Within the United Nations paradigm, state-parties settle their disputes peacefully and only resort to the use of force as a last measure. Several weeks ago four state-parties skipped the first step and used force against a fellow member state. That aggressive act consisted of embargoes, cyber-attacks, and trade and flight disruption, culminating in a list of demands by those states to lift those sanctions.
In 2017, it is hard to imagine that a member state would use force without a legal sanction by the Security Council or an appropriate regional body. The unilateral decision to do harm to a member state of the United Nations by other member states is an action that should be condemned and corrected. Most remarkably is how little has been done by the international community to correct the situation and restore international peace and security within the region. The silence is deafening.
The use of force by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt (the Quartet) against Qatar would not have happened but for a new and unstable President in the White House. Past Presidents, regardless of party, would not have allowed this to happen; and one would surmise that this Saudi led attack would not have even been contemplated by this Quartet of member states due to that leverage by the West. This quartet saw a political weakness and an opening and took it almost assured of the reaction by the West.
This action by the Quartet could most likely be the beginning of a series of "events" brought upon by a weakened and confused American foreign policy. The lack of leadership coming out of Washington is starting to weaken that international peace and security upon which the United Nations is grounded. Though international blackmail cannot be allowed to stand, the lack of discourse between the feuding parties will only exacerbate the situation. The recent demand by the UAE for Qatar to withdraw as a host of the 2022 World Cup is an example of the blackmail and the lack of interest in settling a dispute peacefully.
The violations of international law and norms committed by the Quartet against Qatar are almost too numerous to mention. Among the treaties violated are the Universal Declaration of Human rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Arab Charter on Human Rights, as well as the Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United States, among several others. These violations could arguably amount to an act of aggression. The battlefield and the weapons used are not conventional, but an embargo and the use of cyber space as a weapon to do harm could be construed as an aggressive act.
Hence the dilemma the international community now faces, technology has shifted the concept of conflict to another dimension, cyberspace. Its use to do harm continues to manifest itself and the lack of regulation of this new battlespace causes muddled or ineffectual response.
It is suggested that we look at this simply. Cyberspace is a platform that can be used for good and for evil. When used aggressively to do harm the use of cyberspace can be seen as a tool of war, no different than conventional weapons systems. These weapons can only be used when there is a lawful sanction, such as a UN Security Council Resolution, coupled with military necessity as its governing principle. Only then can cyberspace be used as weapon. If either of these two principles are missing, it is an unlawful use of force and can be considered an international crime.
The dispute in the Gulf cannot be brushed aside as a minor spat between warring clans. It is a possible precursor to future attempts by other member states to coerce an outcome using international blackmail. Regardless of the lack of a coherent US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, the international community must step up and force a peaceful dialog to resolve the aggressive acts by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt. If allowed to continue, the concept of international peace and security is threatened and the reputation of the United Nations harmed.
As stated in the Quran: [2:190] You may fight in the cause of GOD against those who attack you, but do not aggress. GOD does not love the aggressors.
David M. Crane is the founder of the Syrian Accountability Project and the IamSyria Campaign. He is the Founding Chief Prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa called the Special Court for Sierra Leone and a Professor at Syracuse University College of Law.
Suggested citation: David M. Crane, International Blackmail, JURIST - Academic Commentary, Oct. 11, 2017, http://jurist.org/forum/2017/10/David-Crane-international-blackmail.php
This article was prepared for publication by Ben Cohen, a Section Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to him at