Safe Zones

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Safe Zones

During periods of armed conflict or strife places are set aside where people who are not involved in the fighting may find a degree of refuge. Such places have at times been referred to as safe zones; however, this is not a technical term. Comparable terms include safe havens, safe areas, corridors of tranquility, humanitarian corridors, neutral zones, protected areas, secure humanitarian areas, security corridors, and security zones.

Treaty-Based Safe Zones

Some treaties allow countries to establish specific types of safe zones. For example, the 1949 Geneva Conventions provide for the establishment of hospitals and safe zones or localities to protect the wounded, the sick, the elderly, children, and pregnant women from the effects of war (First Geneva Convention, Article 23; Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 14).

Under the Fourth Geneva Convention a country may set up safety and hospital zones by itself, for example, in peacetime as a matter of defense planning. After a war starts the country may ask its enemy to recognize the hospital or safety zone as such, or it may work with another country to establish such zones. Ordinarily, the establishment of a safety zone is without legal effect until a country's enemy recognizes the hospital or locality as a safety zone. An official agreement on safety zones provides exactly this kind of recognition. Such agreements may extend protection to other categories of civilians, and the International Committee of the Red Cross may facilitate their conclusion.

United Nations Safe Zones

Pursuant to its mandate to maintain or restore international peace and security, the United Nations (UN) Security Council has recently designated safe zones and otherwise urged the protection of innocent persons in certain places. Although such safe zones purport to protect all civilians from attack and otherwise serve as places of refuge and aid, the precise legal meaning of the phrase has never been delineated. The creation of safe zones has sometimes been accompanied by the imposition of no-fly zones, which may be employed to provide a degree of enforcement.

Common Element: Nonmilitary Use

A key aspect common to all types of safe zones is that they are nonmilitary in use. Essentially, a bargain is struck—the zone is protected so long as it does not serve a military purpose, such as housing soldiers or storing munitions. Further, safe zones and military assets must not be situated near one another, particularly when the intent is to protect military assets from attack.

If a safe area is in fact used for military purposes, the zone may be attacked. However, the attack must follow the laws and customs of war. Specifically, the attacker must direct an attack only against legitimate military objectives, and no attack is allowed where harm to civilians and civilian property would be excessive in relation to the tangible and direct military advantage anticipated. In other words, the presence of a few soldiers might warrant a small and carefully controlled raid, but not a full-scale attack.


The notion of setting aside refuges is not new. In 1870 Henry Dunant, founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, suggested the designation of towns as safe places during the Franco-Prussian War, and later suggested that parts of Paris be established as refuges. Temporary zones were set up during the Spanish Civil War in Madrid in 1936 and during the conflict in Shanghai, China, in 1937. Governments were cool to proposals to establish safe zones during World War II, but three neutral zones were established during the conflict in Palestine in 1948. These zones were successful enough that the drafters of the 1949 Geneva Conventions firmly established the concept of safe zones in international law. More recently, safe zones have been set up to protect civilians not only from the dangers of war, but also from the prospect of suffering crimes against humanity, such as extermination or deportation.

Nonetheless, safe zones have not always provided the envisioned protection. A handful of safe zones established in the 1970s in Bangladesh, Cyprus, and Vietnam were to some degree successful, but a hospital and safety zone attempted in Phnom Pen, Cambodia, quickly fell apart. An armed conflict in the Falklands/Malvinas ended before proposed safe zones could be established. In 1992 the parties to the conflict in Croatia, with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross, established two neutral zones centered on Dubrovnik.

Recent safe zones have been designated in Iraq and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The UN Security Council demanded in 1991 that Iraq end its repression of Kurds in the north of Iraq and Shi'a in the south. The United States, United Kingdom, and France used this resolution to set up safe zones and impose no-fly zones over the northern and southern parts of the country. Occasionally, the United States and United Kingdom fired on the Iraqi military, but this generally happened either in response to the use of air defenses or to attacks on Kurds in the north. Because the Security Council resolution did not grant explicit authority for no-fly zones and air combat operations, the right to resort to such measures was disputed.

The UN Security Council declared six safe zones in Bosnia and Herzegovina early in the 1991 to 1995 war, specifically in Srebrenica, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zepa, Gorazde, and Bihac. The UN also imposed a no-fly zone over all of Bosnia and authorized the use of air power by the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) to protect every safe zone in Bosnia. In addition the area in and around Srebrenica was declared a demilitarized zone by agreement between the warring parties, and the UN guaranteed the safety of all people within it.

However, both Bosnian Serb and Muslim forces violated the safe area agreement to keep Srebrenica "free from armed attack or any other hostile act." Sarajevo was also fired upon from surrounding hills for most of the war, and Bosnian Serb forces eventually overran Gorazde, Zepa, and Srebrenica. Some seven thousand Muslim men and boys were killed in and around Srebrenica alone. NATO eventually responded with an air campaign against Serb positions, notably those around Sarajevo. Bosnia was relatively quiet thereafter.

In 1994 the UN authorized France to establish a safe area in Rwanda in response to the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. This was a belated response, occurring after the worst of the genocide there was over, and in practice it protected more Hutus than Tutsis.

The term safe zone has other uses as well. During the Second Persian Gulf War the United States and its allies declared the area around Basra, Iraq, to be a safe zone in the sense that it was safe for humanitarian relief efforts. In the mass media, safe zone means a place where there is no fighting, as used in West African conflicts of the past few years. It is unlikely that either meaning will displace treaty law and practice denoting a safe zone as a place officially set aside for the protection of war victims.

SEE ALSO Early Warning; Prevention


Akashi, Yasushi (1995). "The Use of Force in a United Nations Peace-Keeping Operation: Lessons Learnt from the Safe Areas Mandate." Fordham International Law Journal 19:312.

Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in the Armed Forces in the Field (August 12, 1949). United States Treaties, vol. 6; United Nations Treaties Series, vol. 75 (also known as the First Geneva Convention of 1949).

Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (August 12, 1949). United States Treaties, vol. 6; United Nations Treaties Series, vol. 75, p. 287 (also known as the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949).

Pictet, Jean S. (1952). Commentary: I Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in the Armed Forces in the Field. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross, 1995.

Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (adopted June 8, 1977, entered into force December 7, 1978). United Nations Treaty Series, vol. 1125 (also known as Protocol I).

Roberts, Adam (1999). "Safety Zones." In Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, ed. Roy Gutman and David Rief. New York: W. W. Norton.

Sandoz, Yves et al., eds. (1958, 1995). Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross.

Silliman, Scott L. (2002). "Responding to Rogue Regimes; from Smart Bombs to Smart Sanctions; the Iraqi Quagmire: Enforcing the No-Fly Zones." New England Law Review 36:767–773.

Uhler, Oscar M. and Henri Coursier, eds.; Pictet, Jean S., general ed. (1958). Commentary: IV Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in the Armed Forces in the Field. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross, 1995.

John Cerone
Ewen Allison