Dispute over Hawar Islands

The Hawar Islands are located 24km southwest of Bahrain. The archipelago is comprised of 16 islets, representing a total land area of 38 sq. km. Major centers of pearl diving in the past, the islands are bounded with coral reefs and shallows. The population of the archipelago mostly concentrates into fishers’ villages. In 2002, Bahrain submitted for the application of the Hawar islands as a World Heritage Site, due to its unique environment and habitat for endangered species. This site is home to many wildlife species and a very remarkable place for birdwatchers and divers.

The islands belong to Bahrain, despite their proximity to the country of Qatar. It is within this light that the Hawar islands became the subject of a dispute between Bahrain and Qatar. Official claims on Hawar Islands by the countries of Bahrain and Qatar started in 1935. This occurred after oil had been found in Bahrain over ten years earlier. An armed conflict then ensued in August 1937. In 1939, it was ruled by the British that Hawar Islands belonged to Bahrain. Qatar, however, resumed claims on the islands in 1960. The Emir of Qatar condemned the 1939 agreement and tried to purchase the islands.

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Eventually, the Qatari cost guards prevented Bahraini fishers to enter the waters surrounding Hawar Islands. Bahrain, on its part, answered with naval maneuvers and was accused by Qatar of violating its territorial waters. On 26 April 1986, Qatari troops captured 29 Bahraini workers, who were nevertheless later released. Due to these incidents, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council attempted to mediate between the two parties. As a result, Bahrain claimed the Zubara area, which had previously belonged to the Khalifa family, ruler of Bahrain, and Qatar claimed the Hawar islands.

However, Bahrain took a tighter grip when its oil stocks started to dwindle. On 17 April 1992, Qatar claimed new territorial water borders extending over 12 miles. They also claimed a 22-mile area in which it could exert their sovereignty. Bahrain immediately litigated these borders and filed the case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ, The World Court) in The Hague. There were complex legal issues involved in this dispute. It includes the legitimacy of the 1939 colonial-era decision. It also took cognizance of precedents concerning territorial integrity versus actual control of erritory. In this dispute, Qatar based its claim to the islands on its priority of title and on the principle of proximity and territorial unity. They claim that the islands all lie within the 12 nautical mile limit of the Qatari coast, and most lie within a three nautical mile limit. Thus, they deduce that islands are an integral part of the coast of Qatar. On the other hand, Bahrain based its claim on a 1939 British decision granting them to Bahrain. It claimed that it had exercised sovereignty over the Hawar islands for over two centuries.

They alleged that Qatar never exercised any competing authority. In addition to citing evidences of Bahraini links with the islands through the years, it more importantly relied on the British decision of July 11, 1939 giving the islands to Bahrain. To give light on the said decision, it came about after Qatar charged Bahrain of illegally occupying the islands in 1937. The two sides both appealed to the British to settle the issue and the latter ruled in favor of Bahrain. Bahrain insisted that such amounted to an arbitration award.

Thus, Bahrain maintained that since 1939, it had indeed maintained continuous occupation and exercised sovereignty on the islands. On the contrary, Qatar rejected the 1939 decision because it was done by the colonial power without Qatari acquiescence. Qatar has set out in clear terms the basis of its claim of sovereignty over the Hawar islands. Qatar stands by the fact that the majority of the islands and islets constituting the Hawar islands lie wholly or partially within a three-mile territorial sea limit from the mainland coast of Qatar, which was a limit recognized by Qatar and Great Britain in the 1930s.

In addition, they also contend that all of them now lie within a twelve-mile territorial sea limit from the mainland coast. Moreover, the Hawar islands were generally acknowledged to appertain to Qatar, and not to Bahrain, at least up until 1936, as shown by documentary and map evidence from the British, among others. Hence, this present case. On 16 March 2001, the ICJ granted to Bahrain sovereignty on the Hawar Islands. It also guaranteed free circulation between Bahrain and the Hawar islands. The agreement was placed under the supervision of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

In its decision, the ICJ placed considerable weight upon the findings of the British in 1939. In that particular decision, it essentially gave greater weight to the evidence of past Bahraini occupation than to Qatar’s claim of territorial proximity. It recognized that both parties had the opportunity to present their arguments before the British, and that in some of the correspondence Qatar had entrusted the decision to the British. Though the Qatari ruler protested the decision after it was made, the ICJ found that Britain had the right to make it.

It therefore held that the 1939 decision was binding and found the Hawar islands for Bahraini sovereignty. Some critics are of the opinion that the Court evaded to settle some of the issues. For instance, they question the ICJ’s decision by ruling the Hawar Islands issue not on a principle of territorial law but by interpreting a British protectorate-era ruling as binding and valid upon the parties. Some of the dissenting judges objected to the legitimization of the British 1939 colonial-era decision.

Further, the ICJ mainly decided the issue on the basis of precedent or actual control rather than on broader principles of territorial and law of the sea issues. Nonetheless, the court decided the case through the process of drawing a maritime boundary and settling all the outstanding territorial issues. Notably speaking, Qatar and Bahrain both began praising the decision almost immediately, though in each case some territorial claim it had long characterized as non-negotiable had been overridden. This included Bahrain’s claim to Zubara, as well as Qatar’s to the Hawar islands.

Although Bahrain immediately invited foreign companies to begin oil exploration in the Hawar islands, Qatar did none of the protest from which would have been expected from them a few weeks earlier from the same announcement. As stated in the article, “The Bahrain-Qatar Border Dispute: The World Court Decision” (2001), the March 16, 2001 decision by the ICJ on the longstanding border disputes between Bahrain and Qatar will be a landmark case of what an internationally binding decision can do to end an ancient feud.

Both Qatar and Bahrain accepted the decision and immediately announced new areas of dialogue and mutual cooperation. In retrospect, it might almost be described as a case of both sides displaying a palpable sense of relief that a longstanding dispute, which neither side could afford to compromise on, had been removed from the table of issues between them. REFERENCE: – Unknown. (2001). The Bahrain-Qatar Border Dispute: The World Court Decision: Part 1. Retrieved on July 20, 2011, from http://www. theestimate. com/public/032301. html – Unknown. (2001). The Bahrain-Qatar Border Dispute: The World Court Decision: Part 2.

Retrieved on July 20, 2011, from http://www. theestimate. com/public/040601. html – Unkown. (n. d. ). The Hawar Islands since the Late Eighteenth Century. Retrieved on July 20, 2011, from http://www. collegetermpapers. com/viewpaper/1303728665. html – Unkown. (n. d. ). Case Concerning Maritime Delimitation And Territorial Questions Between Qatar And Bahrain. Retrieved on July 20, 2011 from, http://www. icj-cij. org/docket/files/87/11055. pdf – Unkown. (n. d. ). Hawar Islands. Retrieved on July 20, 2011, from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Hawar_Islands

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