The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Cookies disclaimer

I agree Our site saves small pieces of text information (cookies) on your device in order to deliver better content and for statistical purposes. You can disable the usage of cookies by changing the settings of your browser. By browsing our website without changing the browser settings you grant us permission to store that information on your device.

Protected Areas and Zones

Humanitarian law establishes different methods to define areas or zones within which special protection will be provided for populations in danger and in which no fighting may take place. The Geneva Conventions and the Protocols make a specific distinction between:

  • non-defended localities;
  • hospital zones and localities;
  • hospital and safety zones and localities;
  • neutralized zones;
  • demilitarized zones.

Each principle of humanitarian law bestows detailed rights and obligations. This includes a precise distribution of responsibilities for protecting the individuals gathered in the zones meant to ensure their safety.

The UN Security Council has added new concepts of safe havens meant to provide protection for civilians, known as “safe areas” or “secure humanitarian areas,” for instance. These are based on the Geneva Convention notion of safety zones but do not meet the criteria set by humanitarian law. In fact, these areas are protected by the presence of UN soldiers whose military capabilities and responsibilities with regard to protection of the civilian population are generally more symbolic than real.

Gathering vulnerable populations into “protected” locations may actually result in increasing their vulnerability and the dangers they face. For instance, they may find themselves exposed—defenseless—to military operations. It is therefore crucial to establish, firmly and precisely, who has the legal and military responsibility to protect these zones and persons.

The “safe areas” created by the UN in the former Yugoslavia in 1993 and the “secure humanitarian areas” set up in Rwanda in 1994 did not meet the criteria set by humanitarian law for safety zones. Instead, they were the result of diplomatic and military compromises negotiated by the UN Security Council. The question of who was responsible for protecting the populations remained unclear, and the means to enforce such protection were inadequate. The tragic story of the individuals gathered in these areas shows the necessity of critically examining the concept of such “protected zones.”

In every case, relief organizations working in such areas must keep an eye on the protection guarantees given to the populations, as well as on the chain of responsibility and the different recourses available in such operations.

Protected Areas and Zones under the Geneva Conventions and Protocols

Nondefended Localities

These are any inhabited places situated near or in a zone where armed forces are in contact with one another and that are subject to enemy occupation, so as to avoid combat and destruction.

Humanitarian law establishes that certain zones can be specifically defined as “non-defended,” so as to prevent fighting from taking place there. The aim is to spare the civilian population and civilian objects and property that are there. It follows that it is prohibited for the parties to the conflict to attack such localities, by any means whatsoever (API Art. 59.1).

The designation of a non-defended locality and the distinctive sign that must mark it are subject to detailed regulations (API Arts. 59.5–59.7). The parties to the conflict must agree on the signs that will mark such localities when they set them up.

Specific conditions must be met to ensure that a locality can be defined as non-defended:

  • all combatants, as well as mobile weapons and mobile military equipment, must have been evacuated;
  • no hostile use shall be made of fixed military installations or establishments;
  • no acts of hostility shall be committed by the authorities or by the population; and
  • no activities in support of military operations shall be undertaken (API Art. 59.2).

Hospital Zones and Localities

These are zones and localities organized on the territory of a party to the conflict or on occupied territory the aim of which is to protect wounded and sick members of the armed forces, as well as the medical personnel assigned to each zone, from the effects of war. The First Geneva Convention suggests that States establish such localities even in times of peace and that they sign ad hoc agreements with the adverse party in times of conflict. To this effect, the Convention provides a “Draft Agreement Relating to Hospital Zones and Localities” (Annex I).

The parties concerned must conclude agreements on mutual recognition of the hospital zones and localities they have created, which must be marked by the appropriate distinctive emblem. This emblem consists of a red cross, red crescent, or red lion and sun, on a white background, placed on the outer precincts and on the buildings (GCI Art. 23 and Annex I).

Hospital and Safety Zones and Localities

The Fourth Geneva Convention reiterates the notion of hospital zones and localities set forth in the First Convention (for the wounded and sick members of the armed forces). In this case, the localities must be set up to protect civilians from the effects of war. The hospital and safety zones and localities—also established on the territory of a party to the conflict or in occupied territory—are organized so as to protect the wounded, sick, and aged persons, children under fifteen, expectant mothers, and mothers of children under seven, as well as those meant to be protected by the hospital zones and localities listed above. Again, such localities should be foreseen in times of peace and agreed on between the adverse parties in times of war (GCIV Art. 14 and Annex I).

This Convention also reiterates that the protecting powers and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are “invited to lend their good offices in order to facilitate the institution and recognition of these hospital and safety zones and localities” (GCIV Art. 14).

Hospital and safety zones must be marked by means of oblique red bands on a white ground, placed on the buildings and outer precincts. This is a distinctive emblem protected by the Geneva Conventions, and its perfidious use or failure to respect it are grave breaches of the Conventions, and are therefore war crimes (API Art. 85). Finally, zones reserved exclusively for the wounded and sick will be marked by a red cross (red crescent, red lion and sun) emblem on a white ground (GCIV Art. 14 and Annex I).

Neutralized Zones

Neutralized zones may be established in regions where fighting is taking place. Such zones are intended to shelter the following persons, without distinction, from the effects of war: wounded and sick combatants or non-combatants, and civilian persons who take no part in hostilities and who perform no work of a military character while they reside in the zones. Parties to the conflict, neutral States, or humanitarian organizations may take the initiative to create a neutralized zone.

The parties to the conflict must conclude and sign a written agreement identifying the beginning and duration of the zone’s neutralization, as well as the details of its geographic location, administration, food supply, and supervision (GCIV Art. 15).

Demilitarized Zones

These are zones in which it is prohibited for the parties to the conflict to carry out military operations. Parties to the conflict are also prohibited from using these zones for any purpose related to the conduct of military operations.

These zones must be established by an express agreement, concluded either in peacetime or after the outbreak of hostilities. It can be verbal or written and concluded directly by the parties to the conflict or through the intermediary of a protecting power or an impartial humanitarian organization. The party that controls a demilitarized zone must clearly mark it, to the extent possible, with the signs agreed on with the other party.

To be qualified as “demilitarized,” a zone must meet the following conditions:

  • all combatants, as well as mobile weapons and mobile military equipment, must have been evacuated;
  • no hostile use shall be made of fixed military installations or establishments;
  • no acts of hostility shall be committed by the authorities or by the population; and
  • any activity linked to the military effort must have ceased (API Art. 60).

No one party to the conflict may unilaterally revoke the status of a demilitarized zone, unless one of the parties to the conflict fails to respect these conditions or uses the zone for purposes related to the conduct of military operations. In such cases, the other party is released from its obligations under the initial agreement. In such an eventuality, the zone loses its status but continues to enjoy the protection provided by the other provisions of humanitarian law (API Arts. 60.6, 60.7).

Safe Areas Established by the UN Security Council

It is important to note the terms of the agreements that must be the basis for any of the zones listed earlier. In Iraq, for instance, the UN Security Council established a demilitarized zone along the border with Kuwait, in consultation with both States concerned (S/RES/687 of 3 April 1991). This follows the regulations set forth by international humanitarian law. On the other hand, several other kinds of “zones” were set up by various States in Iraq, such as the U.S.-imposed “no-fly zones” in the north and south (covering about 60 percent of the territory), the aim of which was to protect the Kurdish and Shiite populations and which prohibited any flights as well as any antiaircraft activity; and a “safety zone” in the north (enforced by the United States, France, and the United Kingdom) meant to receive Kurdish refugees. These zones—though created on the basis of the UN Security Council Resolution 688, which condemned the “repression of the Iraqi civilian population [including] in Kurdish populated areas” (S/RES/688 of 5 April 1991)—were not recognized by Iraq and hence did not meet the legal criteria set by the Geneva Conventions and Protocols. They therefore did not make it possible to establish the responsibility of each actor with regard to the population.

Safe Areas

Safe area is the term that was given to the safety zones created by the UN in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The UN Security Council first created the concept of “safe areas,” also known as “safe havens,” for Srebrenica and its surroundings by Resolution 819 of 16 April 1993 (S/RES/819) and then extended it to Tuzla, Zepa, Bihac, Gorazde, and Sarajevo by Resolution 824 of 6 May 1993 (S/RES/824).

The aim of these resolutions was to prohibit any military activities inside and around these areas and to allow the deployment of UNPROFOR (the UN Protection Force), which was meant to ensure delivery of humanitarian assistance. Both resolutions were adopted on the basis of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which makes them mandatory for all States, and were not subject to an ad hoc agreement between the parties to the conflict. Furthermore, in Resolution 836 of 4 June 1993 (S/RES/836), also adopted under its Chapter VII mandate, the Security Council authorized UNPROFOR to use force to “deter attacks against the safe areas.”

This set of resolutions and military means failed to make the parties to the conflict respect the safe areas. When the Bosnian Serb army took Srebrenica in July 1995, they massacred a large part of the civilian population; more than seven thousand people were declared missing. The UN soldiers whose mission it was to protect this safe haven did not resort to force to protect the civilians, as their mandate authorized. Hence, this new concept of “safe areas” contains a major defect: it dilutes the responsibility for protecting the populations.

Secure Humanitarian Areas

In May 1994, the UN Security Council expanded the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR, created by Resolution 912 of 21 April 1994) to allow it to establish and maintain secure humanitarian areas. It also recognized that UNAMIR might be required to use force to protect the populations at risk, UN and other humanitarian personnel, or the means of delivery and distribution of humanitarian relief (S/RES/918, 17 May 1994).

Yet the only “secure humanitarian area” that was created in Rwanda was not set up by UNAMIR. Operation Turquoise, as it was known, was established on 3 July 1994 as a French initiative, backed by the UN Security Council. It covered the southwestern region of Rwanda, bordered by the districts of Cyangugu, Gikongoro, and the south of Kibuye. The authority of a foreign State to create this zone was based on Resolution 929—adopted on 22 June 1994 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter—which expressly authorized armed forces “under national command and control” to contribute to “the security and protection of displaced persons, refugees and civilians at risk” (S/RES/929). The French, Senegalese, and Mauritians who participated in this operation were hence authorized to use force to protect this zone.

The French army withdrew and was replaced by UN peacekeepers, under a different mandate. The population that was still gathered in this area was subject in 1995 around Kibeho to attacks and killings by the Rwandan army. Six thousand to eight thousand disappeared. Once again, the responsibilities of the UN force were not specific enough with regard to the protection of the population to prevent these massacres.

(Additional information concerning the authority of the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and on the conditions governing the UNPROFOR’s and UNAMIR’s mandates to use force can be found in the entries on ▸ PeacekeepingSecurity Council of the UN; Self-defense .)

PeacekeepingProtectionPublic order

For Additional Information: Henckaerts, Jean-Marie, and Louise Doswald-Beck, eds. Customary International Law . Vol. 1, The Rules . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, part 2, chap. 11.

ICRC. ICRC’s Response to the Dangers Resulting from the Conduct of Hostilities . Geneva: ICRC, June 1995.

Roberts, Adam. “Humanitarian Issues and Agencies as Triggers for International Military Action.” International Review of the Red Cross 839 (September 2000): 673–98.

United Nations. “Report of the Independent Inquiry into United Nations Actions during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.” S/1999/1257, 16 December 1999.

———. “Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 53/35: The Fall of Srebrenica.” A/54/549, 15 November 1999.

Article also referenced in the 4 following categories :