Safe Areas in Civil Wars

Official Fellow Dr Stefano Recchia has recently edited a special issue of the journal Global Responsibility to Protect, dedicated to ‘safe areas’ for civilian protection during violent conflict. Soon after the end of the Cold War, internationally protected safe areas were established, most prominently in northern Iraq (1991), Bosnia-Herzegovina (1993), and Rwanda (1994). More recently, the idea has experienced a revival, in the face of protracted, man-made humanitarian crises in Libya, Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, and elsewhere.

The argument for safe areas is simple: in order to protect vulnerable civilians from forcible displacement and/or physical harm during violent conflict, the community of states should engage in limited military interventions to carve out portions of territory where threatened populations can find shelter. As intuitively plausible 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? Is it practically feasible to establish safe areas in complex civil wars, at a time when the world’s most powerful democracies are reluctant to deploy their own troops in open-ended missions? How might the establishment of safe areas affect relations among the belligerent parties on the ground? And how do safe areas relate to the existing international refugee protection regime? This journal special issue, with contributions by leading scholars from Europe, North America, and Australia, aims to address these and other related questions.

Recchia’s own article argues that sometimes, internationally protected safe areas may paradoxically worsen the humanitarian situation on the ground by making protected groups more risk acceptant and less interested in political compromise.