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The Safe Zone Concept

Written By: P. Adem Caroll

The Safe Zone Concept

Thoughts Towards a Creative and Effective Application in The Rohingya Crisis

Burma Task Force White Paper Series

“I thank the members of the Security Council and also, the Secretary-General for their proactive attempts to stop atrocities and bring in peace and stability in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. I further call upon the United Nations and the international community to take immediate and effective measures for a permanent solution to this protracted Rohingya crisis. In this regard, I propose the following actions: First: Myanmar must unconditionally stop the violence and the practice of ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State immediately and forever. Second: Secretary General of the United Nations should immediately send a Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar. Third: All civilians irrespective of religion and ethnicity must be protected in Myanmar. For that, “safe zones” could be created inside Myanmar under UN supervision. Fourth: Ensure sustainable return of all forcibly displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh to their homes in Myanmar. Fifth: The recommendations of Kofi Annan Commission Report must be immediately implemented unconditionally and in its entirety.” [1]

—— Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina, UN General Assembly, September 21, 2017


Among the five points eloquently presented by Shaikh Hasina to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017, the protection of the Rohingya people in “safe zones that could be created inside Myanmar under UN supervision” remains somewhat controversial. Is this idea viable as a form of humanitarian intervention? How can it be implemented successfully? This short paper will begin what must become a much more in-depth examination of the concept of safe zones — their function, strengths and weaknesses.

In early September 2017, approximately two weeks after the start of the latest wave of mass displacement of Rohingya, the Government of Bangladesh sent the five-point proposal to confront the crisis with the Myanmar government. Through the International Committee of the Red Cross, Bangladesh asked to secure three areas in Rakhine, ancestral home to the Rohingya, suggesting that those displaced by the violence be relocated there under the supervision of an international organization, such as the United Nations. “The logic of the creation of such zones is that no Rohingya can come inside Bangladesh,” said Shahidul Haque, Bangladesh’s foreign secretary, the top civil servant in the foreign ministry.[2]

While the original logic may have been in part to slow down the exodus of refugees into Bangladesh, the Myanmar government did not cooperate and very soon events overtook Bangladesh policymakers, with over 600,000 Rohingya refugees flooding into their nation within only seven weeks, fleeing mass atrocity crimes by the Burmese military and Rakhine vigilante groups.

Nevertheless, the concept of safe zones persisted, linked to the delivery of aid and to the possibility of eventual repatriation. For example, Bangladesh Finance Minister AMA Muhith has urged the international community to push Myanmar into creating a “safe zone,” with a UN peacekeeping force to guard the zone and also prevent the “rogue Myanmar army” from interference.[3]

Some human rights advocates in the international community also began to support the concept. For example, Attorney Azril Mohd Amin, CEO of the Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy in Malaysia, stated that Malaysia’s effort in sending a humanitarian mission would be more meaningful if the safe zone could be created: “This mechanism will guarantee a proper channeling of aid to ensure that it will reach its target and to provide a strategic platform for a long-term solution to the long-standing humanitarian crisis suffered by the Rohingya Muslims.”  However, Azril noted that the creation of such a safe zone would require the approval from Myanmar, and that other nations would need to assist: “Since the country is too stubborn to comply with any international law on the protection of the lives of civilians, it is quite difficult if Bangladesh is left alone to ensure that the proposed creation of the safe zone is well implemented.”[4]

Many objections refer to the mixed success of past interventions. Indeed, Srebrenica is still a byword for when safe zones go wrong. And the Libya intervention seemed to many observers to conflate regime change with responsibility to protect.  Therefore, the next section will compare the strengths and weaknesses of several safe zones and humanitarian corridors, terms often used interchangeably but with different functions.

Strengths and Weaknesses in Previous Safe Zones Models

At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, more than 1 million Kurds fled the persecution of Saddam Hussein to Iran, while 400,000 tried to enter Turkey but were stopped at the border, forced to remain inside an unstable Iraq within a new “safe zone.” Interpreting authorization under UN Security Council Resolution 688 calling for access for “international humanitarian organizations to all those in need of assistance in all parts of Iraq,” the United States, France, and Britain sent in troops to help, and a no-fly zone was established through “Operation Provide Comfort.” Despite later Turkish incursions, many lives were saved. 

Peacekeepers – or even the involvement of coalition forces—have helped determine the relative success of safe zones. Following the ethnic cleansing of the Albanian Kosovars in 1998, UNHCR was able to repatriate 800,000 of 850,000 displaced people within a year. One reason for this success was the persuasive force of NATO bombing, and another the active role of KFOR troops in the region. Nevertheless, during this period, soldiers were still unable to prevent over 700 local Serbs from being murdered in retaliation.[5]

The strength of the peacekeepers’ mandate will determine success. The scandal of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia is well known. Due to weak rules of engagement UN peacekeepers failed to protect over 8,000 Bosnian men who were massacred close by their compound.

Implementation of safe zones in Darfur, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Central African Republic have been politized and inconsistent. Along with various scandals attaching to UN peacekeeping operations, this very mixed record has damaged the credibility of the humanitarian concept of safe zone. Gareth Evans, Australia’s former foreign minister, has observed, “What punctured the optimism that the world might be on its way to ending internal mass atrocity crimes once and for all is the controversy that erupted in the security council in 2011 about the way the norm was applied in the NATO-led intervention in Libya, and the paralysis that in turn generated in the council’s response to Syria.”[6]

An especially complex example of political discourse around safe zones relates to the civil war in Syria, which has raged since 2011, displacing over 10 million people. During this time, the UN Security Council failed to adequately respond, passing resolutions on humanitarian access, peace talks and chemical weapons in Syria that have never been fully implemented. Moreover, Russia and China have jointly vetoed six UNSC draft resolutions and Russia has independently vetoed a further two resolutions on humanitarian matters.

In the USA, both Republicans and Democrats have advocated for implementing safe zones in Syria. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made safe zones part of her foreign policy platform during her 2016 presidential campaign, and prominent Republican figures like Senators. Marco Rubio[7], Lindsey Graham, and John McCain have all advocated for the policy. As a candidate, Donald Trump claimed that Clinton’s support for safe zones would “start World War Three” with Russia.[8] But in January 2017, newly elected President Donald Trump announced he would “absolutely do safe zones in Syria,”[9] though the policy was thought by some a convenient way of keeping more refugees out of the United States. Within a week, he withdrew this policy[10]  but again, on March 22, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the United States would set up “interim zones of stability” in Syria.[11]

A range of world leaders have continued to call for safe zones or humanitarian corridors in Syria to allow trapped civilian populations to escape or to receive emergency supplies.  For example, Turkey has backed such a policy for years, and even controlled a strip of land in Syria along its border as a de facto safe zone for internally displaced people. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also supported potential safe zones along the Turkey-Syria border.

Analyst Lorenzo Trombetta explains de facto zones of control in Syria as part of a strategy to further political and military goals rather than a method of civilian protection. As he puts it, “These existing zones are either formally or informally under the control of regional powers and their Syrian proxies. The foreign players justify their military, political, economic and, in some cases, cultural and sectarian influence on these Syrian territories under the premise that they are fighting terrorism.”[12]

To this critique, Human Rights Watch adds the following criticisms of Safe Zone implementation thus far: “Parties establishing safe zones may intend to use them to prevent fleeing civilians from crossing borders, rather than to genuinely provide protection…There may also be pressures on humanitarian agencies to cooperate with military forces that control access to safe zones in ways that compromise their humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence.” HRW also suggests that safe zones also suffer from the same problems faced by camps for internally displaced persons. Residents may not be able to access work or their farms, for example, and so will be dependent on assistance for food, water, and other services, including health care.[13]

In international Human Rights Law[14][15] both the Geneva Conventions and Protocol explicitly rely on the consent of all parties to the conflict.[16] However safe zones may be designed to protect against the State itself (especially if the zone has been established by the Security Council under Chapter VII). For example, the 1991 Iraq Safe Zone for the Kurds did not conform to the traditional model of safe zones where the parties to the conflict agree that a specific location will not be subject to attack. The only clear alternative to obtaining consent is through a binding UN Security Council resolution, which could declare a safe zone without the consent of all parties, as it did in the creation of six safe areas during the Balkans conflict in 1993[17].

However, Russia and China have resisted supporting such measures in recent years. Moreover, if a safe zone is created by the Security Council without a State’s consent, this may lead to operational difficulties for UNHCR despite having supervisory functions over those countries under Article 35 of the Refugee Convention. It may not be easy for the international community to enforce standards against the country in which safe zones are located, given that continuing cooperation is essential. UNHCR has struggled at times to ensure a continued presence while still being able to criticize the State as needed, in case of incursions, interference, recruitment, trafficking or attack.

Regarding the option of a Bangladesh incursion to clear mines and even the establishment of safe zones without consent, such a move might be politically popular in Bangladesh, but would face potential backlash in Myanmar and in any case not convince the government of Aung San Suu Kyi to restore Rohingya rights. It might even become a pretext for Myanmar to abandon the Kofi Annan roadmap entirely.

Concepts Supporting Safe Zones in International Law

International law relating to peacekeeping operations is also relevant to safe zone protection.[18] The 2015 High-Level Independent Review Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO) recommendations and Kigali Principles offer practical guidance to address current challenges in peacekeeping. Over 40 nations have endorsed these principles, including Bangladesh, but not Myanmar.[19] 

However, an important addition to human rights architecture, the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, which serves as the foundation of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle states that the “international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”[20]  

In the case of Darfur, the Security Council “invited” Sudan to consent to the deployment of UN troops in 2006. Resolution 1706 was the first time that the Security Council referred to the responsibility to protect in a specific country where armed UN peacekeepers are to be deployed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which allows the council to take any military means necessary to restore international peace and security. Three Security Council members abstained from the vote: China, Russia, and Qatar, but the measured carried.

International refugee protections are aligned with R2P principles. For example, in 2016, UN member states emphasized in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants that: “host States have the primary responsibility to ensure the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements. We will work to ensure that this character is not compromised by the presence or activities of armed elements and to ensure that camps are not used for purposes that are incompatible with their civilian character.”[21]

Safe zones may indeed resemble refugee camps. UNHCR’s Executive Committee (ExCom), has established relevant criteria for refugee camps to ensure safety. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the international community has demanded Rohingya repatriation to their original villages and lands despite ominous signs that Myanmar plans to house them in IDP camps[22].

Applicability and Adaptability of Safe Zone Concept to Protecting Rohingya in Myanmar

While R2P principles are supported by every UN member nation, not every nation state is comfortable with limits to sovereignty or has the political will to act, in this case, to stop the mass atrocities in Myanmar. Nor are all NGOs comfortable with the risk involved, mostly due to the history of mismanagement as well as the impact of safe zones on such international legal norms as “non-refoulement” which assert that safe haven is a human right for refugees fleeing conflict.

Human Rights Watch has expressed strong doubts on the possibility of safe implementation of safe zones. [23] Several March 2017 articles quote highly critical statements by their longtime Refugee Program Director Bill Frelick, focused on Syria.[24]  And in September 2017 HRW Asia Fellow Richard Weir wrote an equally skeptical article focusing on Myanmar. HRW is understandably concerned that conditions within “safe zones” could be as bad, “if not worse”, than in refugee camps across the border.  Moreover, regarding Myanmar, Mr. Weir states, “Given the Burmese military’s brutal and unrelenting campaign against the Rohingya, no one should be under any illusion that it will allow a “safe zone” to actually be safe.” While such skepticism is understandable, these discussions do not consider the role of UN Peacekeepers in depth, and Mr. Weir does not mention them at all.[25]

Currently, there is no access to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who are trapped in dire conditions in the mountains of Rakhine State. They are at immediate risk. At the same time, the continuing flood of refugees into Bangladesh will be a major burden on the international community. Despite Myanmar government assurances, it seems highly unlikely that these families (half are children) will be allowed back to their homes in the next several years, at best. A long period of life in refugee camps may provide “safety” –but without jobs, education and integration into the wider society, life will inevitably be an impoverished and a form of imprisonment.  Given the lack of more positive alternatives, analysts at Human Rights Watch and other think tanks might ask how a successful safe zone may be possible, not if it can be possible.

It is very likely that any international presence in Myanmar would be met with a strong nationalist outcry. Indeed, for the last several years UN and humanitarian groups have been attacked both physically and in the media, and in the case of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) expelled from the country for almost one year. Moreover, during the first week of the recent military clearance, the Myanmar government itself moved to link the UN agencies to “terrorism.”  In North Rakhine State the military has trained and supported vigilante groups that have committed many atrocities. Without a change of strategy, keeping Rohingya safe despite this xenophobic messaging will require a much stronger peacekeeping contingent, preferably from diverse ASEAN nations.

It is difficult to discern good faith efforts by the current Myanmar Government. Even the ministerial committee to follow up on the Kofi Annan-led Commission recommendations is co-led by Vice Chair Dr. Win Mya Aye, the same Minister for Social Development, Relief and Resettlement who has stated that all 220 burned or abandoned Rohingya villages will be confiscated by the State.[26] Permitting Myanmar to restrict peacekeeper movements or mission within the zone in any way would certainly make Rohingya less safe. Crucially, safe zones or humanitarian corridors must allow for Rohingya repatriation back to the original villages and lands in Rakhine State, as the International Community is demanding. Success depends on the strength of political will as well as availability of sustainable resources.   

To conclude; the recent report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights describes “vicious, well-organized, coordinated and systematic attacks by Myanmar security forces.[27]” The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh has called the current situation a “genocide” and many experts agree.[28][29] Among others, UN experts have stated that “the Government of Myanmar has failed to meet its obligations under international law and primary responsibility to protect the Rohingya population from atrocity crimes” which are defined in the letter as including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”[30]

It is crucial for the United Nations, and for its member nations, to embrace the principle of R2P as they are legally obligated to do when confronted with mass atrocities. This requires effective action, which is long overdue, along with the credible threat of action. Western nations fear weakening Myanmar’s fragile, imperfect democracy through their actions. But in the short run, sanctions, arms and embargos and other punitive measures may make Aung San Suu Kyi more popular with nationalist followers, not less so. In our view, such necessary measures will not weaken her politically in relation to the military partners in her government.  This stronger position may possibly allow her to take some political risks, such as allowing Rohingya repatriation.

Provided there are short and long-term strategic plans in place, and avoiding the many pitfalls, Bangladesh may wish to incorporate elements of the safe zone concept into its planning for eventual repatriation, with a timeline and a solid plan for safe implementation.



















[18]  p. 6



[21] P. 8 see footnote 18










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