Despite the Support of World Leaders, Safe Zones Still Fail Humanity

Safe zones have been dangerous settings for humanitarian intervention since its earliest establishment in Sri Lanka in 1990 and other instances.

Humanitarian Chiefs of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) signed an open letter on November 16, 2023, asserting that they will not participate in establishing any ‘safe zones’ in Gaza without the agreement of all parties.

Safe zones have been dangerous settings for humanitarian intervention since its earliest establishment in Sri Lanka in 1990 and other instances such as the 1995 genocide of Bosnian Muslim’s, leading to the death of over 8,000 men. Due to its ongoing failure to protect internally threatened and displaced civilians achieve security, even in the presence of peacekeeping soldiers, safe zones are a security threat and fail to abide by paragraphs 138 and 139 of the United Nations (UN) Charter to protect (R2P) against war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and war against humanity through necessary and appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful measures as the responsibility of each state. Additionally, systematic limitations of safe zones violate the Refugee Convention and escalate conflict. Over three decades, the course to humanitarian interventions through safe zones has revealed the negligence of both the UN and the international community’s failure to administer substantive measures that vehemently secure and safeguard civilian lives amidst war.

Threat to Safety

The only explicit legal basis for the creation of safe zones can be found in the Geneva Conventions which provides the possibility of establishing numerous ‘protected zones in areas of mass casualty and unrest. Additionally, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recognizes elements of civilian protection in the Geneva Convention and Additional Protocols such as special agreements under Article 3 which may be applicable to international armed and non-armed combat. However, the international community informally recognizes two types of safe zones:“conventional” and “imposed” safe zones which complicates international law, adding layers of ambiguity that undermine a clear approach to humanitarian intervention.

Conventional safe zones are typically set up in response to frequent attacks on civilians but rely on the agreement of all involved parties in the conflict. This consensus seeks to ensure that safe zones remain free from military presence and safe for non-combatants. Additionally, safe zones established with the consent of opposition parties have faced extreme challenges in ensuring complete protection for civilians.

In contrast, the UN has established imposed safe zones to achieve international peace and security following Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The UN Security Council’s (UNSC) authorization compromises its civilian trust as parties are unlikely to refrain from hostilities in safe zones non-consensually imposed by foreign military powers. While some instances argue that there is apparent success in shielding civilians from harm through the conventional use of safe zones, the referral of declaring safe zones in any case of conflict only illustrates the continuous failure of humanitarian solutions that abide by international humanitarian law (IHL).

The Protectors are also the Perpetrators 

Implementing conventional or imposed safe zones requires the oversight of peacekeeping soldiers on the ground, despite their abhorrent track records of violating the safety and security of the vulnerable individuals they are tasked to protect. In 2003 and 2004, a project commissioned by the U.S. State Department documented violence in Darfur, South Sudan, and interviewed 1,136 Darfuri refugees in Eastern Chad. The study documented 30 cases of rape and more than 40 of genital harm, while a vast majority reported sex-selective killing by opposition forces. According to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, UN peacekeepers ‘turned a blind eye’ to rape in South Sudan, utterly failing to protect civilians. Peter Takirambudde said that “instead of offering real security for civilians, the proposed ‘safe zones threaten to consolidate the ethnic cleansing that has taken place in Darfur.”

Suppose opposition forces in Darfur consented to safe zones. In that case, the establishment of conventional safe zones will still pose a security threat of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) perpetrated by peacekeepers against the host countries’ population. Missions in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Sudan, and South Sudan have had the highest record of allegations involving UN peacekeeping soldiers, and one-third have involved minors who are below the age of 18.

Additionally, a random sample of 489 women in 2012 between the ages of 18 to 30 in Liberia reported that over 25% of Monrovia’s women had engaged in a form of transactional sex with UN peacekeeping personnel. After SEA allegations against peacekeepers stationed in places like Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti, DRC, East Timor, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the General Assembly adopted a resolution committing to a Zero Tolerance Policy on SEA throughout the UN. Still, more than1,000 allegations of SEA by UN personnel on peacekeeping missions were reported from 2010 up until 2023, with an uptick in allegations in 2016.

Safe Zones Violate International Humanitarian Law

While more than one million Kurds fled Iran at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, 400,000 refugees were prevented from entering Turkey’s border and forced to remain inside an established safe area with the oversight of troops from the US, France, and Britain. This safe area was successful at preserving civilian lives, but at the expense of violating IHL. Particularly, the Refugee Convention which presents the legal basis on non-refoulement that asserts:

“No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

In simple terms, the strategy imposed in Iraq denied refugees the right to flee persecution and trapped them within the confines of the perilous state. While safe zones may offer a degree of safety and protection through humanitarian relief efforts, legal scholars argue that restrictive refugee policies result in the  ‘denial of some of the important social, economic and cultural rights guaranteed by the 1951 Convention’. The concern shared by scholars like Bríd Ní Ghráinne is the pattern of states applying a narrow interpretation of the Refugee Convention to accommodate national interests and justify the exclusion of civilians from safe zones, arguing against their status as refugees within their borders. States also reject asylum claims because there is an alternative safe place within the country where the individual could relocate or receive protection from non-state actors such as NGOs.

 Weaponization of Safe Zones

As the world witnesses mass atrocities, safe zones are still internationally marketed as a tool of containment to curtail the flow of refugees. These sentiments have been shared by leaders like former US President Donald Trump, as he proposed “a big beautiful, safe zone” in Syria so people “will live and be happier.” This rhetoric further exacerbates the narrative that safe zones are a positive solution to humanitarian relief, which, in actuality, is far from the truth. Moreover, the UN and international community must be held accountable for pushing safe zones as a legitimate means of humanitarian intervention and relief in places of mass atrocities. Instead, they should use concerted efforts to advocate for more robust diplomatic strategies that pave a path forward to addressing the systemic causes of issues by providing practical solutions to prevent further displacement and senseless deaths of innocent people.

Claire Naidoo
Claire Naidoo
Claire Naidoo is an undergraduate student at American University’s School of International Service, set to graduate in 2024, specializing in Peace, Conflict Resolution, Global Security, and U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, with a particular focus on Europe. Having lived and studied in South Africa, Belgium, and the United States, Claire is passionate about international development and access to justice for underserved people.