What we talk about when we talk about “safe havens”.

A short history of, and long questions on, safe havens.

Diane Abbott, the new Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, commented on the debate over intervention in Syria on Saturday night with a tweet accusing fellow Labour MPs of wanting to happily-go-luckily bomb the place:

The article inspiring her intervention, is a cross-party outline by Labour’s Jo Cox (a former Oxfam Head of Policy) and the Conservatives’ Andrew Mitchell (a former International Development Secretary) of options for intervention. Nowhere do they advocate bombing Syria. (The only governments bombing Syria, by the way, are those of Russia and, er, Syria).

Cox and Mitchell advance proposals for three types of intervention to address the death and destruction: humanitarian, to meet the needs of refugees; diplomatic, to seek a political solution; and military, to establish ‘safe havens’.

The prohibiting of military operations in particular areas has been a part of modern warfare since the 1930s. The Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Israeli War of Independence were the first conflicts to see their use. In 1949, they were formalised in international law under Article 15 of the Fourth Geneva Convention as “neutralized zones” for the protection of the sick and wounded (whether combatant or non-combatant) and non-combatant civilians. It was envisaged that they would be established ‘where fighting is taking place’ and would therefore differ from “hospital” and “safety” zones.

During the Cold War, open hostilities in the seventies and eighties saw their use reprised: in the Indo-Pakistan War, Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus, final stages of the Vietnam War, first Chadian Civil War, and almost in the Falklands War (the conflict ended before enforcement happened).

They were back in vogue again during some of the more familiar, final wars of the 20th century - in Iraq, former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. Their use there has been excellently documented in three short essays by Sophie Hapeslagh, now of the LSE. The results were, to say the least, mixed; and the lack of direct success probably led to safe havens being rejected as a solution in the Kosovo conflict of 1999, which might otherwise have been seen as a natural candidate for the approach.

In the aftermath of the First Iraq War in 1991, Operation Provide Comfort allowed 400,000 Kurdish refugees to return from the Turkish border. It was the first time that Article 39 of the UN Convention — which allows for the determination of the existence of acts of aggression or threats to peace — was used in relation to the potential consequences of a refugee crisis, with Turkey seemingly poised to breach the principle of non-refoulement (basically, having to accept persecuted people). Parallels with today’s chaotic and widespread movements of people out of Syria, and their search for asylum, are clear.

In April 1993, the UN Security Council authorised the establishment of safe areas around six towns in Bosnia-Herzogovina as the ethnic cleansing of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia saw 100,000 civilians flee into enclaves.

June 1994 saw Operation Turquoise, a joint French-Sengalese initiative, with UNSC backing, establish Zones Humanitaires Sures (ZHS) in Rwanda.

In Iraq, the safe havens did provide respite and protection for the Kurds in the short to mid terms. This was mainly thanks to the existing strong presence, from the war to liberate Kuwait, of Western coalition forces and air power to enforce them, before responsibility was handed over to UN agencies. Eventually, however, Turkish (in 1991 and 1995) and Iraqi (1996) incursions in to Kurdish areas resumed.

Noting that one of the supposedly safe enclaves in Bosnia in 1993 was Srebrenica should be enough to illustrate that enforcement was less than adequate. By July 1995, Western willingness to protect the enclaves had evaporated and 30000 UN troops were left all but standing by as 14000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

As for Rwanda in 1994, the neutrality of the ZHS were constantly compromised by French willingness to offer protection to the Hutu genocidaires as much as the Tutsi and moderate Hutu populations. By the time the UN Assistance Mission In Rwanda took over in August, the very worst of the mass killing was already done.

If we are to intervene in Syria (and I believe we should), and we are to project the Responsibility to Protect using safe havens, then it will be the first time they have been attempted in such a complex conflict. This, plus the lessons from Northern Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda, raise several questions:

1. In the absence of a single frontline, what will be the location of the safe havens? How will we stop combatants, of all varieties, embedding themselves in the havens’ populations? How will we balance the neutrality of these zones while maintaining their integrity as open to all non-combatants?

2. Who will the source agreement establishing the havens be between? That is, what combination of the UN or Nato or the Assad regime or the Russian government or the Free Syria groups or the Islamist groups or the governments of neighbouring countries?

3. What is the process for establishing that type of source agreement? If there is not a process, can the havens be established without it? If so, what effect will that have on attempts to seek a fuller political solution? (Cox and Mitchell are right to point out that negotiating humanitarian action can lay the ground for more formal diplomacy and resolution; but failure in the humanitarian field can also undermine diplomatic efforts).

4. Who will establish the havens on the ground, in what numbers, and what form of air power will they have? What will the reach of no-fly zones around them be? What will the rules of engagement be?

5. Who will supply the havens and keep the people in them fed, watered, powered, housed and healed?

5. Other than ‘absolutely useless’, what will the UN’s role be? How long will the original forces be in place for? Do we go for a protection force model, like the UN in the former Yugoslavia? Or an assistance force model, like Nato in Afghanistan? If the latter, then who are we assisting (see point 2)?

6. Are we, in establishing safe havens, content to undermine the refugees’ “right to flee”? Are we now preparing to say to refugees that asylum cannot apply because safety can now be found in the havens?

I raise these as someone who has nothing but admiration for Cox (who is an old friend) and Mitchell for advancing the debate in this way, and who supports the principle of some sort of intervention in Syria (and would possibly be more involved than your average punter if it does go ahead).

With precedent in “international law”, and recent counter-insurgency experience still fresh in our military and other parts of government, we should be able to find a way for the havens to happen. Parliament’s role is to ask the right questions along the way.

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