In my last blog piece, I wrote about the benefits, and drawbacks of military intervention in humanitarian affairs in the context of punishment or punitive bombing. It turns out that in theory there are some preliminary benefits, however when examined in practice (i.e. in relation to humanitarian affairs) there are a myriad of legitimacy, logistical and escalatory issues present. On the balance punishment/punitive bombing alone as a strategy does not appear to adequately address or ameliorate situations of a humanitarian nature. We’ll now look to an examination of the safe zone strategy.

Method of Intervention




Relevant Conditions affecting method of intervention

Punishment (punitive bombing) Deterrence • Limits of coercive strategy

• Practical Issues inherent in bombing

• Threshold Dilemma in determining cases of Genocide/ Politicide

• Risk of Escalating Ethnic Cleansing to Genocide.


• Repeated probing by assailant (low level tests of will and capability)

• Existence of other crises in the global village

• Ethnic / religious background of the victims

• Media coverage

• Nuclear Power status of the assailant


Safe Zones Defensive/Denial Strategy Rarely attempted,

• De Facto Succession

• Norm of Non-Intervention


• Demographic variables: 

• Traditional military variables i.e. distance, weather, topography vegetation which influence size and quality of necessary military force


Safe Havens • More appropriate response for intermixed populations

• More appropriate for limited capacity rescuers

• Solution for primitive logistics


• May incur siege warfare if/when assailant pursue genocide/politicide


•  Air support (Military)

•  Political will for defence



Enforced Truce If goal is to suppress local fighting only, this form of intervention will be more manageable • Military capacity requirements will be substantial if the rescuer wants to rescue “all from all”

• Outside intervention to halt internal conflict more difficult than intervention to cause a pause in fighting to help refugees.;


• Implementation will depend on the size and shape of the country, number and size of the groups requiring protection and their arrangement

Safe zones

True safe zones exist when a threatened population within an assailant state remains settled within a distinct area that is effectively placed under military protection by a challenger state or intervening force. When safe zones are chosen as a strategy the intervening force has committed itself to protecting the demarcated area, and allowing those living within it some semblance of a normal life (given the current circumstances that has brought the safe zone into being). Politically and military-wise there is little precedent for the use of the strategic safe zone.  The protection of Kurdish areas in Northern Iraq stands out as the sole model and historical example. This followed the unsuccessful rebellion of the Kurds against the Baath regime which was catalyzed by Operation Desert Storm.

Advantages of Safe Zones

Defence/Denial Strategy

The primary advantage of the safe zone is that it serves as strong defensive or “denial” strategy.  This makes the use of safe zones an attractive strategy due to the fact that defensive measures are easier than offensive in abstract terms.  In accepting this argument humanitarian intervention becomes an exercise in coercive diplomacy however with all the disadvantages that the particular endeavour entails (see Pt. 1 of this series on Punitive Bombing). As a result there is likely to be some situations in which a rescuer will be forced to engage in combat. Rescuers pursuing safe zones will be strongly invested in finding ways to reduce the  military costs of action.  When defence is the more advantageous option, establishing a situation where the assailant has to attack is most favorable to both the rescuing force and the victims being protected. The safe zone functions to provide physical protection to the threatened population as well as convincing the assailant to stay away by developing a convincing ability to bar entry.

Disadvantages of Safe Zones

There are various elements that show safe zones to be disadvantageous. The first being that since the use of safe zones has been rarely attempted, there is a significant lack of cases from which to draw objective comparison and analysis. This makes the overall assessment of safe zones, preliminary at best.

In addition to this, the act of establishing  a safe zone itself, can be considered an act of de-facto succession.  Though fulfilling the direct needs and security of a targeted segment of a given population, It should be noted that popular notions of sovereignty and human rights are not wholly shared by countries with repressive regimes. Thus the disadvantages inherent in punitive bombing with respect to coercive diplomacy, have their analogue in the use of safe zones as well.

Overall the international community bears a strong norm of non-intervention, this is markedly true for nations in the so-called global-south, the BRICS and any others that happen to be typically suspicious of western interests. More often than not interventions labelled under auspice of humanitarianism are accused of having an element of neo-colonialism inherent in them. These claims, whether true or not, foster strong political barriers to the implementation of safe zones altogether.   Despite its attraction as a defensive and potentially low-cost strategy, just getting to the point where safe zones can be established presents its own significant challenge.  Credibility (of the intervening force) is also at stake in this scenario. As a result of these factors there tends to be pronounced degree of diplomatic selectivity where intervention in this context is concerned. This has produced a double standard at the international level, as Posen writes  “When the bad guys are weak such as Iraq in Kurdistan, intervention pops to the top of the agenda; when they are strong such as Russia in Chechnya, little is said…”

Factors affecting this method of intervention

Traditional military and demographic variables will bear significant influence on the success of a safe zone undertaking. Distance, weather, topography
and vegetation, as well as the type, size and quality of the necessary military force is of utmost importance here.  Presuming that these variables are favorable to the safe zone in question, broader environmental considerations are also important.  They can be expressed in the following questions:

– Are there bases nearby?

– Are there any ports, roads, airstrips?

– Which countries are willing to act as rescuers?

– Can those countries bring the necessary kind of military power to bear?

In the next part of this series I will showcase the merits of Safe Havens, a close cousin to the Safe Zone Strategy.  Stay tuned.

Photo: https://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/bsp/hi/dhtml_slides/09/srebrenica_massacre/img/01_bosnian_war_466map.gif