After months of fighting that have killed nearly 6,000 people, Yemen’s warring parties have agreed to a ceasefire and U.N.-sponsored peace talks which started earlier this week in Switzerland. Fighting between forces loyal to the exiled Yemeni government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Iran-backed Houthis began late last year when Houthi rebels overran the capital, but Yemen has been politically unstable since early 2011 as a consequence of the Arab Spring revolutions. The peace talks come soon after moves by the Emirates and Saudis to escalate their role in the conflict.
Following the ouster of the Yemeni government from the capital, Sana, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia, including the United States, began a military campaign in March in Yemen against the Houthi rebels. But while many of the nations in the coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are embracing a more aggressive military strategy in the region, their militaries are unused to sustained warfare and the populations generally have little interest in military service. Struggling to assemble its forces, Saudi Arabia initially reached out to two of its strongest allies, Egypt and Pakistan, requesting military support, but they declined. Both Sudanese and Moroccan troops are now fighting in Yemen, bolstering the coalition’s campaign against the Houthi rebels. But the number of coalition troops on the ground in Yemen is apparently still insufficient because the UAE has resorted to recruiting and hiring foreign fighters to fill the void.
According to news reports last month, the UAE secretly dispatched more than 400 Colombian fighters to Yemen, the first combat deployment for an army of foreigners that the UAE has built over the past five years. They were issued dog tags and ranks in the UAE’s military. Initially managed by a private company connected to Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, the program recruits soldiers from all over Latin America – Panama, El Salvador, Chile and Colombia –but with a preference for Colombian troops because they are considered more battled tested in guerilla warfare, having spent decades battling the FARC. Originally conceived to carry out mostly domestic missions, such as guarding pipelines and other sensitive infrastructure, the force of Latin American fighters has mostly confronted years of monotony at the desert camp, but its members stay largely because of the money. Colombian soldiers receive salaries ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 a month, compared with approximately $400 a month they would make in Colombia. According to Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “The Modern Mercenary, “the steady migration of Latin American troops to the Persian Gulf has created a ‘gun drain’ at a time when Latin American countries need soldiers in the battle against drug cartels.” Indeed, at one point Colombia reportedly initiated unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to stem the flow.
Although at first glance these Colombian fighters may look like mercenaries, the UAE’s secret dispatch of its army of foreigners to Yemen does not seem to fit the legal definition set forth in Additional Protocol I (API), to which the UAE is a party to. For instance, AP I requires, among others, that the recruitment of mercenaries be specially done to fight in an armed conflict, but according to the known facts, the Latin American force was originally recruited to carry out domestic security missions. More importantly, however, the fighter must not be a member of the armed forces of a party to the conflict. Since the Colombians were issued dog tags and given ranks in the Emirati military just before deploying to Yemen, it seems likely that they have been integrated into the Emirati armed forces.
Mercenaries are always controversial. AP I does not bar the use of mercenaries, but it denies them the combatant’s privilege and treatment as prisoners of war. In other words, mercenaries do not enjoy some of the key protections set forth by Geneva law for combatants. They remain entitled, however, to humane treatment under IHL. Other instruments, UN Mercenary Convention of 1989 does ban the recruitment, use, financing and training of mercenaries, and contains a broader definition, but the UAE is not a party to the Convention and essentially the same caveats discussed above would apply as well.
Given the facts, then, the UAE’s deployment in Yemen is probably more akin to France deploying its Foreign Legion. But for the more legally-minded, the real question would be whether AP I, which is only applicable in international armed conflicts, even applies in this case. The UAE and the broader Saudi coalition are fighting against the Houthi rebels in support of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, meaning this is a non-international armed conflict. Common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II – both applicable in non-international armed conflicts and to Yemen and the UAE – do not mention mercenaries. Customary IHL is not very helpful either when it comes to mercenaries in non-international armed conflicts, but there does seem to be a consensus that, like all other fighters in such conflicts, they are entitled to humane treatment but not to POW treatment as it does not exist there.
With the peace talks already in progress one hopes the Colombian fighters may never see combat in Yemen. Whether their presence makes any difference in helping the Saudi-led coalition end the conflict and reinstate President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Sana remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the existence of this unit serves as a powerful reminder of the limitations faced by governmental forces fighting in the conflicts in the Middle East and the risks that regular reliance on foreign fighters by an increasing number of parties can pose for international peace and security.