International Order & Conflict

Making UN-Safe Areas Safer: From Srebrenica to South Sudan

in Program

By Sarah Bosha:

In 1995, during the Bosnian war, Serbian forces overran a ‘safe area’ in Srebrenica, resulting in the death of 6,000 Muslim men and boys. Then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in speaking of the conflict remarked that, the Muslims in Bosnia were not only victims of brutal aggression but “also victims of the failure of the democracies to act.”

The massacre was so shocking that it contributed to NATO’s decision to increase its involvement in the conflict, shifting from a policy of enforcing a no-fly zone to conducting air strikes to protect safe areas. The incident also seriously damaged the reputation and credibility of the UN and spurred major reforms to UN peacekeeping, including the authorization of the majority of contemporary peacekeeping missions to use force to protect civilians from physical violence.  

Despite these reforms, the international community faces similar challenges of protecting people in protected areas today but still lacks the clear policies or laws needed to protect peacekeepers and the people they are mandated to shield from atrocities. Currently UN forces in South Sudan are protecting over 100,000 people inside and adjacent to their bases in areas now referred to as protection of civilians (PoC) sites. These civilians sought shelter from a conflict that erupted in December 2013 and involves targeted violence against civilians. The risk of parties to the conflict attacking or trying to enter these bases is real, and the UNhas played a crucial role in protecting the civilians seeking shelter at their bases.

But almost 20 years after Srebrenica, there is still no clear legal or policy regime to govern these safe areas. This creates serious risks for peacekeepers and for the civilians under their protection for a number of reasons. First, it reduces the likelihood that parties to a conflict will respect protected areas. A clear set of recognized international laws could influence the behavior of parties to a conflict — for example, the Geneva Conventions influenced the manner in which many warring parties treat prisoners of war. Similarly, international laws to address the rights and responsibilities governing designated areas protected by peacekeepers might help to deter parties from attacking them. 

Second, peacekeepers may be unclear about what powers they can exercise within the protected areas and to what extent they can use force to defend them. This lack of clarity may make them reluctant to take strong actions for fear of criticism or even legal prosecution. In South Sudan, official UN headquarters, camps, or other premises are governed by a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the South Sudanese government, placing them under the exclusive control and authority of the UN This gives peacekeepers the right to exclude South Sudanese government forces from the PoC sites which are located within UNbases. But for PoC sites located outside UN bases (and thus not subject to the SOFA), it is less clear whether the UN has the same right to exclude government forces — and to use force to do so — in the name of protecting civilians.

Third, clarification of the legal responsibilities and relationships between protectors, recipients of protection, and warring parties would also improve UN peacekeepers’ ability to maintain security within PoC sites. In South Sudan, UN peacekeepers have been conducting weapons searches and security checks on persons entering the sites to ensure that they do not become training grounds for combatants but there are ongoing questions about what their responsibilities are to ensure that attacks or military preparations do not originate from within a protected area.

Finally, clear policies laying out what can realistically be expected from UN peacekeepers in PoC sites would allow civilians a better understanding of their options in a conflict. Such understanding could act as a guide to civilians in thinking about whether they should solely rely on the UN or also employ other strategies to safeguard themselves from violent attack. 

To create a more concrete policy and legal structure for safe areas, the UN could draw on some of the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Conventions, which provide for safety zones created by the consent of warring parties. The Geneva Conventions also safeguard the civilian nature of these areas by generally prohibiting combatants and those engaged in military activities from receiving protection therein.

When people sheltering inside sites are displaced, the UN could also build upon Principle 10 of its guiding principles on internally displaced persons. This principle reiterates the prohibition against attacks by any actors, of internally displaced persons who are no longer engaging in hostilities generally. Specifically it prohibits attacks against the camps and settlements of internally displaced persons. This collection of international standards and codes of conduct could be transformed into a clear policy that creates guidelines for the implementation of PoC sites. All these considerations can be important in framing the reform of the UN’s goal to protect civilians. 

The lack of clear guidance on safe areas has put peacekeepers in an extremely difficult situation and has created significant risks for civilians seeking shelter within them. Policies or laws that could clarify the rights and responsibilities of peacekeepers, civilians and parties to a conflict with respect to protected areas might help to improve the lives of the 100,000 people seeking shelter in PoC sites in South Sudan and prevent a future Srebrenica.

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Photo credit: United Nations Photo via flickr

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