Qatar continues to reform its image

January 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

It was reported this weekend that the ruler of the Gulf State Qatar had advocated for Arab States to enter Syria in order to stop government forces in the country killing civilians. When asked whether he thought Arab forces should intervene, Sheik Hamad is quoted on the American television programme ‘60 minutes’ as saying that “For such a situation to stop the killing… some troops should go to stop the killing”.

Such a statement from an Arab State leader concerning the situation in a neighbouring country would have been almost unthinkable only a few years ago. Yet this weekend’s statement is only the latest in a series of instances where Qatar has freely broken ranks with African and Asian counterparts in criticising the conduct of one of its neighbours. Although there are numerous exceptions, traditionally States from both continents have closed ranks or at least turned a blind eye, to human rights violations occurring in a neighbouring country. Such practices have been heavily criticised by Western States and played a major role in the demise in credibility of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which was disbanded in 2006 after its rapidly declining reputation made it impossible for it to fulfil its mandate.

The United Nations Human Rights Council
The practice of sheltering regional allies from criticism continued into the early years of the Commission’s replacement, the Human Rights Council. The practice was generally understood to be retaliation by developing Southern States against what they saw as double-standards in their Western colleagues who they argued would focus on violations in developing countries so as to deflect attention from their own controversial policies. As 26 of the 47 Council members are African or Asian States (13 from each continent), these two groups hold the power to influence almost every decision the body makes and their action, or rather inaction, has led to early criticisms of the new body.

The Council, and previously the Commission, has the power to draw attention to any specific or continuing human rights situation. At the instigation of one third of its members (i.e. 16 States), the Council has the power to hold a Special Session to consider a particular human rights emergency. These can either be thematic or country specific situations. Continuing the practice of not conferring criticism on neighbouring States (apart from Israel), many Asian and African countries have appeared more willing to support calls for Special Sessions concerning thematic issues which do not specifically identify one country for criticism. For instance, in May 2008, 22 of the 26 African and Asian Council Members supported the call for a Special Session to consider the worsening world food crisis, while in February 2009, 20 African and Asian Council Members supported a Special Session to consider the impact of the global financial crisis on human rights. Council members from both continents have appeared less willing to single out one country for criticism. For example, in December 2006 when the Finnish representative to the Council called for a Special Session of the Council to address the pressing human rights crisis in Darfur only 11 of the Asian and African members of the Council initially supported the call (with China, India, Senegal and Cameroon joining the request later).

Qatar on the Human Rights Council
On May 17 2007 Qatar was elected to the Human Rights Council at the first opportunity with 170 votes. Qatar remained united with much of the African and Asian blocs by not visibly supporting calls for Special Sessions to consider human rights crises in other developing nations. In November 2008 only South Korea and Japan from the Asian group, and none of the 13 Council members from the African group, supported the call for a Special Session to consider the situation of human rights in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  In May 2009 it was only South Korea from the Asian group and Mauritius from the African group who supported the call for a Special Session to address the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

The winds of change began to be felt in December 2010 when, in an extraordinary reversal of previous strategy, Nigeria presented a call for a Special Session on behalf of the Group of African States to consider the situation of human rights in Côte d’Ivoire since the elections held on 28 November 2010. In an unprecedented step all 13 African States on the Human Rights Council supported the decision to convene a Special Session. That being said, once again only Japan and South Korea from the Asian group supported the call. Qatar remained one of the Asian States reluctant to focus criticism on an individual State.

Arab Spring
Since the Arab Spring of 2011 however, Qatar has been far more proactive in its engagement with the international community on human rights issues. In February 2011 Qatar, along with Japan, Jordan, Maldives, Senegal and Zambia from the African and Asian groups, supported the call for a Special Session to consider the human rights situations in Libya. Although curiously not supporting the call for a Special Session to consider Syria in April, Qatari authorities have supported the convening of two further Special Sessions in August and December 2011.

Qatar’s influence has not been restricted to the Human Rights Council. At the crucial Security Council meeting in March 2011, where the Resolution establishing a ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya was established, Qatar played an influential function by stating that it would play a role in any military engagement. In October 2011 it was reported how Qatar followed through with this commitment by sending hundreds of troops to assist the rebel forces in training, communications and strategy.  Qatar was also the first country to offer military assistance to NATO forces enforcing a ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya and took part in the subsequent operations. Reports further suggest that Qatari funding set up ‘Libya TV’, a station founded to counter the pro-government propaganda which was prevalent before and during the conflict.

This weekend’s statement by Sheik Hamad only further solidifies the reformed approach Qatar takes to the international community. Some have questioned the motivations behind such a change in strategy, in particular there have been suggestions that Qatar wants to establish itself as the leader of Islamic States in the region. Whatever Qatar’s motivation is for leaning towards the Western States’ policies on intervention, it is clear that it will be pursuing this approach whole heartedly. The question now is whether, from its regional and historical voting bloc, it will have to go it alone, or will it others follow?

– Conall Mallory

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