Academic journal article Global Governance

Revisiting Humanitarian Safe Areas for Civilian Protection

Academic journal article Global Governance

Revisiting Humanitarian Safe Areas for Civilian Protection

Article excerpt

Are safe areas an effective option to protect civilian populations from mass atrocities when they are targeted by their own state? Safe areas disappeared from the international lexicon following the failures in Bosnia and Rwanda. But they are now receiving a second look as a way of responding to mass atrocities without full-scale military intervention. This article argues that the earlier generation of safe areas failed not due to their size or cost but rather because of problems inherent with their underlying logic. Safe areas were based either on logics of consent or the presence of a credible military force. Hybrid safe areas (such as in Bosnia) were based on neither of these, but instead relied on the legitimacy inherent in the UN Security Council. Crucially, in cases where civilians were being directly targeted by belligerents, both hybrid and consent-based safe areas collapsed. This has direct ramifications for present discussions around the Protection of Civilians agenda and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. KEYWORDS: safe areas, humanitarian protection, Responsibility to Protect, peacekeeping, internally displaced persons.

ARE SAFE AREAS EFFECTIVE IN PROTECTING CIVILIAN POPULATIONS FROM MASS atrocities? I use safe area as an encompassing term to refer to operations undertaken by international actors that have the primary purpose of providing direct protection to civilians and internally displaced persons (IDPs) within a state's borders in a temporary and designated geographic area. (1) The principle underlying safe areas is that, in situations of widespread conflict and atrocities, safe areas allow threatened civilian populations to remain within their state while receiving physical protection and humanitarian assistance. This protection is achieved without full-scale military intervention in the conflict by international actors. Yet past safe areas have failed to reliably achieve these objectives.

Safe areas were a novel form of humanitarian space that emerged in the 1990s. While a number of such safe areas were created during that decade--albeit with wide variation in both form and authorization--the concept has since withered away, with one commentator noting that the UN Security Council has not designated any safe areas since 1999. (2) This is not surprising. The success of some of these areas was overshadowed by two factors. The first were fears that the use of safe areas compromised the right to seek asylum and supported a containment agenda. The second was problems in their implementation including, most notably, the fall of the Srebrenica safe area in Bosnia in 1995, which led to the genocidal massacre of 8,372 Bosnians.

Recently, however, the concept of safe areas has come back into vogue, particular among some advocates of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. In their view, safe areas are a way of responding quickly to mass atrocities and allowing would-be interveners to take action despite a lack of political will for larger-scale operations. As Gareth Evans notes, "in cases of potential or actual mass atrocity crimes, where speed of deployment is critical, the setting up of even limited safe havens can help to restore peace over a wider area and prevent genocide from taking place." (3) Sarah Sewell, Dwight Raymond, and Sally Chin argue that safe areas could provide both "rapid and direct protection for large numbers of vulnerable civilians" and would "require a relatively small force, concentrated in a few areas." (4) This echoes the earlier endorsement of the US-based Genocide Prevention Task Force report for operations designed to "defensively protect vulnerable civilians in fixed locations" without necessarily engaging in further offensive measures. (5)

In the recent cases of Libya and Syria, safe areas were proposed, albeit unsuccessfully, as a means of responding to refugee flows and of protecting civilians. In the case of Libya, in March 2011, the League of Arab States called on the Security Council to "take the necessary measures to impose immediately a no-fly zone . …

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