countries involved in the Gulf crisis, however, it was not clear whether there would be any direct talks.
A member of the Saudi delegation, led by the country’s transport minister, said they would not be meeting directly with the Qatar representatives.
Qatar Airways Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker said the closure was “unprecedented and it is in direct contradiction to the convention that guarantees rights to civil overflight”, in a statement on Wednesday.
“We call upon the International Civil Aviation Organisation to declare this an illegal act. We are not a political body, we are an airline, and this blockade has stripped us of the rights which are guaranteed to us,” he said in the statement.
Qatar is expected to meet separately with council members and ICAO president, according to sources familiar with the meeting. One of the sources said the talks are expected to last for two days.
Qatar is asking the ICAO council to resolve the conflict, using a dispute resolution mechanism under the Chicago Convention, which governs airspace usage and is overseen by the UN agency. ICAO does not impose binding rules, but wields clout through safety and security standards that are usually followed by its 191-member countries.
Article 84 says that if two states cannot resolve a dispute related to the Chicago Convention through negotiation one can ask the council to settle it. Members involved in the dispute are not allowed to vote on the matter. A council ruling can be appealed to an ad-hoc tribunal.
One of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the private talks, said the airspace dispute would be difficult to resolve because it is a symptom of a larger row between the countries.
ICAO, which was created after the United States invited more than 50 allies to agree to a common air navigation system in 1944, has no policing powers and has to rely on consensus to enforce its will.
ICAO’s decision to intervene in the Gulf airspace dispute is a rare instance of the UN body directly attempting to settle a row between states.
In 1971, India closed its airspace to Pakistan in a row over the hijacking of a plane by Kashmir separatists. Pakistan complained to ICAO that its rights had been infringed under both post-World War II aviation agreements – the Chicago Convention and the separate International Air Transit Services Agreement, which guarantees transit rights.
The ICAO Council, however, merely encouraged the two sides to settle their differences, according to a history of the agency by Canadian academic David Mackenzie.