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What You Need to Know About "Safe Zones"

Trevor Keck is Deputy Head of Communications for the ICRC Delegation to the US and Canada, based in Washington DC. ICRC staff working in the protection, legal and communication divisions provided excellent inputs and suggestions for this blog post.

There has been much talk recently about establishing “safe zones” in Syria. This debate is not new. In recent decades, concerned states have created a variety of “zones” to shelter civilians as well as the sick and wounded. Some of these zones have been militarily enforced such as no-fly zones in Bosnia and northern Iraq as well as the protection of civilian sites in South Sudan.

Less well known are protected zones established without military force, but with agreement from the parties to the conflict. For instance, during Bangladesh´s war of independence in the early 1970´s, three neutralized zones were established that sheltered people from hostilities. The three zones were administered by the ICRC and largely respected. During the war in the former Yugoslavia, authorities declared the hospital in the Croatian town of Osijek a protected zone under ICRC supervision; the zone was respected for about six months. Former International Peace Institute analyst, and current ICRC policy guru, Jeremie Labbe, discusses some other examples here.

As a neutral intermediary, the ICRC may administer protected zones established with agreement from all the parties to the conflict. The ICRC would not administer any zone secured or enforced by military force as it would compromise our neutrality and independence.

Some of the aforementioned zones have been successful in saving thousands of people that might have otherwise been killed. For instance, it is widely believed that the protection of civilian sites of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan saved thousands of lives in late 2013 and early 2014, as it opened its gates to people fleeing ethnic violence. Still, many other interventions have been far less successful in improving the situation for civilians at grave risk. The massacre at Srebrenica is the most obvious and tragic example of what happens when a safe zone is imposed without a sufficient military deterrent or agreement by all the parties to a conflict.

For years, policymakers from concerned states have proposed the creation of one or more so-called safe zones in Syria. Policymakers are grasping for ways to protect civilians, unlock humanitarian access and help move towards a political solution in Syria. Many people believe that creating some type of “zone,” where civilians as well as the wounded and sick can be protected and receive assistance unimpeded, would help alleviate extraordinary suffering in Syria.

But, the policy dialogue about safe zones often lacks nuance and a realistic assessment about what is actually required to create a zone that is truly safe. Because of this, the ICRC’s Regional Delegation for the US and Canada here in Washington D.C. co-sponsored a roundtable in 2015 with US policymakers, military officials and other experts to stimulate a conversation about these issues.

We organized the roundtable because we wanted to make sure that policymakers and other experts were asking the right operational, political and legal questions about safe zones – ourselves included. In recent days, a number of analysts have raised great questions, and highlighted many of the observations that were made at our roundtable. However, we wanted to add a few important points, some of which have been made in recent weeks, but are worth repeating.

What is the law on “safe zones”?

The term “safe zones” is not a technical term under international law and is used to describe a variety of situations.

International humanitarian law (IHL) foresees a number of protected zones, such as neutralized zones for non-combatants and wounded combatants, “non-defended localities,” and demilitarized zones within conflict situations, located in or outside combat areas. The neutralized zones in Bangladesh and Croatia noted above are examples of these types of zones. The common objective of these various zones is to enhance the protection of the entire population (except for able-bodies fighters) by sheltering them from the dangers arising out of armed conflict or by placing certain areas beyond the reach of hostilities. These zones are established with agreement or recognition by all parties to the conflict.

Civilians, wounded fighters and civilian objects are clearly protected under IHL, but an agreement by all relevant parties that clearly makes certain places “off limits” can enhance the protection of protected persons and objects.

Importantly, these zones are protected by IHL because they are demilitarized. By removing any military objectives/threats from these protected zones and by requiring the parties to recognize them through agreement, such zones can undoubtedly reinforce the protection already afforded by IHL to civilians and other persons placed hors de combat (eg sick and wounded).

If these pre-conditions are not met, the zone created does not enjoy the status of a protected zone under IHL. Civilians or wounded or sick fighters therein would still enjoy all the protections under IHL. As will be described below, if they are defended by military means, the presence of combatants amidst or around the protected populations entails a number of risks.

It cannot be stressed enough that such protected zones under IHL, or indeed any other “safe zones,” do not in any way relieve fighters from their obligations to respect and protect the entire civilian population and wounded and sick fighters at all times, inside or outside such zones.

A foreign military intervention to establish a “safe zone” would be regulated by international legal governing the use of force. Others have recently touched on legal issues relevant to a military intervention meant to establish a safe zone.

Policymakers should be clear about what the creation of a “safe zone” entails practically.

The very recent discussion of so-called safe zones in Syria by western states does not envision an agreement with all the parties. In practical terms, therefore, if civilians or the wounded and sick are to be gathered in specific areas, an important question arises as to how they will be protected against attack. The dilemma here is that, if left undefended or insufficiently defended, a so-called safe zone could become a deadly trap, putting people at severe risk. This was the lesson of the massacre at Srebrenica.

If defended by military means, however, the particular sites might also attract attacks or lead to an escalation of hostilities. Indeed, military forces that are enforcing a safe zone would likely become a new actor in the armed conflict and thus targetable under IHL. Further, armed actors could try to establish a safe haven inside the zone, using it to launch offensive attacks on parties outside the zone. In both instances, the “civilian character” of the zone would be undermined, and the zone could risk becoming a magnet for attack.

Civilians should still have the possibility to flee from hostilities.

If policymakers decide to create a safe zone – whether through agreements or military force – the objective should be to protect civilians. A safe zone should not be created to prevent civilians from fleeing hostilities or persecution. In a deadly war like the one in Syria, where there is hardly a safe place and where the frontlines shift all the time, people should be able to escape from the fighting. Safe zones should also not be misused as a justification by neighboring or other states to tighten borders, and reject civilians seeking refuge outside their country. Civilians must still have options to flee their country, and seek asylum.

A safe zone is no substitute for compliance with international humanitarian law.

History has shown that safe zones and no-fly zones are fraught with risks. At best, these types of interventions may bring short term protection and relief to civilians at grave risk – which is obviously laudable. At worst, declaring an area safe without clear guarantees from all parties to a conflict, or without the requisite military force, can lead to devastating humanitarian consequences.

What’s more, a party that is determined to target civilians or block relief may soon find other ways to achieve their goals. In practice, safe zones are often proposed when the parties to a respective armed conflict fail to respect the basic tenets of IHL. In such instances, influential states should invest their political capital in a strategy to ensure better respect for the rules of IHL. Without a change in the calculus of the parties to the conflict, civilians may still be at grave risk, even after the creation of safe zones meant to protect them.