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Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (IDPs) - Danger: safe areas

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1996

As the example of Srebrenica showed, care must be taken to avoid naive assumptions about the degree of protection which can be provided by an international presence operating without effective enforcement. But there are some obvious reasons to continue exploring ways in which people's safety can be preserved within their own country.

By Karin Landgren
Chief, General Legal Advice Section,
UNHCR Division of International Protection.
(Article adapted from the International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol. 7, #3).

After the gruesome human rights violations that accompanied Bosnian Serb military victories over the U.N. safe areas in Srebrenica and Zepa in July 1995, Tadeusz Mazowiecki resigned as Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights. Mazowiecki had been an early proponent of security zones in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But he quit, he said, to emphasize that the international community could not continue its policy regarding the safe areas and to protest the world's hypocrisy over human rights in the former Yugoslavia. Mazowiecki recounted that people who had fled the fallen safe area of Srebrenica turned away from him on learning that he was a human rights envoy of the United Nations.

Mazowiecki's dismay and sense of betrayal were widely echoed. The fall of Srebrenica which had been supplied by UNHCR with humanitarian aid for much of the war led to fresh questions about the suitability of safe areas (also termed safety zones) in protecting civilians, including the displaced, in internal conflict.

Experience in this field ranges from Bosnia to Iraq, Rwanda and Sri Lanka, and the terms vary from "open relief centres" to "safe corridors" and "safe havens." The essence of the notion is to establish a location within the disputed territory which is neutral and free of belligerent activity, and to which humanitarian access is guaranteed. In practice, today's safe areas are rarely based on consent of all parties, and they are not necessarily exclusively civilian. In northern Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda, safe areas did not exclude combatants, and in fact military activities were carried out from or through the zones. The Sri Lankan Open Relief Centres are the closest current equivalent of the traditional safety zone concept.


The safety zone in northern Iraq was created in direct response to a failure of refugee protection. While 1.4 million Kurdish refugees found asylum in Iran after the Gulf war, Turkey has limited its obligations under refugee instruments to accepting refugees from Europe. The international community did not pressure Turkey to allow its 300,000 Iraqi Kurdish refugees to stay, or to admit the tens of thousands more who were stranded on a freezing, muddy mountain range on the border. Instead, the international community moved to ensure the Kurds' safety in northern Iraq itself, a safe area described by one commentator as "limbo land." The decision to establish this zone was taken without the agreement of the Iraqi government.

Safety zones imposed externally can promote political aims under a humanitarian cloak. However legitimate those political aims may be, they contribute to the perception of the safety zone as a punitive or partisan instrument. The creation of a safe haven in northern Iraq was attractive to some states for reasons extraneous to humanitarian need, including the desire to censure Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and its appalling human rights record (including the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds).

The safe haven in northern Iraq was not demilitarized and it has been vulnerable to attack from Turkey, which has cited the activities of Turkish Kurd guerrillas based in northern Iraq. Attacks by Iraqi government forces outside the safe haven are alleged to have forced more Kurds to flee into it in recent years. In addition, internal struggles among Kurdish groups have had a destabilizing effect, and call into question the purpose of the safe haven. In any case, continued protection remains contingent on the willingness of Western powers to maintain a credible and sufficient level of threat. This, in turn, is less closely linked to the well-being of the safe area's inhabitants than it is to whether or not Saddam Hussein remains in power; to the continued maintenance of the U.S. airbase in Turkey; and to the attitude of regional powers.


When the idea of establishing safe haven zones in Bosnia was first floated in 1992, some governments favoured it as a way of keeping would-be refugees within former Yugoslavia. It was also defended, rather ingenuously, as a principled way of resisting ethnic cleansing (in contrast to facilitating the departure of those threatened with death and persecution). In April 1993, Srebrenica was declared a safe area, followed by Sarajevo, Bihac, Tuzla, Zepa and Gorazde. The Security Council declined the Secretary-General's call for 34,000 soldiers to implement the mandate, and opted instead for 7,600 troops. Successive Force Commanders in Bosnia ruled out the use of air power.

The safe areas were imposed by outside powers, without the consent of the parties on the ground; and they were never demilitarized. When UNPROFOR sought the surrender of weaponry by the Bosnian Muslim population in the enclave (from the Bosnian Serb perspective, a reasonable quid pro quo), Security Council members were outraged. Military activities continued out of the safe areas, rendering the Bosnian Serb offensives against Srebrenica and Zepa inevitable. The declaration of safe areas, the deployment of troops, and the humanitarian relief provided to the enclaves did save lives. In the first instance, however, they allowed the international community to appear to be taking decisive political action when the will to impose protection through military means was lacking.


Following the deaths of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi on 6 April 1994 in an airplane crash near Kigali, Rwanda pitched headlong into a well of massacre and mass displacement. Estimates of the number of deaths ranged from half a million to a million. On 21 April, arguably at the moment of greatest need, the Security Council voted to reduce the ranks of the UNAMIR peacekeepers to 270 (after 13 Belgian peacekeepers were killed). Four weeks later, the Security Council voted an expanded role for the peacekeeping force, boosting it to 5,500 people. But there was little support for putting that resolution into practice and, on 22 June, the Security Council authorized France to deploy a "temporary multinational force" to establish secure humanitarian areas. The duration of the deployment was limited to two months.

On 2 July, Operation Turquoise created a "safe humanitarian zone" in south-west Rwanda, covering one-fifth of the country. French officials announced that a million refugees had found protection there. When, in late August, Operation Turquoise came to an end, UNAMIR was deployed in the area. At that time, an estimated 50,000 internally displaced people remained in 10 camps in the zone, of which Kibeho camp was the largest. As the months passed, the Rwandan government grew impatient at the slow pace with which the internally displaced were returning home. There were fears that the zone was a conduit for arms to the former Rwandan regime, and there were allegations that the internally displaced who had taken refuge there were génocidaires. In late February, Kibeho camp (which then housed between 84,000 and 120,000 people) was regarded by the government as "a centre of hostility and a threat to internal security." An operation to move the displaced home ended in massacre on 17 April: automatic rifles, machine-guns, grenades and rocket-propelled grenades were deployed against the camp's residents.

Operation Turquoise was a rapid and forceful military intervention which, whatever its motivation, had humanitarian benefits. It stemmed the flow of refugees to Zaire, thus saving many lives given the crisis conditions there. It protected some Tutsis in the zone, though few were left there by the time it was set up; and it protected some Hutu from revenge killings. Operation Turquoise froze the situation at a certain time, after the worst killings had taken place. It ended before anything went seriously wrong.


Since 1987, UNHCR has administered relief supplied by the international community and the government to returning refugees and internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka. In 1990, when fighting resumed after an extended period of calm, UNHCR began using existing centres of relief distribution to provide a "relatively safe environment" to persons needing shelter. This operation was formalized in 1993. Security forces explicitly agreed not to intervene in the camps without prior consultation with UNHCR, and the rebel forces appear to have respected this as an informal engagement. The Open Relief Centres have never been targeted for attack or caught in crossfire.

Many factors set the Sri Lankan Open Relief Centres apart from other recent safe areas. Their establishment was negotiated on the ground, rather than impelled by the will of other states; they are small and the transitory nature of the sanctuary they provide contribute to their relative insignificance as military targets. They are situated in both LTTE and government-controlled areas, and are not associated with territorial claims. There are no restrictions on movement in and out; beneficiaries can stay as long as they want; the population is ethnically mixed, and is not perceived as politicized or militarized.

The centres operate because none of the military forces wish to end their role. They are unprotected; there is no military presence, credible threat, or enforcement measure. Some in UNHCR have argued that the protection offered by the centres is therefore illusory, and qualitatively far inferior to the protection conferred by asylum in another country. These remain valid reasons not to equate safety zone protection with refugee protection. But in practice, faced with the lack of possibilities for flight and the desirability, amid a conflict that waxes and wanes, of staying close to land and property, the Sri Lankans have concurred in finding a modus vivendi.

The key issue for UNHCR and human rights advocates who seek to evaluate the safe area concept must be the quality of protection they afford. The belief that adequate protection can be found in a safe area zone could tempt governments to favour the creation of that zone possibly placing more emphasis on containment than on human rights.

Commentators have already warned that designating safe areas gives governments a pretext for refusing to grant asylum. And, in some cases, safe areas have indeed been established in conditions which have interfered with the right to seek asylum. This would include the outright refusal of asylum by neighbouring states; the fact that some zones were surrounded by hostile populations; and the refusal by the leadership within the zones to let the captive population depart.

Containment is not an acceptable alternative to asylum. Refugee protection is about more than bare physical safety. It should contribute to the resolution of the instability suffered by the individual victim of war or persecution. Such protection would be seriously devalued if governments were to insist that refugees had a reasonable protection option in safety zones of the kind looked at here. Even in terms of the minimum requirement for physical security, many of the safe areas have simply not been safe.

In Bosnia and in Rwanda, security zones at best provided temporary safety and humanitarian relief to hundreds of thousands of people threatened with murder, forcible return to danger, military attack or siege. That contribution was important. But at worst, decisive action to redress the underlying causes of suffering was postponed because of reliance on the provision of relief and on the interim, unstable safety mechanism of the safe areas.

UNHCR's official statements on the value of safety zones have been extremely cautious. In 1991, the agency's Note on International Protection stated that "protection of persons inside their country of origin is feasible when accompanied by necessary guarantees.... In-country protection needs to be weighed against the right of individuals to leave their own country, to seek and enjoy asylum, or return on a voluntary basis, and not to be compelled to remain in a territory where life, liberty or physical integrity is threatened."

There are many obvious reasons to continue exploring ways in which people's safety can be preserved in their own country. In doing so, however, care must be taken to avoid naive assumptions about the degree of protection which can be provided by an international presence operating without effective enforcement. Safety zones are an interim measure, not a solution. Consent to their establishment is indispensable but may be increasingly difficult to achieve. The experience of Bosnia indicates that it is indulgent to expect warring parties to comply with security zones that lack both consent and a credible enforcement threat.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)




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