Dear Secretary Tillerson (and the World Media): Qatar is NOT Under a “Blockade”

Dear Secretary Tillerson (and the World Media): Qatar is NOT Under a “Blockade”

Longtime readers of this blog may have noticed that one of my pet peeves is the incorrect usage of international legal terms in public and diplomatic discourse.  Hence, Israel did NOT commit “piracy” during the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid despite lots of governments claiming otherwise.  Cuba is not under a “blockade” despite tons of Cuban government propaganda otherwise. So you can imagine my dismay when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued this statement yesterday calling the situation in Qatar a “blockade.”

We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar. There are humanitarian consequences to this blockade.

(Emphasis added). Global media is using the term  “blockade” as well.

I don’t doubt that Qatar is under severe economic pressure.  It is reported that all of Qatar’s neighbors in the Gulf have cut off air, land and sea trade with Qatar.  Saudi Arabia has blocked the only land border into Qatar, which is a peninsula.  But as powerful as these economic pressures are, they do NOT constitute a blockade as defined by international law.  As this definition from the Max Planck Institute Encyclopedia of Public Law explains:

A blockade is a belligerent operation to prevent vessels and/or aircraft of all nations, enemy and neutral from entering or exiting specified ports, airports, or coastal areas belonging to, occupied by, or under the control of an enemy nation.

There is no evidence, as far as I know, that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are preventing “vessels and/or aircraft of all nations” from entering Qatar ports.  Instead, the Gulf nations are simply preventing anyone in their territories from traveling to or trading with Qatar.  A blockade would mean that the Gulf nations actually used military force to interdict all shipping and flights into Qatar by any nation and through international waters.  Israel has essentially established such a blockade of the Gaza Strip, but that has not happened to Qatar (yet). Until that happens, there is no blockade.

Why is it so shocking that Secretary Tillerson did not recognize this legal distinction? Because the U.S. frequently engages in economic sanctions of the sort currently being imposed against Qatar.  The U.S. has either strict economic sanctions or full-scale embargoes on countries like North Korea, Cuba, and Iran.  Cuba in particular has tried to label the US embargo on it as a “blockade” even though the U.S. does not use military force to prevent other countries from trading with Cuba. The U.S. should not and cannot water down the legal definition of “blockade” without imperiling an crucial tool in its diplomatic toolbox.   Moreover, since “blockades” are traditionally seen as an “act of war,” they would probably constitute a “use of force” under Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter.  The U.S., more than any country, should want to maintain the legal right to impose embargoes.

So please, Secretary Tillerson, consult your many talented and knowledge State Department lawyers.  Qatar is NOT being blockaded, and the U.S. (of all countries) should avoid saying so.

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Opinio Juris » Blog Archive Dear Secretary Tillerson (and the World Media): Qatar is NOT Under a "Blockade" – Opinio Juris



Opinio Juris » Blog Archive Dear Secretary Tillerson (and the World Media): Qatar is NOT Under a "Blockade" – Opinio Juris

Non liquet
Non liquet

Hi Julian, if you were writing the statement, what would you call it?


I believe the expression used was “Quarantine” with respect to Cuba.

Arron N. Honniball

Dear Julian,

Whilst I enjoyed your sourcing of the Al Jazeera media outlet at the heart of the allegations for severing ties on ‘national security’ grounds, is Secretary Tillerson’s opinion really the most relevant?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but actors in the dispute are also referring to the economic measures as a blockade (I’m assuming contrary to Trump’s tweet, that the USA role here isn’t that great). If you look at the practice of the UAE port authorities for example, a recent circular was entitled “Enforcement of Blockade with Qatar”. Industry actors like Intertanko are also advising members to check their charterparties for whether a provision upon “blockades” exists.

Maybe it is easier to redefine blockade within international law than battle the tides of use!