(Ця стаття також доступна українською мовою тут.)

On Mar. 3, the Adviser to the Head of the Office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podoliak, reported that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators had agreed on the need for humanitarian corridors in Ukraine. The announcement came in the midst of a spiraling humanitarian crisis and following calls for such corridors from Ukrainian officials and intergovernmental organizations like the World Health Organization. The agreement was the product of a second round of ceasefire talks between the Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in Belarus.

The purpose of these humanitarian corridors would be twofold: the evacuation of civilians and the provision of medicines and food supplies. The method of establishing these corridors would be temporary ceasefires in the geographically narrow areas agreed to be corridors. The locations and implementation date being discussed for these corridors were not released on Mar. 3. However, the negotiators appeared to have agreed that the corridors would only be in place for a limited duration — the time needed for Ukrainian civilians to evacuate from the cities under attack.

Following the announcement, the mayors of port cities Kherson and Mariupol reiterated calls for humanitarian corridors, with the mayor of Kherson stating the Russian military was not cooperating with the agreement and the mayor of Mariupol demanding such corridors to get the city “out of the blockade.” On Mar. 5 and 6, evacuations of civilians were agreed to for the cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha for limited periods. However, these efforts failed, with reports of Russian shelling during this time. On Mar. 7, the Russian military announced another ceasefire for humanitarian corridors to be opened in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Sumy – corridors that would lead to Belarus, Russia, and other Ukrainian cities. Shelling by Russian forces again prevented the evacuation in Mariupol, with the ICRC indicating that a proposed route out of the city had actually been mined. This apparent abuse of humanitarian corridors and subsequent breakdown in trust reflect some of the frequent difficulties in implementing humanitarian corridors. Amidst these developments, this article summarizes key points concerning the history and purpose of humanitarian corridors before outlining some shortcomings and risks of these instruments in the current crisis.

Humanitarian Corridors: History and Purpose

Humanitarian corridors have a long history of assisting civilians in international armed conflicts (IACs), non-international armed conflicts (NIACs), and, even more recently, migration. They have been described as a “highly restricted, narrow space [. . .] via which endangered civilians are provided with aid and/or are evacuated.” In UN General Assembly and Security Council Resolutions, they are variously referred to as “temporary relief corridors”, “temporary security zones”, and “safe corridors.” Often, humanitarian corridors overlap with related concepts like ceasefires, temporary cessations of hostilities, humanitarian pauses, and days of tranquillity, though corridors are spatially and temporally distinct from these concepts.

In recent times, humanitarian corridors have been established in some UN Security Council resolutions set to overcome the “consent requirement” of humanitarian assistance. Under Article 70 (1) of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions, state consent is required for humanitarian assistance in an IAC but it cannot be arbitrarily withheld. Such consent is not required, however, where the Security Council has made a binding decision. In the context of Syria, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2165 which authorized four humanitarian border corridors between Turkey (Bab Al-Hawa and Bab El-Salam), Jordan (Al Ramtha) and Iraq (Al Yarubiyah) and Syria. Where Parties are willing to allow humanitarian assistance, however, as is presumptively the case with the present humanitarian corridor discussions, this threshold matter of consent is already met.

Humanitarian corridors have the capacity to give partial effect to the obligations of Belligerent Parties under international humanitarian law – in particular, related to the passage of medical relief supplies, equipment and personnel, and the passage of essential foodstuffs. Article 23 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that Belligerent Parties must allow the passage of medical and hospital consignments and objects necessary for religious worship. Further, it requires those Parties to allow “the free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended” for singularly vulnerable populations – namely “children under fifteen, expectant mothers, and maternity cases.” Though not mentioned directly, blockades – which now appear to be emerging in certain Ukrainian cities – set the background to this provision. Article 70 of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions expands on Article 23, extending the “circle of those benefitting [from relief] to the whole of the civilian population.” Humanitarian corridors can thus be a means of allowing and facilitating the unimpeded passage of such consignments, equipment, and personnel.

Beyond fulfilling these obligations and meeting civilians’ immediate needs, humanitarian corridors can be a starting point or feature of broader peace negotiations. The University of Edinburgh’s Peace Agreement Database includes 19 peace agreements that agree to, discuss, or provide detailed provisions related to such corridors. These include the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement for the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), and the Hudna truce of al-Zabani, Keriyya and al-Fu-aa for Syria.

Shortcomings and Risks

Humanitarian corridors are not, however, without shortcomings or risks.

For one, humanitarian corridors are far from sufficient to satisfy Parties’ obligations under Articles 23 and 70. These obligations to ensure access to humanitarian relief extend to the entirety of the affected civilian population for the duration of the conflict. They can’t be discharged by geographically and temporally restrained corridors.

Further, humanitarian corridors rely on considerable levels of trust, which can be dangerously fleeting in the midst of an armed conflict. Where the corridor is enforced by opposing armies rather than a neutral third party, coordination and communication can easily break down with devastating consequences. Those forces might fear, for instance, that these safe corridors are being used by opposing armed actors to move weapons and military assets. Additionally, humanitarian actors and civilians relying on the corridors must trust that they are safe to use. This trust may be quite low in the Ukrainian context. During the 2014 Battle of Ilovaisk in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian army and volunteer troops who had been encircled in the city retreated through what they understood to have been a negotiated humanitarian corridor – Russian President Vladimir Putin having allegedly appealed to pro-Russian separatist leaders to provide “a humanitarian corridor to avoid senseless sacrifices.” The retreating columns, however, were fired upon, leaving hundreds of soldiers dead. Though that incident involved a military humanitarian corridor, rather than the proposed civilian humanitarian corridors here, that distinction may be immaterial: Ukrainian civilians may doubt that they can depend on Russian troops to enforce the safety of the corridor. Further experiences in Chechnya and Syria suggest that Russians might in fact be employing humanitarian corridors as a tactic to demoralize civilian populations. The shelling of Mariupol during the alleged Mar. 5, 6, and 7 humanitarian corridor pauses underscores these fears.

Additionally, where these corridors are focused on evacuation, their value to civilians who are unable to leave – such as the elderly, disabled, or infirm – or who do not want to leave is limited. In Syria, 35 humanitarian organizations signed a statement expressing alarm over a joint Russia-Syria proposal for the establishment of alleged “humanitarian corridors” focused on evacuations out of eastern Aleppo. They feared that this narrow window could be both a cover to target those civilians that remained and that it forced an impossible choice “between fleeing into the arms of their attackers or remaining in a besieged area under continued bombardment.” If a humanitarian corridor is only open to the provision of medical assistance and foodstuffs while evacuations are taking place, remaining civilians become increasingly vulnerable once those evacuations cease. And those that remain most decidedly do not become legitimate military targets. An alternative to a corridor that is time bound to an evacuation is a weekly 48-hour “humanitarian pause,” as was called for by the UN in the Syrian context. As far as “fleeing into the arms of their attackers” is concerned, there is a disturbing parallel with the Mar. 7 announcement of humanitarian corridors leading to Russia and Belarus. As UK Europe Minister James Cleverly stated, “Providing evacuation routes into the arms of the country that is currently destroying yours is a nonsense.” Such corridors into Russia and Russia-ally Belarus could potentially even amount to unlawful deportations, a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

The initial agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the need for humanitarian corridors seemed a positive development. Precarious, incomplete, and risky, but positive. The events of the following days, however, revealed that it is premature to know what these agreements actually mean – whether Russia will honour them, and if Ukrainian civilians and humanitarians can trust them enough to use them. From the perspective of Ukrainians fearing for their lives and the humanitarians seeking to assist them, is the promise of a humanitarian corridor a cynical ploy or does it offer hope?

Vaclav Havel, the late Czech President, once wrote of hope that it “is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. [Hope] gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.” Havel was no stranger to the despair of invading Russian tanks – he rose to prominence as a dissident following the Russian suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring. His perspective offers the wisdom that pushing for humanitarian corridors, for broader respect of humanitarian law, and the safeguarding of civilian lives is right, even in the conditions we are bearing witness to today. Though it may seem futile, it is in maintaining this certainty – the conviction that these efforts make sense – that there might exist a narrow passage of hope.

IMAGE: A man holds a child as he flees the city of Irpin, west of Kyiv, on March 7, 2022. – Russian forces pummeled Ukrainian cities from the air, land and sea on Monday, with warnings they were preparing for an assault on the capital Kyiv, as terrified civilians failed for a second day to escape besieged Mariupol. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)