In an interview on Wednesday with ABC, President Donald Trump said he would “absolutely do safe zones in Syria.” The leaked draft of the Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals” directs the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense, to “produce a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement. …” The plan is due 90 days from the date of the Executive Order, which the President was expected to sign this week.

The idea of establishing safe areas in the non-international armed conflict in Syria is not new. Turkey has been advocating safe zones in Syria since 2012, and President Barack Obama considered but dismissed the idea more than once because of the extensive military resources required to enforce safe zones and the risk of clashing with Russian military operations.

In addition to political, military and financial considerations, safe areas elicit a number of questions under international humanitarian law (IHL) and from a humanitarian point of view. Some of these are very briefly explored below.

IHL contains some provisions on the establishment, by agreement between the parties to the conflict, of zones to shelter persons from the effects of hostilities:

  • Both the First and the Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949 foresee the establishment of hospital and safety zones to protect the wounded and sick, as well as certain categories of civilians, from the effects of armed conflict. In order to provide shelter from aerial bombardment, these are typically set up far from the area of fighting. They must not be defended by military means. In an annex to each of these two Geneva Conventions is a draft agreement for the establishment of such zones.
  • The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 also provides for the possibility to set up “neutralized zones,” which are more temporary than hospital and safety zones and typically not removed from the area of combat. Neutralized zones are meant to provide shelter for the wounded and sick as well as civilians who are in the vicinity of military operations but take no part in hostilities and perform no work of a military character while they reside in these zones.
  • Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 foresees the establishment of “demilitarized zones” to protect entire civilian populations residing in these zones against attack. No party to the conflict can occupy or use these areas for military purposes.

Although these provisions are all found in treaties that apply in international armed conflict, common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions encourages parties to a non-international armed conflict to enter into special agreements to implement the Geneva Conventions’ provisions. Some safe zones have been established in agreements between parties to armed conflicts. Many State military manuals recognize the notion of safe zones as well as the customary IHL rule that prohibits directing attacks against such zones.

The establishment of safe zones under IHL is premised on all the parties to the conflict agreeing to set them up and therefore respect their civilian character. Short of an agreement between all parties, the UN Security Council can, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, declare safe areas, as it has done through resolutions on Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993 and Rwanda in 1994. Setting aside the question of whether Security Council members today could agree to such an arrangement in Syria, some obvious humanitarian concerns flow from the establishment of a safe zone that does not enjoy the agreement of all parties to the conflict. First, concentrating civilians in a given area can expose them to attack by a party to the conflict unless proper safety guarantees are in place, as the tragedy in Srebrenica revealed. A strong military presence is required to ensure the protection of a safe zone to which the parties to the conflict have not agreed. Second, the deployment of military forces to protect the zone can draw attacks from enemy parties, exposing the zone’s population to military operations and thereby undermining the very character of the safe zone.

Absent agreement by all parties, a zone to shield certain populations would need to be established with extreme caution and may not truly be safe without the full agreement of all parties to the conflict. The question of whether the establishment of safe zones would clash with the right to leave one’s country and pursue asylum deserves distinct analysis. It is also important to recall that IHL requires that all possible measures be taken to receive displaced civilians under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition and not to separate members of the same family.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

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