The Saudi-led coalition’s near three-year conflict in Yemen appears to be converging on the Houthi-controlled city of Hodeidah. Foreign diplomats, international humanitarian NGOs, and experts have rightly voiced concerns of the humanitarian disaster that would result if an operation to recapture the city takes place. As the United States weighs backing the United Arab Emirates (UAE) plan to seize Hodeidah, it should consider that it could find itself not only potentially complicit in war crimes, but also closely aligned with one of UAE’s key strategic partners sustaining its war efforts in Yemen: Eritrea, a country subject to United Nations sanctions and alleged to have committed crimes against humanity against its population.

A recent Just Security piece described how an assault on Hodeidah would likely involve UAE-supported ground forces. It would also likely include coalition airstrikes and attacks from helicopters and warships launched from, and facilitated by, the UAE’s military base in Eritrea, which has previously served as a primary base to support the UAE’s campaign to push out Houthi rebels from Aden.

Eritrea’s assistance to the UAE is deeply concerning, but it is not the only African country where the Gulf nation has set its sights for military expansion. Described once by Defense Secretary James Mattis as “Little Sparta,” the UAE is expanding its military and strategic foothold in the Horn of Africa, an expansion directly linked to its campaign in Yemen. These efforts have mostly gone unnoticed. Recently, on March 19, the parliament of the self-declared republic of Somaliland formally signed an agreement with the UAE to build and lease a military and naval base in its port city of Berbera for 25 years. The UAE more recently signed a similar agreement with the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland. Thus far, the exact nature and scale of the UAE’s plans for the Somaliland and Puntland bases remain unclear, although Somaliland’s Foreign Minister Saad Ali Shire recently stated that the Emiratis could use the Berbera port for any purpose, including “training, surveillance, and military operations.” A look at the UAE’s prior efforts in Eritrea, however, suggests that the Horn of Africa region is emerging as a key strategic foothold for the UAE to support the Saudi-led coalition war efforts against Houthi rebels.

Aside from general concerns regarding the UAE’s military and naval bases in Somaliland, Puntland, and Eritrea, the Emiratis involvement in the Horn does elicit important legal and policy concerns that demand greater scrutiny. It also further reveals the extent of African state involvement in military operations in Yemen. These questions include whether the UAE is violating a United Nations arms embargo on Eritrea, what the scale and nature of Eritrea’s support to the UAE is in Yemen, what extraterritorial human rights and humanitarian law obligations African states have with respect to the conflict in Yemen, and lastly what legal and policy risks African states face in providing assistance to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. 

The UAE and the Horn

The UAE’s 2017 military and naval base agreement with Somaliland is only the latest in a series of overtures the Gulf nation recently made in the Horn of Africa region. Under a 2015 agreement, the UAE constructed an air and naval base in Eritrea at the red sea port of Assab from which it has already mounted operations in Yemen. Satellite images obtained from Stratfor, a U.S.-based intelligence firm, reveal the UAE is increasing its military presence in Eritrea, through the development of Assab and the deployment of tanks, fighter jets, helicopters, and drones.

Controversially, Eritrea has reportedly provided its troops to fight in Yemen. According to a report by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somali and Eritrea, 400 Eritrean soldiers have been embedded with UAE-backed forces in Yemen fighting on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition. The report further revealed that the “presence of coalition forces in Assab expanded to encompass not only personnel from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but also Yemeni troops and other troops in transit.” The UAE has used its Eritrean base to train and equip 4,000 Yemeni fighters – specifically Hadrami Elite Forces and Security Belt Forces, who have been implicated in enforced disappearances and detainee abuse. The Yemeni forces are needed to support broader efforts by the UAE military and U.S. Special Operation Forces to liberate southern cities, such as Mukalla in 2016, which was being held by al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).

Far from just training Yemeni fighters, the UAE has reportedly used the Eritrean base as a transit point for African soldiers from Sudan and Senegal. The UAE has also launched military operations from the base, including airstrikes in southern Yemen. Sudanese battalions have, for instance, been transported from Assab to Aden to assume responsibility for security in Aden, and to participate in war efforts in Yemen’s mountain areas of Ibb and Taiz. Human rights groups have raised concerns about Sudanese troop involvement in Yemen, and have publicly stated that Sudanese forces will likely ignore the laws of war and abuse civilians with impunity as they have done in Sudan.

Assab also served as a base of operations for UAE combat ships involved in enforcing the coalition’s naval blockade of the Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Mokha in Yemen. Human rights groups have noted that the blockade has contributed to severe food and fuel shortages, as well as prevented the delivery of key humanitarian assistance to the country. A United Nations Panel of Experts report on Yemen has similarly voiced concerns about the Saudi-led coalition’s obstruction of humanitarian and food aid into the country.

Aside from contributing to apparent violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Yemen, the UAE base agreement in Eritrea appears to further violate a 2009 UN Security Council sanction imposed on Eritrea for its alleged role in providing weapons, logistical, and financial support to armed groups in Somalia, specifically to the “al-Qaeda-linked” group al-Shabaab.

According to a report by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, “Eritrea’s making available to third countries its land, territorial waters, and airspace to conduct military operations in another country is not in itself a violation of resolution 1907 Security Council . . . but any compensation diverted directly or indirectly towards activities that threaten peace and security in the region for the benefit of the Eritrean military would constitute a violation.” It further notes that “if the range of support provided by Eritrea to the regional coalition [. . .] constitutes either a direct or indirect transfer of prohibited material to or from Eritrea or an exchange of military assistance, it would be a violation of the arms embargo.”

These findings are further supported by the 2017 UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen, which directly cites the U.N. Monitoring Group on Eritrea’s earlier report mentioned above. Indeed, the panel report describes how UAE vessels “operating in direct support of military operations by the United Arab Emirates in Yemen,” have been regularly permitted access to the country and “mak[e] regular deliveries of supplies, troops, and equipment from Assab, Eritrea, to Yemen.” Such observations are troubling, and reveal the extent of Eritrean involvement in Yemen, and the potential violations of U.N. sanctions by the UAE.

Legal and policy concerns

The extent of the UAE’s involvement in Eritrea begs the question of whether it is directly violating U.N. sanctions. The U.N. sanctions resolution 1907 specifically prohibits that “all Member States shall immediately take the necessary measures to prevent the sale or supply to Eritrea by their nationals or from their territories or using their flag vessels or aircraft, of arms and related material of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned, and technical assistance, training, financial, and other assistance, related to the military activities or to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of these items.”

UAE’s support for Eritrea, a pariah state on the continent known as the “North Korea of Africa,” also has wider implications for the United States, which has partnered with the UAE military in Yemen. In June 2016, a UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights accused the Eritrean government of committing crimes against humanity against its population, including murder, extrajudicial killings, rape, imprisonment, and enforced disappearances since 1991. As Ryan Goodman and Alex Moorehead recently wrote, UAE forces are supporting U.S. counterterrorism operations against AQAP, particularly in Yemen’s southern provinces where Eritrean and Sudanese forces are allegedly deployed and embedded with UAE-backed forces. The U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, and in particular the UAE, should alarm policymakers in Washington, who should be concerned about potential complicity in war crimes, and the expanding list of pariah states with which the U.S. finds itself allied.

States in the Horn of Africa should also be wary of any cooperation with the UAE that may directly or indirectly drag them into the war in Yemen and accordingly risk their complicity in violations of international law carried out by the Saudi-led coalition.

First, as Goodman and others have previously discussed (here, here, here, and here), states which provide assistance to their state partners may incur international legal responsibility for doing so. Possible situations that may trigger responsibility include, “knowingly providing a facility or financing the activity in question,” or by “providing means for the closing of an international waterway.” Credible reports of international humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses by all sides of the Yemen conflict further demonstrate that Eritrea has permitted the use of its land, air, and sea territory with the knowledge that the UAE and its allied partners have targeted civilian populations and infrastructure in Yemen, and imposed a naval blockade on the country, which has blocked the delivery of food and other humanitarian assistance. As a recent Chatham House report highlighted, continued assistance to states in situations where “wrongful acts are manifestly being committed” should not be a basis to deny responsibility for contributing to the wrongful acts in question.

Eritrean (and other African states’) support for UAE, Saudi, and U.S. operations in Yemen may also trigger obligations under Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions, which places obligations on State Parties to “undertake to respect and to ensure respect” for the Convention in all circumstances. Turning to Eritrea’s obligations, the government would be required under its Common Article 1 obligations to ensure respect for the laws applicable in war and cease permitting use of its military base by the UAE to launch operations including airstrikes, given credible reports of systematic law of war violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition and the UAE.

As Shaheed Fatima noted in a previous piece at Just Security, there are several rules under international and regional human rights treaties, to which Eritrea is bound, that may trigger its responsibility when substantive provisions of a human rights treaty are breached. As a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (“Banjul Charter”), Eritrea is obligated to give effect to the fundamental rights guaranteed therein, including the right to life and the right to food, which are implicated through its involvement in the Yemen conflict. The nature of such an obligation carries both a positive and negative dimension, and includes the duty to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights guaranteed contained under the international instruments, as well as the duty to refrain from acts that would interfere with the rights of others. While the topic of the extraterritorial application of human rights treaties is one of continued debate, the case law, and commentaries of international bodies such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and others, demonstrate how international human rights obligations bind states in relation to activities they take outside of their territory. While this does hinge on certain tests including jurisdiction, a State’s control over the other territory or persons, and the nature of the rights in question, Eritrea’s control over its nationals fighting in Yemen, and its military base where operations have launched in Yemen, provide further support to hold Eritrea responsible for violations of international human rights law in Yemen.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Principles and Guidelines on Human and Peoples’ Rights while Countering Terrorism in Africa (“Principles and Guidelines”) are also relevant to assessing the responsibility of African states’ involvement in Yemen. The Principles and Guidelines reflect international law, including the ILC’s Draft Articles on State Responsibility by outlining that States are bound by their human rights obligations while conducting counterterrorism operations abroad, and should “withhold cooperation that would result in violations of international human rights, humanitarian, or refugee law . . .” and “take all practical steps to determine whether foreign entity activities on, and movement through, their territory involve such practices. In addition, States shall not assist or support another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act.” The allegations by the U.N. and human rights groups are important here. It is clear that Eritrea has not taken all practical steps to determine whether the foreign entity – in this case, the UAE and the other Gulf States in the coalition – are not engaging in practices that violate international law.

The extent of African State involvement in Yemen, in support of its Emirati partner, is truly troubling. Continued assistance to the Gulf States, with knowledge that such assistance would support credible reports of international violations, underscores the need for the African human rights system to take up the issue, voice their concern, and ensure their role as a guarantor of human rights and government accountability on the continent.

Image: Getty