|By Adam Roberts
The sieges or bombardments of Leningrad, Dresden, Hiroshima, Vukovar, Sarajevo, and Srebrenica caused huge civilian losses and suffering. However, most attempts to devise schemes to protect particular places from the horrors of war have had limited success.
Safety zones is an unofficial term covering a wide variety of attempts to declare certain areas off-limits for military targeting. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and Additional Protocol I provide for three main types: hospital zones, neutralized zones, and demilitarized zones. These treaty arrangements require consent between belligerents, depend on complete demilitarization, and do not specify any arrangements for defending the areas. They have been used only occasionally.
In post–Cold War conflicts, the UN Security Council or other bodies rather than belligerents have proclaimed safety zones ad hoc. Such areas have been variously called “corridors of tranquillity,” “humanitarian corridors,” “neutral zones,” “protected areas,” “safe areas,” “safe havens,” “secure humanitarian areas,” “security corridors,” and “security zones.” Two motivations have been the safety of refugees and the prevention of massive new refugee flows. Military activity has generally continued within the areas. Unlike self-declared “undefended towns,” safety zones are not envisaged as being open for occupation by the hostile power.
In northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, the Western powers, having encouraged an abortive Kurdish uprising, established a safe haven enabling some 400,000 Kurdish refugees who had fled to the Turkish border to return. UN agencies subsequently took charge.
The UN Security Council established six safe areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993 to protect the inhabitants of six towns from Bosnian Serb forces besieging them, but it never defined the geographical limits or its commitment to protect them. The Serbs complained the Bosnians were using these zones to launch attacks against them; yet the zones could not have been neutralized because the inhabitants were unwilling to entrust their security to international forces. In July 1995 UN troops watched as Bosnian Serb forces conquered the safe areas of Srebrenica and Zepa and committed appalling atrocities.
Three-quarters of the way through the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the Security Council decided on the establishment of secure humanitarian areas, but no country provided troops. Instead, when the worst of the killing was over, the council authorized France to establish by force a zone that ultimately provided refuge for Hutus who had organized the genocide, casting further doubt on the idea.
Overall, safety zones have saved many lives, but establishing them, preventing military activity in them, and protecting them from external assault is difficult and demanding. Safety zones rarely provide an enduring haven from the horrors of war.