The Team That Made It Happen: Our Experts on Hunaish [Archives:1998/44/Law & Diplomacy]

November 2 1998

Yesterday, November 1st, 1998, Eritrea formally handed over the island of Greater Hunaish to the Yemeni authorities, in partial fulfillment of the ruling of the Court of Arbitration issued on October 8th. 
Since then, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has run away with all the glory. No mention was ever made of the large number of men and women who spent many long nights and travelled extensively working on the case. Of course, President Saleh deserves some of the glory, but the official media presented the people of Yemen with a picture as if it was a one-man effort. Even Dr. Abdul-Karim Al-Iryani hardly got any mention. Other than being erroneous, this approach takes the nation back to the era of personality cults of the times of dictatorships. 
In its efforts, to put the issue in perspective, the Yemen Times will run a series of interviews with some of the men and women who contributed to the process. 
Mr. Hussain Al-Hubaishi, former Legal Affairs Minister, 
now private legal advisor: 
1. On how the work was distributed and the strategy followed: 
There is an office of experts in border matters which was mainly concerned with the Saudi side. So the Yemeni side made use of this office. But basically this issue was a marine issue so we had to feed this office with people who know something about marine matters. 
Fortunately I myself was leading the committee of negotiations with the Saudi side on marine matters and islands. I had few people who are like myself know few things about the law of the sea. 

But the first official step taken was the establishment of the National Committee for Negotiating the Dispute with Eritrea Over the Hunaish and Zuqar Islands. So we had this committee headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs (at the time) and 2 other ministers. They were assisted by legal experts, not as members, but in their capacity as legally trained people, specialized in the law of the sea. 
Every main committee negotiating or preparing for every step had its technical people. So we added at a later stage Dr. Sayed Mustafa for historical matters and Mr. Mohammed Al-Saghir for fisheries. 
Our plan was to divide the case into three parts. The first group included the legal people like myself. The second group included the diplomats – people from the Foreign Ministry. The third group was concerned with fisheries, and it gathered documents and data from fishermen and the Ministry of Fisheries. 
The legal people gathered legal documents from books and court precedence issued by the International Court of Justice. We used to sit regularly to check our information. Basically, we checked documents – whether they were useful or not. We had discussions with our lawyers and legal consultants outside Yemen. We used to consult lawyers in France, Brussels and Britain. We also consulted Arab lawyers, especially those with similar experiences. 
We worked with the foreign experts regarding specific documents, asking for their legal opinion. As Yemenis, we checked on them. 
That was in summary our strategy in the historical and legal practice of the case. Practice means official and government practice. But when I say legal, history, practice, these concepts have to be taken in a legal frame. 
2. On why Eritrean fishermen have fishing rights around islands of Yemeni sovereignty: 
In the past, fishermen had certain rights in certain parts controlled by the other side. These rights include recognizing certain traditional practices such as the right to fish in a certain area. It is not creating new rights but recognizing existing ones. So we shouldn’t worry about this. 
Both sides have been fishing for ages in certain areas which belong to the other side. So it is an acceptable norm that the Yemenis can fish in Eritrean territorial seas and vice versa. 
We have to remember that the case is still pending. This is a matter of international law. You have to quote previous international court rulings especially in marine matters and delimiting marine boundaries. 
Economic factors like national resources, fisheries, oil, etc, can create conflicts. In this case we should remember that the Red Sea is a semi-closed sea and either side cannot claim full territorial sovereignty over that sea plus over 200 economic zones. Sometimes it is easier to divide this between them by a middle line. However, Yemeni sovereignty over the Hunaish Islands gives our country a better chance. 
Ahmed Al-Basha, 
Chief of Africa Department, 
Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 
We were searching for documents with regard to the Hunaish case. We were especially looking for references to Hunaish in international treaties. Our committee was analyzing such treaties and searching very hard for diplomatic correspondences to prove the case of Yemen’s sovereignty over the islands. 
The search was done in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the Political Security Organization. The national security was brought in because we discovered that our government had been involved in secret relations with Eritrea and the Eritrean liberation movement. 
We also looked for documents dating back to the Turkish presence in Yemen as well as for oil concessions at the Ministry of Oil. In the issue of oil, the head office of Total company was helpful. All these documents gave us the evidence which helped regain sovereignty over the islands. 
We knew exactly what to look for. The Eritreans based their case of the “fact” that they are Italy’s successors. However, we found some documents proving that the Italians never occupied the islands. Their presence on Hunaish was according to a 1925 agreement with Britain. It was not to create a title for sovereignty. Also, the Turkish authorities gave the East of Africa to Mohammed Ali in the 19th century. He was given the whole shore of East Africa with the islands close to the shore, but not, for example, Hunaish islands which were part of the Arab shore. This is some of the important evidence we sourced. 
We also got a map which was annexed to the report of the UN committee that was in charge of Eritrea’s case from 1950 to 1952. The UN General Assembly issued a resolution making Eritrea a state federated with Ethiopia. So, that map was one of the important pieces of evidences showing that the islands were not part of Eritrea. 
The Italians who were present on the island during the late 1930s and 1940s let us have other maps. They intended to occupy the islands, but they did not have permanent occupation to create a title of sovereignty. 
Ambassador Marwan Noman started searching for documents from December 1995, soon after the occupation of Hunaish Island. I myself went to Addis Ababa in search of maps. We were searching for documents in Rome, USA, France, etc. 
Marwan Noman, 
Present Yemeni Ambassador to Ethiopia: 
Most of the Yemeni documents we found at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, some dating back to the years before the Revolution. Besides, we archived other countries’ documents which are related to Yemen. 
The Public Records Office in London were of great assistance because the British were in the area since their occupation of Aden in 1839. They had diplomatic correspondence between Aden, and the India and Colonial offices in London. 
We found most of the political history and the diplomatic correspondence among the Yemeni records. Our archives are full of documents related to the islands. So everything was here. We also searched the Italian and American archives. We gathered huge volumes of documents not necessarily directly related to the islands themselves, but also related to the general political history of Yemen. 
Yemeni translators and experts from all over the world were employed to read and translate the documents. 
Abdullah Al-Sayidi, 
Foreign Vice Minister: 
I was responsible for documentation. I was entrusted with the task of persuing documents and deciding whether they were relevant and needed or not. I was also involved in studying the contradictions between the Eritrean assertions and the documentation used to substantiate these assertions. 
I did three reports. The first on the Eritrea memorandum, the second on the Eritrean counter-memorandum, and the third on the primary observations. I was also involved with Mr. Basha and Mr. Noman on revising the memorandum and the counter-memorandum before their submission to the joint meeting of the National Arbitration Committee. 
According to the court verdict, we are now working on the maritime delimitation. This will follow the same procedures as in the first phase. Each side will submit a memorandum, and then a counter-memorandum. Of course, our counter memorandum would be a rejoinder to the Eritrean one. They will likewise submit a rejoinder, a counter-memorandum to Yemen’s memorandum. Then, we will have a hearing after which the court will be convened to make a decision. But at this particular stage, the court will ask for help from specialized bodies to help in the process of delimitation. 
In this respect, the Sea Convention is very clear on the case of closed seas. There are special articles that deal with that and I think that the tribunal will operate according to them. 
Yemen is a signatory to the 1982 Law of the Sea. Ethiopia was also a participant. Eritrea inherited the Ethiopian commitment to the Law of the Sea. Yemen and Eritrea are compelled to go according to the rules of the international law. 
All nations which subscribe to the Law of the Sea convention must have limits they can not exceed, as stipulated by this law. These are economic zones. The Red Sea is closed sea and you cannot have the same 200 miles economic zone, but 12 miles instead. 
International navigation will not be impeded by the court’s verdict. The three main light houses in Haba Al-Ter, Al-Zubair and Abu Ali, which are very close to Zuqar Island, all belong to Yemen. Even the lighthouse on Mahabaka island, which is 6 kilometers from Eritrea, used to be operated by Yemen in the 1980s. 
Captain Saeed Yafei, 
Chairman of the Public Corporation for Maritime Affairs. 
I was not actually a full member of the committee. I worked in the Fisheries sub-committee. My point of contribution had to do with maritime shipping routes. 
About 7% of the world trade goes through the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandab. Safe shipping in these waters is essential. The government of Yemen assumed responsibility for operating and maintaining lighthouses in the southern Red Sea. Now that the dispute has been peacefully settled by the International Court of Justice, my organization is taking responsibility, in the name of the Yemeni government, to proceed with providing safety and security to international navigation passing through Yemeni waters. 
Actually Yemen is considering a joint project with the World Bank and the Organization for the Protection of the Red and the Gulf of Aden. It aims to further improve the maritime situation in the southern part of the Red Sea. 
Among our other projects is to introduce ‘vessel traffic management system,’ free international navigational lines, and other facilities for shipping. 
Interviews by: 
Dr. Salah Haddash, 
Yemen Times Managing Editor