Trapped in Conflict: Evaluating Scenarios to Assist At-Risk Civilians

Photo By: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters/Freedom House (CC)

New International Committee of the Red Cross and InterAction Report Examines the Challenges of Establishing Civilian Safe Zones

Released: July 31, 2015

From Afghanistan to Yemen, there are over 40 armed conflicts currently in progress around the globe. What are the options to provide needed humanitarian relief when civilians face targeted attacks, are trapped in the midst of active fighting, or find themselves cut off from essential aid? In response to the increased risks facing civilian populations in several conflict contexts, InterAction and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released a new joint report,"Trapped in Conflict: Evaluating Scenarios to Assist At-Risk Civilians."

Based on the key issues of an April 2015 roundtable discussion jointly facilitated by ICRC and InterAction staff, the report evaluates a number of scenarios to assist at-risk civilians in zones of conflict – including evacuations, safe havens, and no-fly zones. Roundtable participants included policymakers at the State Department, Department of Defense, senior congressional staff, policy advisors at humanitarian agencies, prominent researchers and human rights advocates, UN personnel, and various elements of the U.S. Armed Services.

To ground the discussion, the roundtable focused on recent and ongoing experiences in several current conflicts – including the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Participants also considered political, legal, and operational questions relevant to proposed scenarios to assist at-risk civilians. ICRC and InterAction staff subsequently analyzed the discussion to identify key common themes for U.S. policymakers to consider before intervening in today’s complex crises.  

Key Issues

The report identifies a number of key recurring themes from the discussion, including:

  • The desired effects and outcomes of any effort to aid communities in zones of conflict should be clearly articulated and unintended consequences considered before any action is pursued.​
  • Humanitarian, political, and military actors should all consider the implications of interventions for civilians trapped in conflict.

​All actors should anticipate new risks or additional harm that may arise due to the action taken. Context-specific analysis is required to ensure that any risks to civilian populations – before, during, and after an intervention – are well-understood and responses are appropriate to their needs. The report also emphasizes the importance of assessing the full scope of threats and vulnerabilities which contribute to civilians’ exposure to violence during conflict and make every effort to comprehensively minimize these risk factors. Potential risks and benefits should be carefully and fully assessed before an intervention occurs so as to ensure that potential negative effects are mitigated and the planned intervention results in a net positive for the at-risk civilian population.  

  • Effectively aiding civilians in active conflict zones requires focusing on more than just tasks, but also how different components of an operation, such as consultation or collaboration with multiple actors, might be sequenced to bring about the outcome.
  • Adherence to international humanitarian law by all parties is crucial to enhance the protection of civilians in armed conflicts.

As stated in the report, the broader context of persistent risks to civilians and non-compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) cannot be ignored, otherwise situations will continue to fall into the category of needing “last resort” options. While intervention may be necessary to save lives, the priority in armed conflict is improving compliance with IHL and enhancing the protection of civilians more broadly, rather than engaging in one-off exercises. Dealing with the macro level context and developing a toolkit or “menu of options” to reduce threats to civilians, and reduce people’s vulnerabilities to threats, will help to address systemic patterns of risk and avoid situations where there is no other perceived choice but to evacuate civilians or enact a no-fly zone (NFZ), buffer zone, or safe haven. 

  • Continuous communication with the affected population is essential, especially to obtain voluntary and informed consent by affected individuals.

The affected population must be consulted and play a central part in determining whether an evacuation is the best available option. As far as possible, the affected population should also play an active part in the planning, design, and implementation of any evacuation.

  • A strong dialogue with local actors, who often control access to vulnerable communities, is vital to successfully reaching civilians living in areas with fragmented lines of authority.

This does not negate the need for relationships with national level authorities; rather, humanitarian action in a situation with fragmented authorities requires a multi-level approach, whereby humanitarian access should ideally be supported by both national and local authorities.

  • Humanitarian agencies must exercise both leadership and flexibility to be effective when working in active armed conflicts.

Assertive leadership, flexibility to adapt to evolving dynamics, and an ability to advocate for certain standards to be met on the part of humanitarian agencies and other actors carrying out operations to assist at-risk civilians are vital.

  • Militarily-enforced buffer or "safe" zones are not a panacea and are often misunderstood by many actors in armed conflicts.

The constant refrain of buffer zones, safe havens, NFZs, and military intervention reflect a paucity of good options and a lack of clarity among many actors about what these actions actually entail. Education and awareness-raising may be a first step toward mitigating misunderstandings.

  • Humanitarian action, no matter how well planned, is not a substitute for a permanent political solution to an ongoing armed conflict.

When faced with grave humanitarian crises, actors should recognize the limits of what they can do, whether military, political, or humanitarian. In Syria and other challenging crises, the UN and its member states should use the tools available to them to ensure respect for IHL and secure humanitarian access. Humanitarian action is not a substitute for a lack of progress towards achieving a lasting political solution. Finally, humanitarian, military, and political actions should not be conflated; if a military or political intervention takes place, it should not be referred to as “humanitarian.”  

Read the full report.

For additional information please contact Kelsey Hampton