(Adds details, aviation lawyer comments, background)
By Allison Lampert
MONTREAL, June 15 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia, one of four Arab states that have cut ties with Qatar, said on Thursday that the rift was a bigger political issue than airspace rights and could not be resolved at the U.N.’s aviation agency, according to a source familiar with talks.
Qatar asked the International Civil Aviation Organization to intervene after its Gulf neighbors closed their airspace to Qatar flights last week as part of economic sanctions.
The ICAO, which regulates international air travel under the Chicago Convention, brought together transport ministers and aviation officials from the Gulf states and Egypt at its headquarters to help resolve the dispute.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting Islamist militants and Iran. The UAE has also decided to blacklist Qatari individuals and entities.
Saudi Transport Minister Suleiman al-Hamdan told ICAO members “this is something that’s bigger than ICAO,” according to the source, who declined to be identified because the talks are confidential.
Qatar, whose delegation was led by its Ottawa-based ambassador, was not present at the meeting. Al-Hamdan could not be reached for comment, and an ICAO spokesman could not comment.
Qatar was slated to meet separately with council members and ICAO’s president. The two-day meetings end on Friday.
Qatar is asking the ICAO council to resolve the conflict, using a dispute resolution mechanism in the Chicago Convention, which governs airspace usage and is overseen by the U.N 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.
The Saudi delegation said on Thursday that Qatar itself is defying Article 4 of the convention, which calls on members “not to use civil aviation for any purpose inconsistent with the aims” of the international agreement.
It was not known what the Saudis meant, nor how Council members reacted to the Saudi message.
The Montreal meeting is the first high-level gathering of countries involved in the Gulf crisis. There have been no direct talks between Qatar and its neighbors.
Qatar Airways Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker this week said the closure was “unprecedented and it is in direct contradiction to the convention that guarantees rights to civil overflight.”
”We call upon the International Civil Aviation Organization 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 a statement.
Aviation lawyer Bill Clark, who has previously represented Qatar Airways, said the country “would probably have a good claim” under Article 84.
“I think it’s wise that they’ve invoked it. I don’t believe it would be a speedy process,” he said.
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.
Its decision to intervene in the Gulf airspace dispute is a rare instance of the U.N. body directly attempting to settle a row between states.
In 1971, India closed its airspace to Pakistan 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. (Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris, Ethan Lou in Toronto; editing by Bernard Orr and Dan Grebler)