Resolving The Militarised Territorial Dispute Between Eritrea And Yemen

Resolving The Militarised Territorial Dispute Between Eritrea And Yemen

Year(s): 1995 – 1998.

Location: The Hanish Islands, Yemen.

UN Regional Group: Africa and Asia-Pacific.

Type of Conflict: Risk of Interstate Conflict.

Type of Initiative: Diplomacy and the resolution of a militarised territorial dispute.

Main Implementing Organisation(s): The Government of France, the UN, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Impact: Lasting.

Summary: The immediate threat of armed conflict was ended and the territorial dispute over the Hanish Islands was resolved by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Description of Case 

The Hanish Islands are an archipelago in the Red Sea located between Eritrea and Yemen. During the colonial period, the Italian and British governments failed to definitively settle the boundaries between their respective colonies, and this situation did not improve when Ethiopia and North Yemen governed the land on either side of the Islands. The dispute remained largely dormant until Yemeni unification and Eritrean independence (1990 and 1991, respectively), when both administrations sought to settle their borders and raise revenue. In 1995, Yemen granted a tourism license to develop diving on the islands, sending 200 soldiers to guard the construction site on the largest island in the archipelago (Greater Hanish), while Eritrea signed a contract for oil exploration in the maritime area around the Islands and issued an ultimatum of 11 November for the Yemeni troops to withdraw. After ministerial talks took place in October and 25 detained Yemeni fishermen were released by Eritrean authorities, the dispute appeared to be nearing a diplomatic resolution.[1] However, when the Eritrean armed forces found the Yemeni positions on Greater Hanish still occupied on 15 December, they launched an offensive. The fighting continued for 3 days, when telephone negotiations between both presidents resulted in a ceasefire at midnight on 17 December. The battle was already over when the deadline hit, leaving a total of 18 dead and 213 captured Yemeni soldiers and civilians.[2] The prisoners were released three days later.

After the battle, the Arab League condemned Eritrea and urged its members to support Yemen’s claim to the Islands, sparking a brief war of words with the Organisation of African Unity. The discovery that some Israeli-made boats were used in the Eritrean offensive added another dimension to the dispute, leading to condemnations of the Eritrean government by a host of Arab states.[3] The belligerents received offers to mediate from the UN, Organisation of Islamic Conference, and several prominent regional powers, but, after diplomatic pressure from the UN Secretary-General, eventually accepted the offer of the French government in 1996. After months of talks, the parties agreed to refer the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to judge the case and resolve it peacefully.[4] Tensions were heightened again in August 1996 after more military activity in the area, but on 3 October 1996 a formal peace agreement was signed in Paris. The arbiters came to their decision on 9 October 1998, awarding most of the islands to Yemen but guaranteeing Eritrean fishing rights in the area.[5] The armed conflict was over, the dispute was resolved, and the risk of a more severe interstate conflict was greatly reduced.

[1] Daniel Dzurek. “Eritrea-Yemen Dispute Over the Hanish Islands.” IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin, Vol. 4, No. 1. (1996) p.72

[2] Jeffrey Lefebvre. “Red Sea Security and the Geopolitical-Economy of the Hanish Islands Dispute.” Middle East Journal, Vol. 52, No. 3. (1998) p.369

[3] Ibid. p.377-8

[4] Yemen-Eritrea Arbitration Agreement, 1996. Available in: Yearbook of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, Vol. 3, No. 1. (1996)

[5] Permanent Court of Arbitration. Case 81: Eritrea/Yemen – Sovereignty and Maritime Delimitation in the Red Sea. (PCA, 2021) Available at: (Accessed 19/11/2021)