FOUR MONTHS of shuttle diplomacy by the French president's special envoy bore fruit on May 1 when Yemen and Eritrea finally agreed to take their Red Sea island dispute to arbitration. As Middle East International went to press, preparations were under way for a formal signing ceremony, amid Yemeni claims that Eritrea might still back out at the last minute.
Fighting broke out last December when Eritrean forces seized Greater Hanish, one of nine islands in an archipelago almost midway between the two states.
The case will be heard by a special arbitration court rather than the International Court of Justice in The Hague - apparently to speed up the process. Even so, it could take six months and there are several hurdles to be passed before a decision is reached.
The first potential difficulty concerns the arbitrators. Yemen and Eritrea will choose one each (probably Egypt and Ethiopia respectively), but the third must be chosen by mutual agreement. Yemen has already indicated its preference for France, though Eritrea may not accept this.
Once that has been resolved, there is a dispute about the territory under dispute. This centres on the precise meaning of "the area of conflict". Eritrea wants the arbitrators to rule on sovereignty of the entire archipelago while Yemen insists the issue is Greater Hanish only. The French foreign ministry statement announcing the decision to go to arbitration avoided specifying the area of conflict. Eritrean sources said this had been left for the arbitrators to decide before ruling on the substantive issue.
The islands themselves are unimportant - the three largest are Zuqar (48 sq miles), Greater Hanish (29 sq miles), and Lesser Hanish (three sq miles) - but it is thought that associated fishing and mineral rights may lie at the root of the dispute. They are also strategically placed, close to the Bab al-Mandab straits linking the Red Sea and with the Indian Ocean. For more than 20 years there have been persistent suggestions of Israeli interest in establishing a base there.
The status of the islands, which were once part of the Ottoman empire, has never been formally settled by international convention. During the British occupation of Aden, Britain maintained two lighthouses on the islands, and is thought to have transferred the territory to South Yemen on independence in 1967. South Yemen united with the north in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen.
Until recently Greater Hanish was inhabited only by a handful of Yemeni fishermen, apart from a short period when Yemen allowed Eritrean guerrillas to use it as a base for their liberation struggle. Last year a European company, under Yemeni auspices, began building a hotel and scuba diving centre there. The Yemenis then sent a force of 200 men, ostensibly to guard the construction site, but they were humiliatingly driven out by the Eritreans in December. Yemen still has forces on neighbouring Zuqar where it also maintains a lighthouse.
Eritrea, which has officially existed as an independent state for only three years, bases its claim to the islands on an earlier Ethiopian claim. That, in turn, was based partly on a 1938 agreement under which Britain allowed Italian officials on the islands to protect fishermen visiting from Eritrea, which was then ruled by Italy.