Analysis - Security Studies

International Experience

Requisites for Effective “Safe Zones” in Conflict Areas in the Region

Wednesday، March 15، 2017
International Experience

Some terms and concepts always stand out in the fog of war and armed conflict, revealing the absence of any prospects to resolve these conflicts or to reach a comprehensive settlement. These concepts include the term “safe zones,” which is once again a buzzword in the news and analyses. US President Donald Trump referred to this term in an interview with the ABC News network on  January 25, 2017, stating that he will work on creating safe zones in Syria for the internally displaced people attempting to flee violence caused by years of civil war.

On January 29, 2017, a statement by the White House clarified that Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz agreed on creating safe zones in Syria and Yemen as part of their discussion on ideas to help refugees and victims of armed conflicts in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, in his address to the International Peace Institute’s Global Leaders Series in Bahrain on February 13, 2017 that he is seeking to create a safe zone in Syria.

Amid growing discussions about the establishment of safe zones in Arab war-torn countries, this article will discuss the definition of safe zones, procedures for creating them, the historical precedence of establishing them and their success and failure in achieving their goals. Finally, it will further examine what the future of safe zones in the Middle East and ways to ensure their success in conflict zones in the context of escalating proxy wars.

Comparable concepts and necessary procedural parameters 

Despite the prevalence of the concept of safe zones or safe areas, it is an unofficial term in international law. The term is neither mentioned in any of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, nor does it appear in any of the additional protocols of 1977. These agreements and protocols used other terms that are relatively close to the concept of safe zones, most notably “hospital zones”, “neutralized zones” and “demilitarized zones”.

Such zones reflect efforts undertaken by UN agencies, mandated to maintain international peace and security, to identify certain areas outside the scope of being military targets and witnessing combat activities. UN agencies chose the zones for humanitarian considerations to protect civilians who cannot protect themselves during war and armed conflict. 

Customary laws used several concepts when referring to these arrangements, based upon previous experiences during the Cold War era, such as “corridors of tranquility”, “humanitarian corridors”, “protected areas” and “safe havens”.

Procedurally, there is similarity between safe zones and buffer zones in that both require a Security Council resolution, yet there are differences between both concepts. Buffer zones involve the establishment of a specific area separating two conflicting parties, with the aim of preventing them from the use of weapons. This separation is inflicted territorially accompanied by a no-fly zone. Meanwhile, the aim of a safe zone is not to separate two conflicting sides, rather it is a safe haven for civilians fleeing the ravages of war, and provide them with necessary humanitarian assistance and protection during the conflict.

According to customary international law, there are necessary procedures required for creating a safe zone, after a Security Council resolution is adopted on the issue. The procedures include most notably, agreement among warring parties on creating them, demilitarizing these areas through disarming the citizens, and ensuring the zone’s elimination from the scope of military operations. Other procedures entail subjecting the zones to  civilian administration, ensuring none of the warring parties makes defensive arrangements to maintain security within safe zone or across its border. Further procedures in historical precedents that have been previously applied incorporate; providing military protection by UN forces or an international coalition given such a mandate, imposing a no-fly zone to protect them, and providing safe corridors to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians under the UN supervision.

Various experiences, similar outcomes

Historically, safe zones during wars and armed conflict are similar in purpose; specifically to provide humanitarian intervention through safe corridors for the protection of civilians affected by hostilities between conflicting parties. This is implemented via a Security Council resolution and is always based upon the recommendation of the UN Human Rights Council.

Among the notable countries where safe zones were created in the 1990s was Iraq. Following the 1991 Kurdish uprising in Iraq, the forces of the US-led international coalition established a safe zone in northern Iraq as a haven for 400,000 Kurds who were turned back at the Turkish border, after fleeing from Saddam Hussein’s regime. The UN and relevant agencies provided humanitarian aid to them  during that period.

During the Bosnian War, the Security Council issued a resolution in 1993 to established several safe zones to protect Bosnian civilians from attacks by Serbian forces. In the same year, the UNHCR began to create several safe areas in Sri Lanka to protect civilians from ongoing battles between rebels and government forces. In addition, in 1994, the Security Council issued a resolution creating safe zones in Rwanda during the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis. 

These experiences resulted in similar outcomes, mostly negative with the exception of the safe zone in northern Iraq. None of these attempts achieved their goals, whether on the humanitarian or security levels. In fact, some led to disastrous outcomes that seemed to facilitate the slaughter of civilians by warring parties.

The success of the safe area in northern Iraq was attributed to the presence of professional paramilitary Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, who played a key role in defeating Iraqi government forces in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, this experience was not replicated anywhere else, not even in Iraq itself after a similar attempt to establish a safe zone for Shiite civilians in southern Iraq after the Gulf War, because the necessary troops were not present. The lack of forces in the safe zone allowed the Iraqi regime to attack the area, making it safe only in name. 

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there were procedural loopholes when creating safe areas to protect Bosnian civilians. The Security Council resolution did not define the geographic borders of the six safe zones, or mandate necessary military protection of these areas – perhaps because Bosnians rejected allowing international troops in to protect them. This resulted in massacres and war crimes against thousands of civilians as international forces stood by watching as Serbian troops occupied safe zones in Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Žepa, Tuzla and Bihać.

The situation in Sri Lanka was not that different. Between 1993 and 2009, all UN resolutions failed to establish safe zones for civilians and successfully deliver humanitarian aid to them. This failure occurred because the Sri Lankan government constantly violated the UN resolutions through bombing the safe zones. The government justified its actions under the pretext that they are being used as a front and staging areas for rebel attacks against government forces.

The experience in Rwanda also failed in terms of achieving the strategic goals of safe areas. The Security Council resolution did not obligate any of the relevant countries responsible for ending the civil war to protect these safe zones. France was given an international mandate to protect safe zones in Rwanda since 1995 to prevent more killings in these areas that covered some 20 per cent of the country. However, ethnic cleansing campaigns picked up steam and French troops were understaffed. When French troops withdrew, government forces raided these areas and committed massacres, which forced thousands of refugees to flee to neighboring Congo.

The future of safe zones in the region

The concept of establishing safe zones caused a controversy due to its theoretical vagueness, and its viability in dealing with the new conflicts that are different in format and context the previous wars of the last century. This casts a shadow of doubt on the future of the mechanism of safe zones in war-torn countries across the globe.

Judging by the history of safe zones, which revealed that they are rarely safe, the future of the safe zone mechanism in managing armed conflicts in the region remains contingent on several determinants. The first determinant entails genuine resolve by major international and regional powers that have a direct impact on regional conflicts. The second one requires sincere international and regional consensus regarding the necessary measures required to protect refugees and civilians fleeing the ravages of armed conflict. Finally, international and regional players are entitled to rein in armed groups in these conflicts, and force them to respect humanitarian and security arrangements on this matter.

The previous experiences have shown that any disagreements regarding the establishment of safe zones, and in the absence of a forceful recognized authority in the conflict zone, have resulted in dire outcomes. When a country is in turmoil and is unsafe in general, the need for strong military presence is necessary to achieve the required protection of the safe zone. Without absolute commitment to the guarantees of international humanitarian law, including approval of the government and warring parties, and the establishment of a civilian-governed zone, then ensuring the safety of civilians there will be difficult.

Finally, the strategy of safe zones in the region may not be viable now or in the future without addressing the root causes of these wars and conflicts. Tackling the causes of war has not yet occurred and may not come up any time soon, as long as the decision to ignite these wars and armed conflicts remains in the hands of latent powers – namely, the regional incubators of violence who are the main catalysts of ongoing regional conflicts.

Keywords: ConflictSecuritySafe zones