bosnia report
No. 3 January - 1994
Safe Areas: The Forgotten Concept
by By Ian Macintosh, Sir Antony Duff, David P. Southall

In May and June 1993 the United Nations Security Council passed two Resolutions - 824 and 836 - declaring that "the capital city of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sarajevo, and other such threatened areas, in particular the towns of Tuzla, Zepa, Gorazde and Bihac, as well as Srebrenica, and their surroundings should be treated as safe areas [. . .] and should be free from armed attack and from any other hostile act"; demanding "the withdrawal of all Bosnian Serb military or paramilitary units from these towns to a distance wherefrom they cease to constitute a menace to their security"; and extending the UNPROFOR mandate so as to "reinforce safe areas, permitting them [i.e. the UNPROFOR] to act in self defence and to use force in reply to bombardments or armed incursions or the deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid' including "the use of air power".

Six months on, countless numbers of people have fallen to indiscriminate shelling and sniping or to the effects of another winter deprived of the most basic of amenities such as power, fuel, water, shelter, food, clothing and medicine. UN relief agencies find their distribution programme halted by the conflict, the weather, banditry and malaise. The world has become inured to Bosnia and innocent civilians continue to die. What happened to the concept of safe areas?

As the proposals of frustrated politicians and mediators fall on deaf ears, the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina have become convinced that their fate is one whch does not stir the conscience of the world. The mediators' rejection of a Bosnian identity, the separation of a proportion of Bosnians into antagonistic ethnic groups and the practice of "ethnic cleansing" have encouraged intransigence among the political leaderships of the parties involved. The UN relief agencies and UNPROFOR are now threatening to pull out in the spring. What then? Is it acceptable in the onlooking world that the carnage continues unchecked? That the deaths and suffering of innocents go unrecorded and unnoticed? What future can a country have if its children are traumatised, abused, maimed and killed?

We believe that the only solution possible in the short and medium term is for the UN to adhere to its declarations as to the creation of safe areas. The peace plan presently on offer is but an apology for "ethnic cleansing" and the division of an internationally recognized Balkan country into supposedly component parts. A separation of Bosnia on ethnic grounds will inevitably divide families and is therefore contrary to the ethics of child and family care.

The creation of truly safe areas, protected by UNPROFOR, is the minimum which is necessary for the re-establishment of a semblance of normality in an otherwise insane situation. Evacuations such as "Operation Irma" were invaluable to the minute number affected, but had less meaÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ°ning to the remainder. The only realistic way of preserving life and preventing suffering is to treat the wounded, sick, maimed, traumatised and dying in situ, within UN-protected safe areas, until in the fullness of time some stable political settlement can be reached.

Fundamental to the creation of safe areas is the establishment of a demilitarised zone within the confines of the city/enclave. More important, however, is the enforced withdrawal - by diplomatic means or otherwise - of the encircling forces which have been free to bombard Sarajevo and elsewhere with impunity for so long. Only then will the relief agencies be able to help the needy free from outside intimidation. The safe areas would become safe havens for refugees from the fighting elsewhere and at last there would be some sort of light at the end of the tunnel of darkness; something good on which the disaffected population could focus against a background of evil.

The concept is not perfect and we would be the first to recognise that. Not least among the negative aspects is that the enforced creation and maintenance of safe areas will cost lives - Bosnian, UN and others. Additionally, the original UN list of safe areas needs extending to include Mostar, Maglaj, Vitez and other newly besieged enclaves. Furthermore, it could be argued, establishment of areas of safety for refugees changes the population mix of their former homelands (a kind of "ethnic cleansing").

The Geneva Convention of 1949, as well as the 1989 UN Convention on the rights of the child, emphasise that where possible children should be cared for within the country at war. However, the horrifying and widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children that is occurring daily in Bosnia demonstrates that even minimum standards of care are not being achieved. Within the terms of the above conventions, therefore, an absence of safe areas must logically entail mass evacuation of children and their families as stipulated by the above-mentioned conventions. The cost of military support for UN Resolutions 824 and 836 on safe areas must be weighed against the cost of longü term care for a large number of refugees.

Bolje ista nego nista (better something than nothing): the safe areas concept is the only way forward in the direction of protecting the civilian population. At the moment this concept exists only on paper in the UN offices in New York. We believe that the UN has a duty to honour and thus enforce their declarations, in order to relieve the suffering of children and their parents, and give them some hope for the future. Discussions with senior statesmen and with Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnian Ambassador to the UN, reveal a groundswell of support for the concept. Please add your weight to this approach.

Ian Macintosh is at the Department of European Studies, Bradford University. David P. Southall is Professor of Paediatrics, University of Keele, North Staffordshire Hospital. Sir Antony Duff is now retired.


   Table of contents

  Latest issue



  Support the Institute


home | about us | publications | events | news | Library | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | credits