Introduction: Safe Areas as a Response to Humanitarian Crises?

In: Global Responsibility to Protect

Internationally proclaimed safe areas do not aim to end ongoing wars. Instead, their more limited goal is to create islands of temporary refuge where threatened civilians can find shelter. As intuitively compelling as the idea of safe areas may seem, however, it raises numerous practical and ethical questions. The articles in this special issue draw on history, moral philosophy and political science in order to assess whether safe areas are indeed an appropriate response to humanitarian crises.


Internationally proclaimed safe areas do not aim to end ongoing wars. Instead, their more limited goal is to create islands of temporary refuge where threatened civilians can find shelter. As intuitively compelling as the idea of safe areas may seem, however, it raises numerous practical and ethical questions. The articles in this special issue draw on history, moral philosophy and political science in order to assess whether safe areas are indeed an appropriate response to humanitarian crises.

In the face of protracted, man-made humanitarian crises in Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, the idea of internationally protected safe areas, or safe zones, has recently experienced a revival.1 The argument for safe areas is simple: in order to protect vulnerable civilians from physical harm and/or forcible displacement at the hands of various armed groups, the community of states should engage in limited military interventions to establish territorially defined zones of relative tranquility. Safe areas do not aim to end ongoing wars by resolving the underlying political conflict. Instead, their more limited goal is to create islands of temporary refuge, where threatened populations can find shelter until the political situation changes. As intuitively compelling as the idea of safe areas may seem, though, it raises numerous practical and ethical questions: Does the community of states have a moral obligation to establish safe areas when a threat of mass atrocities exists, and if so, how should resulting burdens be apportioned? Is it practically feasible to establish robust safe areas in complex civil war situations, at a time when the world’s most powerful (and militarily capable) liberal democracies are increasingly reluctant to deploy their troops in open-ended missions? How can the establishment of safe areas be expected to affect local power dynamics among the original belligerents on the ground? And what is the effect of safe areas on the international refugee protection regime? These are only some of the questions that this special issue of GR 2P aims to address.

The idea of safe areas goes back at least to the 1949 Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in war, which introduced into international humanitarian law the notions of ‘hospital and safety zones’ and ‘neutralised zones’. Yet in practice, these legal instruments have only rarely been used. The Geneva Conventions do not foresee any international enforcement of safety zones and neutralised zones, instead emphasising the need for voluntary compliance by the belligerent parties.2 This may partly explain why, when the idea of safe areas protected by the international community gained traction in the 1990s, proponents rarely made reference to preexisting provisions of humanitarian law.

Soon after the end of the Cold War, safe areas were established, most prominently, in northern Iraq (1991), Bosnia (1993) and Rwanda (1994). In northern Iraq, the United States, intervening together with several European partners, carved out a sizeable safe area that was able to provide a basic level of protection to the Iraqi Kurds. However, this US-led intervention was also criticised for leaving the underlying political dispute unresolved—indeed, it may have worsened that dispute by fueling Kurdish secessionism. The UN safe areas established in Bosnia, meanwhile, were unable to provide even basic protection to civilian populations. To the present day, the fall of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995 and the ensuing massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslims remain emblematic of the UN’s failure to fulfil its humanitarian promise. Similarly, in Rwanda in the spring of 1994, the small contingent of UN troops lacked both the capabilities and the mandate to protect civilians when ethnic tensions spiraled into genocide. UN Security Council resolutions mandating the establishment of ‘secure humanitarian areas’ remained dead letter for several weeks.3 Only in late June 1994, too late for hundreds of thousands of victims, France stepped in by establishing a safe area that provided much-needed refuge to thousands of Tutsis; yet France’s ‘Opération Turquoise’ was also criticised for reflecting French geopolitical interests and for offering safe passage to a number of Hutu génocidaires.4

In sum, the limitations and outright failures of these safe areas established during the 1990s seemed so indisputable that the very idea was discredited—until the recent revival of interest. Many contemporary civil wars are marked by high levels of civilian casualties and internal displacement (Syria, Yemen and South Sudan immediately come to mind). This, combined with the seeming lack of appetite in Western policy circles for more coercive forms of intervention, has led humanitarian activists to argue that safe areas might warrant a second look as a potentially effective and relatively low-cost means of civilian protection. In spite of this renewed interest, however, to date there has been no systematic scholarly debate about the political ethics of safe areas. This special issue intends to begin filling this gap.

The first article by Phil Orchard sets the stage by exploring the emergence of internationally protected safe areas in the 1990s as a result of what he calls ‘normative contingency’. After the end of the Cold War, he argues, a process of norm contestation centred on (a) the protection of forced migrants and (b) the UN’s role in authorising international intervention ‘created a new normative space through which safe areas were understood as a possible international civilian protection response’. According to Orchard, in order to grasp how this new normative understanding came about, it is essential to analyse the 1991 Kurdish refugee crisis and the ensuing international response that resulted in the establishment of the northern Iraqi safe area. Yet, he notes that the 1991 northern Iraq experience also has a more problematic legacy: from the beginning, safe areas/safe zones were conceived by powerful states as an alternative to providing asylum abroad to threatened civilian populations.

Picking up from where Orchard left off, Daniel Jacob argues in his article that, from a moral standpoint, safe areas ought to be viewed as complementary to the right of asylum rather than as alternatives thereto. Ideally, actors establishing safe areas should also ‘provide those seeking refuge there with the option to seek asylum elsewhere’. Jacob approaches the ethics of safe areas from the perspective of Kantian cosmopolitanism, and he links his discussion to larger debates about the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). He argues that the duty to protect vulnerable civilians which underpins RtoP yields a moral obligation for powerful states to establish safe areas in mass atrocity situations, provided that they can do so without exposing themselves to excessive risk. Jacob believes that past experiments with safe areas failed primarily due to the lack of clear legal mandates and robust military deployments. This should motivate the international community to do more, not less: the duty to rescue people in need, he concludes, ‘does not lose its moral force only because it is difficult to fulfill, or because doing so requires substantial resources’.

Rutger Birnie and Jennifer Welsh affirm, not unlike Jacob, that members of the international community have a ‘shared moral responsibility towards those who have lost the protection of their own sovereign state’. The focus of their article is on internally displaced persons (IDPs). They argue that RtoP’s strong commitment to the prevention of atrocity crimes should encompass the ‘injunction to prevent mass flight’. Safe areas, Birnie and Welsh point out, are an attractive policy tool in this context, because they can to some degree prevent forcible displacement and facilitate the return of those who have already fled. While emphasising that safe areas must not come at the expense of access to asylum, they nevertheless suggest that the normative appeal of safe areas is strengthened by the ‘empirical reality’ that most people are attached to their home territory and ‘want to stay where they are’ rather than flee abroad. Birnie and Welsh conclude that because past problematic experiences with safe areas were primarily the result of insufficient resources and inadequate capabilities, wealthy countries ought to build up their capacity to provide effective protection. Ideally, this should occur through collaboration in multilateral fora.

Stefano Recchia, finally, takes a more critical stance. Adopting a rights-based consequentialist approach, Recchia notes that, since the purpose of safe areas is to protect physical integrity rights, we ought to evaluate them ‘first and foremost against their ability to actually improve people’s enjoyment of these most basic human rights’. By that standard, he argues, safe areas often fall lamentably short. This is not necessarily due to a lack of international enforcement capabilities and insufficient political will. Instead, safe areas are just as likely to fail because of an inherent paradox: especially when safe areas encompass sizeable territories, they can be expected to change the incentives facing local protected groups in ways that often make these groups more risk acceptant, less interested in political compromise, and more likely to seek an escalation of the conflict—in the hope that international protection forces will come to their rescue. Therefore, Recchia concludes, powerful states that are considering military intervention to establish safe areas need to take seriously the possibility that such measures may prolong or intensify hostilities and ultimately worsen the plight of vulnerable civilians.

The aim of this special issue is not to offer a conclusive ethical assessment of safe areas. We do hope, however, that the articles that follow can help clarify the normative challenges involved and provide orientation with regard to related controversies. This special issue is the outcome of a workshop held at the Free University of Berlin in October 2016. We wish to thank the Thyssen Foundation for financial assistance and the Collaborative Research Center ‘Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood’ for organisational support.

1See, e.g., Nicholas Burns and James Caffrey, ‘The diplomatic case for America to create a safe zone in Syria’, The Washington Post, 4 February 2016; ‘Saudi king agrees in call with Trump to support Syria, Yemen safe zones’, Reuters, 29 January 2017; and BBC Monitoring Middle East, ‘Algeria, Tunisia “rejected Western proposal for safe zone” in Libya in 2015’, 11 June 2016.
2Karen Landgren, ‘Safety Zones and International Protection: A Dark Grey Area’, International Journal of Refugee Law, 7/3: 436–58 (1995); Emanuela-Chiara Gillard, ‘Safe areas: The international legal framework’, International Review of the Red Cross, 100/907 (2018).
3See UNSC Resolution 918, adopted on 17 May 1994, and Resolution 925, adopted on 8 June.
4See Gérard Prunier, ‘Operation Turquoise: A Humanitarian Escape’, in Howard Adelman (ed.), The Path of a Genocide: The Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999).

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